Showing Up: Jonathan Sheperd-Smith ’18 Leads in Service
"He refused to stay on task," Sheperd-Smith said. "It was very frustrating to see the teacher blow him off and the child shut down. I tried to provide positive reinforcement, and as I left for the day, he called my name from the waiting room of the principal's office, where he was probably getting ready to be disciplined. He flashed the most genuine and brilliant smile."
That experience as an Education Scholar with Project LIFT, a public-private education partnership, left him with a strong desire to do more–so he founded a new mentoring program that reaches underserved youth in West Charlotte.
"At that moment, I saw myself in that little boy, as well as my nephews and cousins, and I wondered what was being done to help him," he said.
Sheperd-Smith, an economics and anthropology double major, doesn't believe in service for the sake of service. The Bonner Scholar, Brown Scholar, Terry Fellow and football captain from Atlanta, Georgia, uses his service requirements at Davidson to engage more deeply with the community.
As part of his work with the Bonner Scholars Program, Sheperd-Smith created the DuBoisian World Scholars Society. The group, with a name inspired by W.E.B. DuBois, focuses on closing the information gap for low income minority kids in the hope of inspiring them to become stakeholders in their educational experiences.
The third grader from Shepherd-Smith's classroom experience inspired the logo for the group–a photo of a young boy.
After working out the concept of the organization, Sheperd-Smith refined the next phase of the project in a community-based learning course, "Community Engagement and Change."
"I see service as a Real World 101 course," he said. "To live in the world I want to live in, I have to do something to make it better. It's easy to only worry about your own people, but we all need each other, and we have to be stakeholders in what we do."
Krista McGuire is a college adviser with the Carolina College Advising Corps, based at West Charlotte High School. She said it was immediately apparent that Sheperd-Smith had a heart for mentoring and supporting students who came from backgrounds similar to his own.
When he first reached out about the potential partnership with her school and the DuBoisian World Scholars Society, the professional nature of his communication made her wonder whether he was a professor. She was pleasantly surprised when Sheperd-Smith walked into their first meeting.
"As a college adviser, I've had college representatives not show up as planned. I've had partnerships with community organizations fall through. For my particular population of students, I try to protect them from these kinds of inconsistencies, as it only adds to the inconsistencies and unreliability they're often faced with in their lives," she said. "With Jonathan, I felt like he would be committed. And time and time again, he proved that to be true. Despite demands from football or finals, he showed up. When my students asked for pizza, he showed up at their next meeting with pizza. When anyone else might have canceled or made an excuse, he showed up."
Others have taken notice of Sheperd-Smith's steadfast commitment to service. This spring, he was recognized with the Center for Civic Engagement Award of Distinction. The award honors someone who consistently goes above and beyond the concept of volunteerism, lives a sustained ethic of care for the world, exemplifies the idea of community involvement and displays an awareness of his or her impact on the world.
Raised to Lead
Around campus, his friends know him as "Shep," and his reputation is one of admiration and near disbelief at all he has accomplished. Raised by a single mother who was committed to giving her son a foundation for success, Sheperd-Smith learned from a young age to make the most out of the opportunities he was given.
"After completing only one semester of college, my mom climbed the ladder in corporate America. But she stepped away from all that in order to have more time with me," he said. "The area of Atlanta I grew up in is predominantly Black, with a middle to low socioeconomic demographic. My mom moved me away from the neighborhood school in order to give me a better education. All of these things made us very close, but we struggled financially."
Sheperd-Smith couldn't always relate to the students at his school. Although it, too, was majority African American, "those students' access to resources was vast," he said.
His peers knew more about college, career paths and what to do next.
"College preparation was beyond my mother's financial and time availability," he said. "I took the SAT unexpectedly on a day my school offered it for free, and I had no contact with colleges until I began to hear from recruiters senior year."
Even without a firm commitment from the recruit, Davidson Football Head Coach Paul Nichols '03 walked Sheperd-Smith through the Common Application, FAFSA forms and registration for the NCAA eligibility clearing house.
"One of my mother's favorite sayings is ‘dance with the one who brought you,' and it was that logic, along with my visit to campus, that ultimately made me choose Davidson over my other top choice, Dartmouth," he said.
In addition to his varied classroom, service and athletic pursuits, Sheperd-Smith is a Davidson Alumni Ambassador, president of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and co-founder of the Black Men's Union. This summer, he will spend seven weeks as a Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Fellow at the prestigious Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.