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From Trenton to Commencement

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Lawrence Holman on the steps in the Kerwin Building.
Lawrence Holman, SPA '19

Lawrence Holman is in a reflective mood. This is his final semester at AU, and the Gates Millennium Scholar is looking forward to graduation and becoming a teacher himself.

It all started at an all-girls basketball camp. Sounds weird, right? More to come on that later.

Trenton, New Jersey, the capital of the state, is ranked by some sources as the 48th worst state capital in America. According the most recent US Census, 27 percent of Trenton residents live in poverty. That’s where Holman grew up, in the Mayor Donnelly Homes housing project, with two sisters and a mother who worked two jobs to make ends meet.

Lawrence Holman on the steps of the US CapitolOn paper, they were part of that 27 percent living in the poverty, but Holman never felt poor. “My mom was always making it happen,” he recalls. “The fridge and cabinets were always packed with food.” But the signs of poverty were all around. There were no nets at the basketball courts, and his mother warned him not play outside.

She knew her young son needed activity, though– so she signed him up for basketball camp.

There was one problem. When they showed up, it turned out to be an all-girls camp. After some reluctance, instructor Debbie Dorman decided to make an exception and let him in.

He ended up attending the camp for seven years – and later helped to run it. “I wrote letters for donations, paid coaches,” he recalls. The Dormans and Holmans became so close that when Holman’s mother suffered a stroke, Dorman helped with such motherly roles as as attending school conferences.

Holman calls her his “second mom,” and recalls how, when he was set to start high school that fall at Trenton High School, Dorman recalls what she said: “Over my dead body are you going to Trenton High.” She recommended the Valley Forge Military Academy and College, an all-boys military boarding school in Wayne, Pennsylvania. “I did not like what I saw on tour,” Holman recalled. “Making people do push-ups, waking up at 6 AM, I did not want to go.” But he had a full scholarship, and ultimately Holman leaned on his faith and decided this was part of his destiny.

Lawrence Holman with teammate during club rugbyAt Valley Forge, Holman adjusted quickly to the military regimen and thrived academically and socially. He took advantages of opportunities he’d never have encountered at Trenton High, such as visiting China, attending the Doha Goals sports summit in Qatar, and meeting nine-time Olympic Gold medalist Carl Lewis and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He also studied in England for a semester at the Duke of York’s Royal Military School.

“I’m four years removed from the projects,” he says, “and then in England living like Harry Potter.”

Holman’s next step was college, but he wasn’t sure how to pay for it. A classmate who’d been named a Gates Millennium Scholar encouraged Holman to apply for the prestigious award. It was a challenging application process; launched in 1999 with a $1 billion grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the program drew from an applicant pool of over 50,000 students for 1,000 scholarship spots. (The program is no longer offering new scholarships, but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offers a similar scholarship for high-achieving, Pell Grant-eligible minority students, called the Gates Scholarship.)

Holman turned out to be a perfect fit for the Gates Millennium Scholars Program – and AU was a fit for him.

During a January visit, he just felt drawn to the campus. “It was so different from military school -- in a good way,” he says. Something about it just felt right.

Lawrence with his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity chapter mates and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority chapterAt AU, he has majored in Political Science and has been active on campus, including serving as chapter president of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He also became a student leader on campus, advocating for black student issues. Holman credits his experiences at AU with many different people with expanding his capacity for empathy and helping him to grow as a person.

Now he’s thinking about the future. He has an offer for a position as a high-school teacher at a charter school in Brooklyn, New York that has an inspiring goal – enabling 100 percent of its students to be accepted into four-year colleges and universities. In the long run, he’s thinking of pursuing a master’s and doctorate in education.

He has another long-term goal as well: paying it forward. “One of my main goals,” he says, “if I don't do anything else in my life, I want to fund at least one person’s four years of college.”