Dominique Smith is graduating from Livingstone, despite the odds

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 2, 2015

By Laurie D. Willis
Livingstone College News Service

SALISBURY — Dominique Smith came to Livingstone College in the summer of 2011 with a heavy heart and a lot of uncertainty. Today she’s leaving with a social work degree and a bright future.

Hers is a story that gives hope to those who think their obstacles are insurmountable, and demonstrates what can happen when visionaries take a chance on people that others overlook.

Smith, 21, came to Livingstone through Summer Bridge, a rigorous, six-week program for students who didn’t fare well in high school. They attend classes in subjects ranging from math to African-American history, are taught etiquette and behavior modification and must work out and attend devotion.

After successfully completing Summer Bridge — the brainchild of Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr. — students are admitted provisionally as freshmen and given a stipend toward their tuition.

Smith enrolled in Bridge one month after losing her only brother, Donte Jefferson, who’d been encouraging her to leave their southeast Washington, D.C., apartment to attend college. His death left her alone — she never knew her father and their mother died when Smith was much younger.

“I can’t believe I’m about to graduate from college,” Smith said Friday. “If I’d stayed in D.C. I don’t think I would have gone to college, and I don’t think I’d be doing anything constructive with my life.”

Smith knows things could have turned out quite differently; she’s grateful Livingstone took a chance on her.

“Livingstone offers a family environment, and there’s plenty of help when you need it whether it’s academic, personal or family-related,” she said. “Professors are always willing to assist you when you need extra help, and there are people like Dr. Jenkins and Coach (Sylvester) Kyles who take time to give great advice to students.”

Kyles, Bridge Program director, couldn’t be prouder of Smith.

“Students like Dominique are why I love my job,” Kyles said. “When she came to Livingstone she didn’t know anyone and she had no family support. Yet despite the odds, she’s graduating with a good GPA, and she’s graduating on time.”

Smith has a B average and said she wants to work with pregnant women.

Though she had no family support upon arriving in Salisbury, that changed during her sophomore year after she landed a job in the Bridge Program and befriended one of the students.

“We were planning to go on vacation, and he called home and asked if Dominique could go because he said she’d been very helpful to him,” said Tamkai N. Sutton of Durham, a registered nurse. “I said yes. At first she was scared to go because she didn’t know us, but I assured her I wouldn’t dream of anyone hurting any of my five children, and I wouldn’t dream of hurting her.”

On the ride back from the beach trip, Sutton struck up a conversation with Smith.

“I asked about her family and she said she was from D.C.,” Sutton said. “I asked about her parents and then I noticed she was crying. She told me she lost her mother when she was a little girl; she never knew her father and her brother died just before she enrolled at Livingstone. I had to pull over to really get myself together.”

Since that day, Smith and Sutton have become like mother and daughter.

“I can’t thank God enough for her coming into my life,” Smith said through tears on Friday. “She never looked at me as an ‘extra person’ in the family and has always treated me as one of her own. I wish I could have known her sooner, and I appreciate everything she’s done for me.”

Sutton and her husband Richard and two of their children, Tyrese, 15, and Anaiya, 6, will be inside Alumni Memorial Stadium today to see Smith graduate.

“I’m just as excited for her as I was when my oldest daughter, Tonita, graduated from Western Carolina,” Sutton said. “I know I’ll be crying at her graduation.”

Sutton’s benevolence isn’t lost on Smith, who’s already paying it forward by mentoring Livingstone freshman Emoni Hilliard.

“I’m the oldest of four children, so she’s like the older sibling I never had,” Hilliard said. “She’s a good role model. She tells me about my attitude and self-control. And she tells me everything isn’t a joke and sometimes you’ve got to be serious.”

So what are Smith’s post-graduation plans? After working to save for a car, she hopes to enroll in graduate school at either the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or North Carolina Central University.

She shared those plans with Jenkins, who advised her not to put off graduate school for a car. Sutton said she sees both sides of the argument but is confident Smith will eventually attend grad school.

And why is Smith pursuing social work?

“Since I had it kind of rough, I want to help others out.”