March 8, 2022
Reading time: 3 minutes, 37 seconds

At the University of West Georgia, members of the university community are connected with opportunities to hear from engaging, renowned speakers like Rodney Walker, the bestselling author of “A New Day One: From 12 Foster Homes on Chicago’s Southside to Harvard Graduate.”

Rodney Walker

Walker visited UWG last week to share his story of resilience and persistence as the featured speaker for the College of Education’s 2022 Dag Folger Speaker Series.  

Walker grew up in Chicago as one of 10 children born into intense struggles, severe poverty and surrounded by violence. From ages 5 to 17, he bounced between 12 different foster homes and struggled to succeed in a school with a 50 percent dropout rate amidst a broken home life and a community he described as having the highest crime and gun violence rate in the area.

 Walker had a vision of what life could be, however. He pictured having a family of his own, being the father he’d always wanted for himself, living in a safe and caring environment, and building a career to support his dreams and ambitions.

“The worst thing in life is when you see what’s happening in these areas and decide that’s just how life is,” Walker stated. “I never lost sight of what was normal. I knew my situation wasn’t normal.”
Walker ran away from foster care at age 17 and spent several months without a home, hoping to reconnect with his brothers and sisters. Soon after doing so, though, he began losing them again to drug addictions, violence and incarceration.

Walker connected with a mentor who visited his high school to work with troubled students who were struggling through life in and out of the classroom. During the several months Walker was working with his mentor to repair past wounds and process social trauma, he learned his goal shouldn’t be to fix what’s broken but to create something new that can’t be broken.

“I learned to see my struggles as blessings in disguise because they were preparing me for something great,” Walker explained. “My life became a product of taking ownership of my struggles.”

Walker’s path truly began to change as he worked with his mentor and set off for college. After applying to 13 different institutions and receiving rejection after rejection, he was offered a chance to prove himself with a semester of academic probation at Morehouse College. Walker applied himself fully and surrounded himself with mentors that refused to see him fail.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Walker sought graduate school only to be met with continual rejection once more. By this time, he had learned the art of consistency and perseverance and kept his vision for what his life should be at the forefront of his motivation. Ultimately, Walker was accepted into Harvard and Yale universities and received graduate degrees from both.

“My journey was a manifestation of a mindset that was cultivated over years past,” he said. “My transformation wasn’t predicated on surviving and overcoming but on actualizing a new path. My greatest success isn’t that I escaped the southside of Chicago but that I was able to show my mentor that his investment in me was worth it. I was able to show my mom that having me wasn’t a mistake. I proved to myself that tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”

Walker held a book signing after the lecture.
Walker held a book signing following the lecture.

Now, Walker continues working to achieve the vision he has for his life. He’s building a family and is a new father, providing the love and care he’d always wanted as a child. Walker travels the world speaking on his life experience and spreads awareness of the impact a caring adult can have on a child.

“Every child is one caring adult away from becoming a success story,” he concluded. “Find the people who help exemplify the best nature of your vision.”

Walker also spoke to leaders of local nonprofits and other community organizations in an afternoon workshop last week, focusing on ways educators can mentor and validate all students.

The Dag Folger series is hosted annually by UWG’s College of Education and brings a dynamic speaker to campus to share insights on critical topics in education. Previous speakers include Jonathan Kozol, Emilie Martinez-Palacio, Edwin Moses, Eboo Patel and Alan November

To view a recording of the event, visit UWG’s Livestream page. To view all of UWG’s upcoming events, visit the UWG Events page. 

photography by Julia Mothersole