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Thursday, May 10 2012 04:40 PM

Soon-to-be BC grad left gang life behind

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    James White, a former gang member and prison inmate, turned his life around and will graduate from Bakersfield College Friday night.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Will Chandler will complete his studies at and graduate from Bakersfield College Friday, then fulfill his longtime dream to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta.

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BY JORGE BARRIENTOS Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

Growing up in the Los Angeles area, James White had a stable home, he said: two loving parents, two younger sisters and a younger brother, all of whom would go on to college.

White took a different route. School, he said, wasn't in the picture, but gang life was.

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Ceremony starts 7 p.m. Friday in BC's Memorial Stadium. Following the ceremony, graduates and their guests are invited to a reception on the lawn near the Gil Bishop Sports Center, sponsored by the BC Alumni Association and BC's Student Government Association.

* Graduates: 1,012

* Oldest graduate: Betty Barnes (born in 1940)

* Youngest graduate: Armando Ramirez (18)

* Female graduates: 686

* Male graduates: 326

* Number of graduates planning to transfer to four-year schools in the fall: 618

* More than half of all graduates are first in their family to attend and graduate from college

* Commencement speakers: Academic Senate President Cornelio Rodriguez; SGA representative Tawntannisha Thompson; history faculty member Randal Beeman, who along with Bryan Hirayama were chosen by students as recipients of Samuel W. McCall award, which goes to an outstanding professor of the year.

Source: Bakersfield College

During his 23rd birthday party, he shot someone in a gang-related fight. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder, and subsequently served six years in prison.

After those six, he spent a few more years in and out of jail for violating parole -- drug sale charges mostly. But well into his 30s, he made up his mind to leave that life behind.

At the time, his now-fiance, a nurse at Bakersfield Heart Hospital, was going through college here and their daughter, now 10, was thriving in local schools, too.

"The route I was going, I was either going to end up in prison again, or dead," the 41-year-old said. "I wanted to change my life -- for them. I didn't want them to see me as someone who just rubbed numbers off of the remote control. The thing I saw that would help me make a change was education."

So he enrolled at Bakersfield College. And for last three years, he has attended classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays as he pursued two degrees. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he underwent dialysis. White is currently on a kidney list to replace his kidney that failed while he was incarcerated.

On Friday, after his scheduled dialysis, he will walk the stage to accept his two associate's degrees -- in sociology and communications -- during BC's 98th commencement.

"This is the first time I'll walk the stage," White said. "I didn't finish high school. I got my (general education degree) in prison. I never experienced this type of thing. It's going to be awesome."

White has shared his story with countless younger students on campus, especially those who aren't taking school seriously or act like gangsters just to be cool, he said.

In Sue Granger-Dickson's class at BC -- one focused on teaching tools for college success -- White shared his story: the serious mistakes he's made, how he changed direction, and why they should focus on school.

"He spoke from the heart, and he connected with them," Granger-Dickson said. "It was a profound experience for me and the students."

It's no surprise to her to hear that White wants to teach, at BC no less. He will transfer to Cal State Bakersfield in the fall.

White credits BC educators like Granger-Dickson, Randall Beeman, Jesse Bradford, Patrick O'Neill and others for keeping him on the right track.

He is graduating as president of the Sigma Chi Eta communication honor society, and was awarded the top communicator award at BC.

White said he expects nearly 50 loved ones to attend his graduation. And he will be graduating with about 1,000 others, including another student realizing his dreams.

After graduating from Bakersfield High School, Will Chandler dreamed of attending, and applied to, Morehouse College, a prestigious historically black college in Atlanta. He was not accepted.

He enrolled in BC and committed himself to one day transfering to Morehouse, he said.

He became involved. Chandler joined Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Bakersfield Program and Students in Free Enterprise, both of which taught him the importance of community service and giving back, he said.

Valerie L. Robinson, professor of business management and information technology, called Chandler "a future leader of tomorrow" who takes a leadership role in whatever he does. But he also cares about others and how they feel, she said.

And he's diligent, she said. For example, Chandler struggled with writing and sought help from BC's Writing Center. Now he's comfortable with writing.

"He stays focused until he gets it," Robinson said. "He does not give up."

Similarly, he was rejected from Morehouse College, but kept at it.

This fall, he will be transfering there and will study urban studies with a concentration in planning.

"It feels good to believe in yourself and have others believe, too," Chandler said. "My message is if you have a dream, pursue it."

Chandler plans to return to Bakersfield and work in city planning. His dream, he said, is to be city manager here.

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