Earlier this month, Nicholas Ross graduated from Fremont High School in Oakland with a 4.31 GPA. He was senior class president. Captain of the varsity debate and track teams. He goes to church most Sundays at Twenty-Third Avenue Church of God in the Fruitvale district.
Nicholas, who is African-American, was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholars award (from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), which is given to outstanding minority students with a significant financial need. The award will pay for his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. It also will cover graduate school should he choose to pursue studies in computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science. And, of course, he must keep his grades up. In other words, no backbreaking decades worth of student loans for him.
When I met Nicholas a few days ago, I was impressed by his intellect and poise. Yet he is the first to tell you that he was not always scholar-athlete material. Nine years ago, he was on a bad path. His father, Jesse, is convinced that Nicholas would have either ended up killed in the streets or incarcerated.
He was lying and stealing money out of women's purses in church. His mother, who was struggling to raise three children on her own in Michigan, got in touch with Jesse Ross. First, she dropped the bombshell that Nicholas was his son. Then, she said he was out of control and couldn't handle him. Would he bring his son to Oakland and raise him?
Ross had only met Nicholas once, when the boy was 3 years old, and had no idea he was the child's father. He had fathered Nicholas while he was a student at Grambling University in Louisiana, but he had since relocated to California. After some deliberation, he bought two Greyhound bus tickets from Michigan to Oakland -- a one-way ticket for Nicholas, and a round-trip one for his mother.
Nicholas soon continued in his old ways. He'd steal scooters on his way to Bella Vista Elementary School. When his father would take him to visit friends and relatives, he'd steal from them. Once when Ross went to drop him off at school, where Nicholas was in the fourth grade, all the money he had stolen from their relatives fell out of his pockets, spilling into the car.
However, Nicholas gradually turned his life around.
He credits his father with being a strong male role model who stayed on him 24-7. Ross says he had been a gangbanger in his earlier days and was arrested in 1993 for selling drugs. He was determined that his son would not repeat his mistakes. Ross repeatedly told his son that if he didn't change his ways, he would end up dead or in prison. He made it clear that there would be consequences for bad behavior.
"I didn't put the fear of God in him," Ross said, "I put the fear of me in him."
One night, neighbors called the police after Ross gave Nicholas a "whooping." Police removed Nicholas from the home that night. They returned him the next day.
For the past five years, Nicholas' mother has been in prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in connection with a murder case that Ross blames on her association with the wrong men.
Nicholas writes to his mother in prison and sent her a UC Berkeley poster to hang in her cell. "She is very proud and told me to take advantage of all the opportunities," he says.
Growing up in certain Oakland neighborhoods, it is impossible not to be exposed to street violence. While Nicholas was at Fremont High, 10 of his school acquaintances were killed.
"I could see the truth of what my dad was saying because I saw what was happening to other kids," he said.
Larry Lovett, 30, who was shot in January and found near Dimond Park, was Nicholas' cousin.
Yet Nicholas stayed out of trouble by maintaining his focus and having the right kind of friends. A couple of them will be joining him at UC Berkeley, where he plans to study mathematics or law.
Nicholas also had the benefit of what nowadays is all too rare: family and extended family willing to step in and raise children when the mother is unable to. At various points in his life, he also was raised by his grandmother and godmother.
Ross couldn't be more proud of his son, but he downplays his own involvement.
"I don't feel like I did anything special," he says. "He's my child."