Featured Alumnus: Shawn Bernier

Shawn Bernier joined TCPLA as an 8th grader in the METCO Program and continued to participate as a senior at Wayland High School.  Shawn is attending Wheaton College where he plans to study business and major in economics.

Below is Shawn’s college essay, Second Chances.

Without hesitation, I strutted through the doors of Boston University. As a rising eighth-grader, I was given the opportunity to join fellow students of color in The Calculus Project and Leadership Academy program, a five year, three-weeks a summer program, to help raise the academic skills and self-expectations of kids of color. I shook hands with our teacher, Dr. Adrian Mims, a large man of color with a bubbly smile and sweet southern hospitality. He coached me to stand tall, look him in the eye, and to be confident shaking his hand. We shook hands again, making me feel empowered, lending me a new kind of support. 

This program, he told us, would require a hard commitment to diligence, risk-taking, and enduring things we wouldn’t want to do. As in the movie “Stand and Deliver”, which he later showed us, the goal was to enable us to take on advanced courses throughout school, so we could earn a better future.

 It was the first time many of us were in the same environment as someone that shared our skin color, having been placed, since kindergarten, in Boston’s Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program, where we were bussed to suburban communities.  We no longer had to act perfectly to uphold the standards of representing METCO. For this reason, each day served as an outlet for releasing our playful, authentic selves. In other words, we fooled around.

In addition, being the only black transgender male student at such a young age, I carried a chip on my shoulder, and it showed in my behavior. I struggled with math, so in exchange, I’d compensate for my lack of math skills by being articulate, insightful, and witty for everything that was not math. When it came to math, I’d instead initiate chatty conversations, making the entire class unproductive, even during tests, infuriating Dr. Mims.

Finally, tired of warnings and phone calls home intended to keep me in the program, one day I decided to concentrate on the math lesson in class. As Dr. Mims turned to write on the board, my friends started kidding around, which escalated into a desk being flipped. Thinking it was me, he turned and yelled at me to get out of the room. I stammered that it wasn’t me. In disbelief, he told me I was expelled from the program for my constant acts of chaos. 

Outside, he said for change to happen, I’d have to meet him halfway because he can’t want me to succeed more than I want to. He decided to instead temporarily suspend me, and work with me on a behavioral plan. From that moment, I understood the power of second chances, and that it wasn’t because of my race or gender, but because of the potential, he saw in me.

“Own your learning” is Dr. Mims’ mantra that propelled him forward, growing up in the south. He prioritized his studies, which would be his validation in a society filled with prejudice that wanted him to fail. To me, this means showing up every day ready and open, even when learning is elusive or hard. Dr. Mims gives back to the community by funding this program to spread that message, which is his life dream. 

Now, after five years I have graduated from the program and have become an active ambassador. I help lead conferences about the impact of The Calculus Project and Leadership Academy, and tell others how it helped me find who I am, and taught me to pursue the best version of who I am. This experience influenced me to work at the Young Peoples’ Project in Boston, because I now tutor low-income kids in math, leadership, the importance of second chances, and “owning your learning”.