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New grad overcomes homelessness, other obstacles to earn degree

| Judy Berthiaume

If D’Karlos Craig feels discouraged or starts to doubt himself, the UW-Eau Claire senior knows exactly how to turn around those negative thoughts.

“I replay the image of sleeping in my car for four or five months and it reminds me how far I’ve come,” says D’Karlos, a sociology major from Minneapolis. “It’s not been easy but I’ve made it this far and I’m finally standing at the door ready to graduate.”

It has taken more than seven years and two separate stints as a Blugold, but D’Karlos will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UW-Eau Claire in December, making him the first person in his family — and in his circle of childhood friends — to earn a college degree.

“I come from a place where I didn’t see people doing what I’m doing,” D’Karlos says. “I’m overcoming a lot of hurdles and I’ve made it this far, but I didn’t grow up hearing stories about people who have done this so I didn’t have a map.”

In 2010, a former UW-Eau Claire football coach first introduced D’Karlos to UW-Eau Claire and convinced him he could be successful at the university.

“It was a last-minute decision to come here,” D’Karlos says. “I was recruited to play football, met some guys here and decided it could work.

“I got here and it was a complete culture shock. I don’t think there were more than four African-American males on campus at the time. It was different from anything I knew. And then I got hurt about three months after I got here so I couldn’t play football anymore.”

Still, despite the culture shock and the injury, D’Karlos was working his way through his classes, though not fully engaged in campus life.

A couple years into his college career, a loved one died.

He was still reeling from that loss when he lost another loved one, and then another and another.

During a few short months in 2012, eight of D’Karlos’ family and friends passed away.

The deaths hit D’Karlos hard. His grief soon turned to a deep depression.

After the series of tragedies, D’Karlos began doubting himself and questioning whether he belonged at UW-Eau Claire after all.

Realizing he could not focus on his studies, he dropped out of school.

However, D’Karlos stayed in Eau Claire, working two different low-paying jobs to try to make ends meet. Still he could not afford to pay his rent and soon found himself homeless.

For the next several months, D’Karlos lived out of his car as he tried to heal himself and figure out what to do next.

Fortunately, for him, early in his time at UW-Eau Claire he had met Dennis Beale, a fellow Blugold who quickly became a valued mentor, and who now serves as coordinator of the College Success program at UW-Eau Claire.

While D’Karlos may have doubted himself, Dennis never gave up on him and continued to encourage him to give college another try.

“I knew my jobs were going nowhere and I still didn’t know what to do,” D’Karlos says. “It was one of the most challenging times of my life. I was about two days away from packing up and going back to north Minneapolis when I talked to Dennis again. He encouraged me to come back, and this time I listened.”

The months he spent homeless were challenging, but they also helped to strengthen his character and inspired him to make the most of the opportunities in front of him, he says.

“The second time around, I took advantage of everything,” D’Karlos says of returning to UW-Eau Claire. “I said yes to every opportunity. I approached everything differently.

“I realized that the first time around I had put myself in a box and closed myself off. This time, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I found my purpose along the way.”

He enrolled in an introduction to sociology class his first semester back and knew immediately that he had found the right academic fit.

He also participated in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, an immersion experience that takes Blugolds to numerous places in the south that are important to the country’s civil rights movement.

The experience was so powerful that he joined the group again the following year, but this time as one of the student coordinators.

Visiting the civil rights sites and talking with people who played a role in the civil rights movement was life-changing, D’Karlos says, noting that it taught him just how little African American history is taught in U.S. schools.

The slave re-enactment was an especially powerful and emotional experience, D’Karlos says of the immersion experience.

“It changed my thinking and added even more value to what I want to do in the future,” D’Karlos says.

Soon after returning to campus as a student, D’Karlos also got involved in UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Beginnings program, and began mentoring people on campus and in the community.

More recently, he helped to form Black Male Empowerment, a group made up of African American men who are students at UW-Eau Claire.

“It’s a community of support,” D’Karlos says of the group. “If we’re dealing with a social issue, there are multiple people in the group who can provide different perspectives or support. I like everything about it.”

Transitioning from the role of mentee to mentor is empowering and rewarding, D’Karlos says.

As new students come to UW-Eau Claire from backgrounds similar to his own, he shares his stories, advice and support with them.

“I advocate for them, give them my experiences and stories so they can learn from them,” D’Karlos says of the students he mentors. “The biggest thing is that they can talk to me about their problems and I get it. I also can tell them about resources on campus that can help.”

D’Karlos also is proud of the connections he made with young people in the community.

“I’m still in contact with some of the kids I mentored,” he says of the middle and high school youth he met through his work with Blugold Beginnings. “They text me to tell me about things going on with them or to wish me luck on a test. I just heard from one of them yesterday and it made my day.

“Connecting with the kids is a way to take what I learned from the obstacles I’ve overcome, and make a difference in someone else’s life. It shows me I’m doing something right and gives me a better sense of purpose.”

He now hopes to use his experiences and education to build a career around empowering young people.

D’Karlos is applying to graduate schools, with a goal of eventually working in higher education.

“I have the experiences, the skill set and the drive to make a difference in higher education,” D’Karlos says.

He is especially interested, he says, in helping universities become more diverse.

A McNair Scholar, D’Karlos’ research interests include racial disparities, retention, and understanding institutional racism and its impact on African Americans.

His research project for the McNair Program is titled “How Perceptions of African American Males Affect Educational Achievement on a Predominately White Campus.”

While he has run across people who have tried to block him from opportunities, he chooses to focus instead on the many others who have been there to support and encourage him, D’Karlos says.

“I’ve proven to myself that I can do many things,” D’Karlos says. “If someone doubts me, that’s their limitation and not my own.”

So what advice would he give to other Blugolds?

“Be true to yourself,” D’Karlos says. “Understand that you will make mistakes and everyone will not believe in you. You still need to push through it or at least fail forward.”

Photo caption: D’Karlos Craig overcame a number of obstacles — including being homeless — to earn his degree from UW-Eau Claire.