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Division of Student Affairs

Graduating senior uses violent past as motivation for a better life

Department: Division of Student Affairs

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When WSU senior Michael Stills, Jr. receives his diploma in May, it will mark the culmination of a long and difficult journey that started on the gang-infested streets of Atlanta, Georgia. He grew-up in a tough neighborhood on the west side called Adamsville, where Stills and his grandmother struggled to survive on food stamps. They split the small social security check they received with another family in need.

His earliest memories of life include drugs and thugs who drove fast cars, never worked, and constantly looked for ways to cheat the system. Violence was part of everyday living for Stills, who painfully recalls seeing a person beaten to a pulp with a brick, another stabbed, and others shot. He was nine when one of his own cousins was shot and killed right before his eyes when a drug sale went bad.

“Growing up there was really traumatic,” Stills said. “The majority of the people I knew are dead now.”

The criminal justice major said Pullman seems a world away from Atlanta and he still wonders how he got here. In his old neighborhood, he did not know anyone who had gone to college. Many kids dropped out of school after middle school. Stills was heading in the same direction. He was a target for bullying in middle school and the once quiet boy became a very angry, outspoken one by age 13. That is when he joined a local gang called Looney Tunes. Stills and his friends wreaked havoc in the community and were often suspended from school for fighting.

“In high school one of my school counselors visited my house because my anger was out of control,” he said. Eventually, his grandmother booted him out of the house. “I remember that moment like it was yesterday,” he recalled. “With only $2.56 and a Tracfone in my pocket, I ended-up walking twelve miles to a relative’s house.”

As it turned out, leaving his grandmother’s house became a defining moment in his life. “If I had stayed in that house, I would have gone to prison,” he said. His mother and father, who were frequently deployed to places like Kuwait and Iraq when Stills was growing-up, had retired from the Army and encouraged him to live with them in Steilacoom, Wash.

It was not an easy adjustment, but the new environment was conducive to living a more peaceful lifestyle. Before long Stills’ mother enrolled him in Running Start classes. When it was time to graduate from high school, his dad told him that he needed to move out, find a job, or go to college. It was the first time he gave college serious thought.

A first-generation college student, Stills has had many people at WSU help him navigate the complexities of higher education. Many of them work in the Division of Student Affairs. During his first year, the Smart Start Program in Multicultural Student Services (MSS) taught him valuable skills and introduced him to resources that enabled him to begin college on the right foot. Stills has been a hard worker inside and outside of the classroom, working up to three jobs and doing an internship while going to school. Three of them are in Student Affairs—at MSS, the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, and the High School Equivalency Program. They have not only provided Stills with much-needed income but also opportunities to meet people who have taken a genuine interest in his success.

“They have been so supportive of me, telling me about things I ought to do and things I should not do,” he said. “They inspire me to do better.”

After graduating this spring, Stills is considering returning to school to earn an engineering degree. He wants to keep pushing himself so that one day he can be the type of role model for inner-city kids that he sorely needed as a young boy.

“I want them to know that it is okay to be from the hood. It does not signify where your future can lead.”