By Genoa Barrow
As the education tide once again turns to back-to-school season, a group of recent graduates reflects on how they’re overcoming challenges and striving for future success.
Pahress Wysinger, Amiyah McDaniel, and Montay McDaniel recently graduated from area colleges and have set their sights on taking the next steps in their academic pursuits and careers. They’re also participants in the STRIVE Academy, run by local professor and therapist Dr. Arrickia McDaniel. Dr. McDaniel founded the nonprofit in 2007 to develop pathways to reach and serve underserved youth and marginalized communities.
Through community partnerships that include the Roberts Family Development Center, the City of Sacramento, Sacramento County, Mutual Housing of California, and partnering schools such as Sacramento State and Sacramento City College, Dr. McDaniel developed programs in which youth would receive academic counseling and attend college tuition-free.
“In return, the students would serve as youth advocates in the community,” she said.
Expanded services now include behavioral health care through her mental health practice, STRIVE Community Health. Participants are offered academic and career development.
Dr. McDaniel’s background is in helping children who aren’t thriving academically. She is proud of those who have gone through her program and the “academic dynasty” she’s built.
“Over the years we have served as a conduit to support students of color as they have achieved academic milestones, all students who come from adverse backgrounds, attended inner-city schools and have earned college degrees between the ages of 17 and 20 years old,” she said.
Dr. McDaniel held a ceremony for her latest round of graduates to celebrate their achievements. “They each have demonstrated great fortitude and perseverance to accomplish such impressive outcomes,” she said.
At just 17, Pahress Wysinger has overcome numerous challenges, none greater than losing both parents. Her mother passed away from lupus in December 2017 and her father died of diabetes, though she’s uncertain of the year.
“It impacted my education a lot, putting me in a place that I didn’t want to be,” Wysinger said.
Depressed and lacking focus, she got grades typically somewhere between OK and barely passing. Wynsinger was grieving and getting by. Feeling little motivation to succeed, the teen didn’t envision college for herself.
“After our mom passed away, it really affected my siblings and me. Moving to a new place and adapting to a new environment was very difficult for us,” shared Wysinger, who is the youngest of three and the only sister.
If there was a bright side to the dark times, it was bonding with her brothers.
“In spite of our shock at the unexpected death of our mom, it also brought us closer together. In our childhood, we didn’t really have one-on-one relationships with each other and that changed when our mom passed away,” she said. “I am thankful that I have them to grieve with and to inspire each other in a variety of ways.”
Her mom, Wynsinger shared, was their “glue.” Losing her to health issues showed her the importance of taking care of oneself. Being around family helped her cope and get back on track.
“I was always told I could do it, that I could finish strong, and that all I had to do was follow the plan,” Wysinger said.
Wysinger started believing in herself. She started participating in Strive Academy in 2019. “Due to my doubts in myself, I didn’t plan on attending college, but with the help of my family and Dr. McDaniel, everything changed.”
The thought of summer college classes initially was a bit daunting. At the academy’s suggestion, she went for a day, just to try it out. She found she liked it.
“I started taking more college classes and I had no idea that I could have done it had I put my mind to it,” Wynsinger said.
She began to feel free again and set a goal: “My objective was to get the work done so I can graduate from college and tell my mom and my family that I made it and did it for them.”
Wysinger recently graduated from Sacramento City College with an associate degree in interdisciplinary studies. Her ultimate goal is to earn a master’s degree in communications at Sacramento State.
“As I look forward to this new chapter, I am so very proud of myself for how far I have come,” she said.
Montay McDaniel II
Montay McDaniel II, 20, was exposed to the notion of college from an early age.
He grew up seeing his mother, Dr. McDaniel, working as a college counselor and an older sister enrolled in higher education at the time. Some of Montay McDaniel’s earliest memories are of visiting campuses and attending information fairs. He took his first college class in sixth grade.
For high school, McDaniel attended The Met, where his mother also was a counselor.
“The Met was, and still is, one of the only schools that allows the students to receive an education at both the high school and college level as well as pursue a career interest through an internship,” McDaniel said.
Because of the accelerated education, McDaniel graduated from Sacramento State in 2020 at just 18 years old.
“A lot of it stemmed from semesters and semesters of just nonstop classes,” he said of studying from session to session, including summers.
McDaniel steadily crossed off high school requirements to make room for more college classes. Doing so allowed him to enroll in three to four courses every semester. He earned an associate degree in interdisciplinary studies from Sacramento City College his junior year of high school. In a year’s time, he added a bachelor’s degree in communications from Sacramento State – a month before graduating high school. It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and McDaniel mastered Zoom and drive-through ceremonies.
Earlier this year, he added a master’s of science in athletic training from Grand View University, a small private school in Des Moines, Iowa. McDaniel has managed to stay focused by leaning on his faith and keeping his eyes on the prize: multiple degrees. He’s also happy to debunk myths many people have about young Black men.
“Knowing that kids my age are either dead or in prison definitely shows how I’m able to defy not only stereotypes, but statistics as well,” said McDaniel, who recently became the youngest certified athletic trainer to graduate from a master’s program. He just joined the staff of American River College as a trainer and is working to earn hours and prerequisites for a doctorate in physical therapy. He plans to start school in fall 2023.
“The dream for a lot of young Black men in our culture is either to be a rapper or basketball player and I really wanted to be different in that aspect, to show kids that you can do more than that,” he said.
Like her brother Montay, Amiyah McDaniel also got a taste of college life early. She began taking classes in the fourth grade. The STRIVE Academy helped her navigate being an elementary and college student simultaneously.
“Like most journeys, mine wasn’t effortless,” the 18-year-old said.
There were plenty of late night study sessions and failed quizzes. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened and like many students, McDaniels struggled to maintain her grades during online learning. She got a few “dreadful W’s” on her transcript, but she was determined not to let a few stumbles set her back.
“Although these obstacles at times have discouraged me and my destination seemed so far away, my faith in God stood strong and my support system could not be shaken,” McDaniel said.
The STRIVE Academy’s help has been invaluable, she said. “The biggest asset I’ve learned from the program is the skill set of communication and advocating for oneself,” McDaniel shared. “It boosted my confidence and created a sense of independence. Those skills empowered me to find solutions to problems I wasn’t at times aware of, and for that I’m forever grateful.”
McDaniel recently graduated from Sacramento City College with an associate degree in interdisciplinary studies. She expects to earn a bachelor’s degree in the spring or summer. Her long-term goal is to receive her master’s degree and become a licensed art therapist.
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.