Jerrell Cleveland will be among several hundred students to graduate from Claflin University on May 12 at the Commencement Convocation. However, his path to graduation is far and away unlike any of his colleagues.
In fact, this will be his first Commencement of any kind. He never did officially graduate high school.
His walk to the stage to receive his degree in sociology and criminal justice from President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale has truly been a long journey.
It will be paved through the lessons his parents, Jerrell and Daisy, taught him from an early age and through the encouragement of his wife, Priscilla, who is a Claflin graduate and now works as a junior procurement specialist at the University. The memory of his late sister, Tangela, will also weigh heavily on his mind as he ascends to the next step in his future.
“This is nothing short of amazing. I have never have worn a cap and gown before,” said Cleveland. “My degree really belongs to my parents because of the example they’ve led. I can’t wait to shake the president’s hand and get that diploma.”
This fall, Cleveland will pursue a Juris Doctor degree from the Charlotte School of Law. To truly grasp his transformation from high school drop- out to law school student, the story must begin in 1987.
It was the year Tangela was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord.
The reality of the situation was difficult for Cleveland to accept. He couldn’t concentrate in school and made what he termed a “poor decision” to drop out of school. Cleveland worked numerous odd jobs, mostly in the construction industry.
“I could see the difference in how employers treated employees with a high school diploma,” he recalled.
Cleveland one day walked off a job site and prayed to God for help. He took and passed the GED in 1992. He entered the field of law enforcement first as a corrections officer. In 1999, Cleveland completed the police academy and received a job as an officer.
“It was a hunger, a thirst I had for law,” said Cleveland. “I always liked the law and wanted to understand it.”
During his law enforcement career, he served the Florida City Police Department, the Florida International University Police Department and the South Miami Police Department. He also founded and ran his own security firm, Cleveland Security and Consulting, LLC for several years.
But things would turn south again for Cleveland. His parents, who lived in Orangeburg, were involved in a serious car accident. With the threat of losing his mother, Cleveland closed the security business and moved to Orangeburg to be with his family.
Then things started to turn around. Although his mother spent almost a month on a respirator, Daisy ended up recovering. Priscilla got a job in the Office of Fiscal Affairs at Claflin and enrolled in the Master of Business Administration program.
Priscilla introduced her husband to Dr. Gloria Seabrook, interim executive director of the Center for Professional and Continuing Studies. He applied and quickly enrolled in the program as a sociology/criminal justice major. Cleveland said he took the opportunity very seriously. He regularly took 18 hours per semester while working full time at the Bamberg Job Corps. The aim was always getting into law school.
“Jerrell is one of the most dedicated and hardworking students whose ever come through the Center for Professional and Continuing Studies at Claflin,” said Seabrook. “The education he’s received at the University will enable him to conquer law school and become a great success in the legal world.”
Cleveland remained vigilant toward his dream even despite receiving “denial after denial” from prospective law schools. He was finally accepted into the Charlotte School of Law and Charleston Law School.
“I took a look at my progress and it’s amazing,” said Cleveland.
Priscilla is thrilled that Jerrell is living his dream.
“I’m so ecstatic that Jerrell is on his way toward becoming an attorney. That’s his passion. He is also the happiest when talking about the law,” Priscilla said.
Jerrell isn’t wasting any time either. He will start law courses in Charlotte this summer.
He gives much credit to Claflin for his turnaround. “They were very supportive. That family environment makes a difference in feeling like you’re amongst your own family. Dr. Seabrook and her staff are top notch educators,” Cleveland said.
Once he completes law school, Cleveland plans to practice both criminal and civil law. He and Priscilla have one 11-year-old son, Ron.