The 740 graduates who received degrees Friday night during Owens Community College’s spring commencement received a pep talk from one of their own.
Brad Higgs, selected as student speaker at the commencement, told his fellow Owens grads how he eventually turned his life around after years of homelessness, crime, and prison sentences.
“If I can do it, you can do it,” he said. “I know that each of you have had barriers and obstacles to overcome, but by God’s grace, you have succeeded, and our graduating from Owens is just one of the joys that we shall enjoy in a life full of successful accomplishments.”
One of the people most proud of Higgs’ accomplishments was his daughter, Alasha, who was only 4 years old and living with her mother in Toledo, when she received a photo from her father in prison.
PHOTO GALLERY: Owens' 47th commencement ceremony
Today, at age 13, Alasha still proudly carries the photo of her father, who graduated with honors. “A lot of people don't expect people to come from that to this,” Alasha said. “And I’m so proud of him. He’s my role model.”
Higgs of Toledo was chosen as the student speaker for Owens’ commencement ceremony because of all he has been through and because he has earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice with a 3.8 grade point average.
Higgs recalled how, at age 10, he was homeless in North Toledo with his three siblings.
“We lived in a garage and pumped gas to support ourselves,” Higgs said. “We would just go to the local arcade and play video games all the time too. Homelessness led to criminal activity, so I had run-ins with the police.”
When he was 15, he and his 14-year-old sister were adopted by their older sibling who was 21, but that did not keep Higgs out of trouble.
Criminal activity ranging from drug abuse to burglaries put him behind bars. He served seven years in prison, “and I’m not giving them another minute,” he said.
“You ask young people why they are doing certain things — ‘it is all I know,’ ” he said about the oft-heard reply. “You grow up in a community and around people that . . . all they do is sell drugs, and people were prosperous doing it. It looks nice, but one type of criminal activity leads to another.”
During several visits to a halfway house with the Volunteers of America, Higgs decided he was going to stop getting into trouble and said he rededicated his life to faith.
He began working at the Volunteers of America and became a supervisor while starting school at Owens.
Higgs, 35, said he never thought back then he could do something like what he has accomplished now.
“Looking back at some of the things I’ve done, I would never imagined this,” he said. “I was living a life of crime and I would’ve never pictured this day.”
Laura Moore, executive director of the Owens Alumni Association, who was on the selection committee for the student speaker, said a record number of students were nominated.
“The series of gang stories by [The Blade] personified the hopelessness he had as a child,” she said, referring to a four-day series on gang violence the newspaper published earlier this week. “And for him to overcome it, and have the desire and focus to excel at Owens is great.”
Robert W. LaClair, president and chief executive officer of Fifth Third Bank in northwest Ohio, served as the keynote speaker at the commencement, held in the Student Health and Activities Center on the college’s Perrysburg Township campus.
“You are all going to find that your success, your happiness, and your place in life will all be determined not by where you grew up, how much money you or your family had or didn’t have, your ACT score or your GPA, but from the choices you will make,” Mr. LaClair stated.
“You are leaving Owens today better prepared to make those life and career choices than when you first arrived. I’m sure of that,” he added.
In August, Higgs will continue his criminal justice studies at the University of Toledo with the goal of getting a degree in social work. He wants to help young juveniles and give them guidance to overcome problems as he did.
Daughter Alasha was like a proud parent during the graduation rehearsal, wearing her father’s honors cords around her neck. A pink flower accented her hair.
“I was kind of sad when I didn’t know my father,” she recalled. But she had that photo of him, and today it is a treasured keepsake. “Every day I look at [the photo] and touch it, and pray for him. He’s moved on with his life and is doing better.”
Contact Matt Thompson at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-356-8786, or on Twitter at @mthompson25.