MURFREESBORO — Overcoming a gang-infested neighborhood is tough enough without also struggling to develop your educational potential.
However, that’s what Justin Lawrence says he did to become a college graduate. He’ll be taking that walk toward an MTSU diploma at Saturday’s afternoon commencement ceremonies, which are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. in Murphy Center.
The 24-year-old Lawrence, a single mother’s son who hasn’t seen his father since he was 6, grew up in public housing in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“I never let my environment dictate what kind of person I was going to be,” said Lawrence. “Everyone has a choice.”
According to Lawrence, his childhood was marked by a series of challenges, including being misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“I was a rambunctious kid, but it was because the schoolwork was so easy,” Lawrence said. “I would act up because I was bored.”
After taking IQ tests, educators finally realized Lawrence belonged in more advanced classes. But even those didn’t prepare him for college-level work, he said.
He had to take a remedial math class in college because he found his high-school classes to be “dumbed down” by comparison to what students at other schools appeared to be learning.
The most humiliating aspect of it all for Lawrence was the stereotyping.
“I had a high-school counselor tell me she hoped I was good at football because I wouldn’t make it otherwise,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence was a running back who enjoyed football, but he said he never considered it a viable pathway out of dire circumstances.
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise to folks,” Lawrence said. “We know how to apply our minds.”
He said he didn’t know anyone who had graduated college. Nevertheless, he was accepted to most institutions to which he had applied.
After a year at Carson-Newman College, Lawrence transferred to MTSU, where a love of music prompted a change from majoring in math to majoring in recording industry and minoring in marketing.
“I find music to be therapeutic,” Lawrence said. “Without music, I don’t know if I could live.”
His favorite artists are rappers Jay-Z and Curren$y, but he said he’s more interested in the publishing side of the music business. His dream is to own his own record label.
In the meantime, Lawrence said he’ll continue working at a local warehouse until he finds a job in his chosen profession. He has come a long way from the youngster who grew up around violent crime.
But Lawrence continued to reject violence and concentrate on his studies, despite the peer pressure.
“People would tell me, ‘Aw, you’re an A student. You’re lame,’” Lawrence said. “But I thought the people who were lame were the ones stuck in the same grade for two years.”