When Antwan Wilson, the chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools, was first asked to give the commencement speech for Nebraska Wesleyan University, he was humbled.
“People who grew up like I grew up don’t give commencement speeches in the state of Nebraska,” he said. “At least not when I grew up; that’s not the way it was.”
A Lincoln High School graduate, Wilson was raised by a single mother. Wilson said she moved them to Nebraska so he could be in a school system where students were expected to graduate. Wilson did, then went on to graduate from Wesleyan in 1995.
Saturday afternoon, Wilson will deliver his alma mater's commencement address to 489 undergraduate and graduate students.
It’s been 22 years since Wilson’s graduation, but he said it feels like he was just at NWU.
"I look back, and I entered this institution almost 27 years ago," he said. "That's crazy to me. It feels like maybe 10."
But Wilson has come a long way since earning his college degree. After years of various jobs as a teacher and principal, Wilson spent two years as the superintendent of a troubled school district in Oakland, California. In November, he was named the new chancellor of education in Washington, D.C., in part to help with the achievement gap among students.
While he works more than 1,000 miles away, Wilson said he will never forget the education he received in Nebraska, one that helped shape the life he has today.
“I learned in Nebraska — through Wesleyan and starting in Lincoln High School — who I am as a person and historically, who we are as African descendants brought to this country ... the way all our history is interwoven into this country and the success of what makes this country what it is,” he said. “That awakening and that awareness helped build confidence in me, which I did not have when I entered the campus.”
He also credits Nebraska for giving him a good work ethic.
“Not complaining and just doing your job. And just doing it hard and enjoying it,” he said. “That’s very much a Nebraska thing. I take a lot of pride in it.”
Wilson's time at Wesleyan was especially valued, enough to where he gave no second thought when asked to deliver the commencement address.
“Wesleyan has benefited my life in so many ways,” he said. “It’s home. It will always be that.”
Wilson first came to Wesleyan in 1990, believing he would study law to promote social justice. It wasn’t until a spring break trip to Chicago his sophomore year that he began to consider changing majors.
He visited the Chicago national teacher of the year, Linda Murray, at Hyde Park Career Academy. Wilson said Murray was a teacher who had extremely high expectations for all of her students, regardless of their race or background. While visiting, he saw students begging to get into her class, willing to stand in the back of the room to take notes.
“For me, it was like, well, why aren’t all kids getting this experience?” he said. “Why is the bar lowered so often for young people who look like me?”
Wilson ended up adding education to a history social-science major.
“What I’ve learned,” he said, “is that education was a civil rights issue that I needed to focus on. Ensuring that young people had access to a quality education that prepared them for a successful future, that’s what my impact would be. And that’s what I was being prepared for.”
As commencement speaker, Wilson plans to go back to his teaching roots to offer advice to the graduates.
“I want to make sure they understand how awesome it is for them to be graduating,” he said. “But I want them to know that they didn’t do it by themselves. And they have a responsibility now.”
Wilson said he hopes Saturday’s graduates take the time to thank those who helped them get this far.
“This myth of ‘I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, I overcame all of this stuff on my own’ is foolish,” he said. “There were people there, even if it wasn’t your parents, there were people there who supported you, who encouraged you.”
He also wants the graduates to find a young person whom they can inspire.
“We are dependent upon one another,” he said. “We are all linked to one another, certainly as Americans. And if this country is going to be what it needs to be, then I need them to be the best they can be.”