Readers might wonder when Sabion Kelley sleeps. He works four days a week as an instructional aide at a local elementary school. He is a full-time student at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). He is active in at least six campus organizations and on the boards of five of them. He is on track to complete a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice by Spring 2024.
Until recently, however, Kelley, 21, was struggling with a series of unfortunate events. Perhaps the earliest was when Kelley’s grandmother died when he was a freshman in high school.
“She was there for me,” Kelley said. “She taught me how to be strong, be smart, stay away from certain things. I never got to tell her goodbye.”
Kelley was a high school athlete in Winston-Salem who played football, baseball and shot put. He anticipated going to college – hopefully on a football scholarship – but then as a junior, he broke his wrist. Not being able to play sports, he turned to other activities.
“At this point, I was skipping classes, not getting my homework done,” Kelley said. “I was smoking all the time, drinking.”
He was expelled from public high school, attended an alternative school for a while, returned to his public high school and was expelled again. He eventually graduated from another school although his previous A’s and B’s had dropped to C’s and D’s. With a lot of effort, he was accepted at NCCU, where he originally intended to study nursing.
“I’ve been to a lot of primarily white institutions all my life,” Kelley said. “I always wanted to have an experience with my own culture.”
He had a rough start. It was 2020 and the COVID pandemic had started earlier that year. Classes were online. Kelley sometimes attended, other times hung out with a “bad crowd” and sold marijuana. By his sophomore year he had gotten into two car wrecks by falling asleep behind the steering wheel. That same year, a longtime friend with chronic health issues died.
By the summer after his sophomore year, Kelley decided he needed assistance. It wasn’t an easy choice.
“I was very resistant on reaching out for help,” Kelley said. “I didn’t think anybody could help me.”
Kelley had been a participant in the Men’s Achievement Center (MAC), though not a particularly active one. One day he wandered into the MAC office and then director, Roderick Heath, Ph.D, addressed him. The two began to develop a relationship.
“We had a talk one day,” Kelley recalled. “He said, ‘you have to lose your thug mentality.’ It was a constructive criticism moment. Initially, I took it all wrong and I was mad about it.”
Once he calmed down, however, Kelley realized that Heath was not the first to view him that way.
It was a turning point. Today, Kelley is polite, addressing his interviewer as “sir.” He was teaching earlier in the day and still wears a blue suit, pink shirt and tie. His grades are again A’s and B’s. He talks about staying on an extra semester to raise his grade point average for graduate school applications.
“All Sabion needed was someone to believe in him and help him get into the right space so he could be successful,” said Jalen Spooner, interim director of the Men’s Achievement Center and director of the African American Male Initiative.
In Fall 2022, the beginning of his junior year, Kelley became more active. He began a long-term substitute teaching position at nearby Spaulding Elementary. He joined campus organizations such as the NAACP, Marathon Teaching Institute and National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice and was initiated into the Alpha Kappa Chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.
He became a resident assistant in McLean Residence Hall for in fall 2022.
Off campus, Kelley improved relations with his biological father, beginning to have in-depth discussions.
Along the way, he found the Men’s Achievement Center helpful.
“They brought me in and welcomed me even though I was going through hard times,” Kelley said.
“We don’t have a lot of male students at NCCU,” Spooner said (Note: the 2023 freshman class was 71% female.). “When you have someone who looks like you and has been through a lot of the same things you went through, it makes a big difference in helping you to achieve what you want to achieve.”