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Henry Grant poses for a portrait at his home in Oakland, Calif on Wednesday, May 25, 2011. Grant is the first of his immediate family to graduate from a major University, having attended Colgate University in upstate New York for which he received a degree in Philosophy. (Deeba Yavrom/Staff)

OAKLAND -- Colgate University in upstate New York is thousands of miles from where Henry Grant grew up -- and not just geographically.

The tall, African-American student stood out at the predominately white, upper-middle-class campus. (No, he'd explain, he did not play basketball for the university.) White students, by contrast, made up 1 percent of his otherwise diverse senior class at Oakland High.

At Oakland High, Grant was a leader, a scholar and an athlete -- a student who seemed to do it all. In college, he said, he was confronted with very different assumptions about who he was.

"People are always surprised that I'm smart because I'm 6-4 and I'm black and I can play basketball," Grant said in a phone interview shortly before his graduation. "I'm a nerd in my heart of hearts, but people expect certain things from you when you look this way."

Grant graduated in May with a degree in philosophy. But he didn't just survive his college experience; he embraced it while staying true to himself, said two faculty members who came to know him well.

Professor Ulla Grapard, Grant's freshman economics seminar teacher and adviser, said she watched the bright, thoughtful student grow as a scholar in a major that tends to draw few black students.

"I think his creativity and his imagination and his interest in the big lines and the big issues were fostered and developed and encouraged in that major," Grapard said. "He was able to learn in a very vigorous way."

Thomas Cruz-Soto, Colgate's assistant dean for multicultural affairs, met Grant through the campus's multicultural center. If he failed at something, he never made excuses or gave up, he said. He just worked harder.

"Once he was in it, he was in it to win it," Cruz-Soto said. "Not every student has the wherewithal and the confidence to do that."

Like many new college students, Grant learned in his first year that his writing skills needed work. "I wasn't prepared at all. My thinking was up there, but my writing, it lacked," he said. "It was a rough transition."

Grant said he developed an ear for grammatical mistakes he made on paper by reading his work aloud, in reverse order. He learned the proper way to write a research paper and how to formulate his thoughts more clearly.

Grant's biggest test came in his final year at Colgate. Last June, his 17-year-old brother, Damon Williams, died suddenly and violently, like so many other young black men in Oakland. The popular Bunche Continuation High School student was shot and killed at a bus stop near Eastmont Mall. Ricardo DePalm, then 18, faces a murder charge in connection with the shooting.

When Grant returned to Colgate after his brother's death, he told almost no one about his loss.

"People aren't used to violence like that at my school," he said. "People wouldn't understand. I just didn't want people who didn't even know me to come up and talk to me about my brother."

Grant said it felt like a part of him had died. But he kept going.

Last month, he became the first person in his family to earn a bachelor's degree. His mom, who was not quite ready to take her first airplane ride, had to wait until he returned home to congratulate him in person. "He did it," said his mother, Angela James. "Now he's grown. I'm very proud of him."

Now that Grant is back in Oakland, he plans to travel abroad with a friend and then look for a job -- ideally, at a Bay Area startup.

Cruz-Soto and Grapard say they believe Grant's big-picture ideas, dynamic personality and ability to navigate different worlds will serve him well.

"He can talk to a CEO and someone from the street and not feel any different, and not treat them any differently," Cruz-Soto said.

Grant said he developed a stronger sense of self at Colgate, and a feeling that he can do anything. "I feel like I have a better understanding of how America works and how to win in America, essentially," he said.

In college, he said, "You really learn how to do things for yourself. It's sink or swim, and they're not about to swim for you."