Kenneth Edwards’ path to college took many detours as he struggled to find out who he was and who he wanted to be. He’s done much soul searching over the past three years, and he’s found his answers.
On May 12, Edwards of Little Rock will graduate cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in sociology during the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s commencement at the Jack Stephens Center. He knows that his calling is a career working with youth, particularly those who are at-risk. He feels a connection to them because he was one of them for many years.
Raised in Little Rock, Edwards spent much of his youth in and out of school and at times, homeless.
“What I witnessed growing up was a lot of violence and drug,” he said.
He found positive role models at P.A.R.K. (Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids), a Little Rock program that works to keep at-risk youth in school and on track to graduate. Edwards violated terms of attendance, though, and was kicked out of the program. At 15, he also left home and eventually dropped out of Central High School.
“I got detached from school and focused on making money,” said Edwards, who went to work as a car detailer.
He stayed with various relatives for periods of times, often not knowing where he would sleep at night. One of his aunts eventually took him to Clarksville, Tennessee, to live with her, but Edwards didn’t adjust well to the transition.
“She tried to keep me on target to graduate in 2009, but school wasn’t my main focus. I went from hustling to make ends meet to having everything at my fingertips. I was complacent. I wanted love and didn’t know how to receive it.”
With three months left to graduate, Edwards was expelled from school. He was able to finish his diploma through a homeschool academy.
He moved back to Little Rock in 2010, this time intent on making some changes. He completed a nine-month program at Little Rock’s Union Rescue Mission where he focused on sobriety, discipline, and faith. He also completed a three-month, pre-employment training program through Our House.
“Every time I felt like giving up, I had someone to prop me up,” Edwards said.
Knowing he needed an education, he enrolled in UA-Pulaski Technical College and earned an Associate of Arts. With good grades, he received a transfer scholarship to UA Little Rock in 2015.
He originally wanted to be a teacher, but his sociology courses resonated with him. He credits sociology professors Dr. David Briscoe, Dr. Neveen Shafeek Amin, and Dr. Kinko Ito for helping him find his passion.
“They changed my life and my mindset, literally,” he said. “I found meaning in sociology. I was able to heal from my lost victories through a different perspective. I think I’m able to see and empathize because I was shown empathy.”
In college, Edwards was part of of the TRiO program, which serves first-generation college students.
“Kenneth has continued to deal with and overcome formidable challenges and obstacles,” said Dr. Ge Chen, director of TRiO programs at UA Little Rock. “He was determined to complete his bachelor degree. He has been working two jobs throughout his college years to cover education expenses, and he also has volunteered at local programs helping at-risk youth. He is a role model for many young people with similar backgrounds and experiences.”
Edwards has even been back to P.A.R.K – this time as a mentor for at-risk youth.
Along the way, Edwards has also reconnected with his mother, Golden Edwards, who has returned to college after dropping out when she first had Edwards. She graduates May 11 from UA-PTC and plans to continue her studies at UA Little Rock.
Edwards is now applying to graduate schools and hopes to earn a master’s degree in counseling education. Eventually, he wants to work with at-risk youth.
“I want to be here for these kids,” he said. “I want to be a beacon of light for them. I know that if you don’t change the environment, you become a product of it. I spent my whole life trying not to be a statistic.”