Gary DeShun Hamilton, a first-generation college student, graduated with his Doctorate in Education Policy and Leadership today and delivered the American University School of Education’s graduate speaker student address.
In his speech “The Bold Promise of Tomorrow,” Hamilton inspired educators, offered a clarion call for them to support antiracist pedagogy and defy imposter syndrome, and fulfill their collective promise to students: through education, the achievement of great things is possible. His own trajectory is a testimony to said promise.
“Gary exuded passion when he talked about the challenges he’s overcome and about his students,” recalled Bonnie Berry, executive assistant to SOE’s dean and AU Commencement Speech Committee member. “He incorporated years of teaching young students who look up to someone who looks like them into his story and enlightened us with examples of how education enabled him to transcend the pitfalls of life’s challenges.”
The oldest of five children and native of Oak Cliff, Texas - where crime rates are usually above one hundred percent of the national average – he sought refuge in schools and classrooms, which aided him during an upbringing rife with poverty and abuse.
“It was easy for me to find safe places in schools. My life was very hard, and I suffered a lot of mental and physical abuse growing up,” he recalled. “Teachers were the people who showed me they cared. They were gentle and understanding with me and became my extended family, enthusiastically inspiring me when no one in my life seemed to want to.”
Seeking comradery beyond the dangerous streets of Oak Cliff, the resourceful Hamilton joined his high school’s marching band, eventually becoming its leader, a result of trumpeting skills which later led to a four-year scholarship to Bethune-Cookman University, a HBCU in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Although the journey was challenging (he had never traveled outside of Oak Cliff), the euphoria of graduation further piqued his curiosity about the benefits of education. He soon enrolled in a master’s degree program in psychology (with an emphasis in special education) at Howard University, bringing him to Washington, DC, where he began to thrive.
He cut his teeth and built a solid reputation as a teacher supportive of students with dyslexia and autism before transitioning into the educational arenas of pedagogy and policy by becoming an instructional coach for DC Public Schools, where he “helps improve pedagogy and instructional practices so that support K-5 students with learning disabilities.”
His first pursuit to earn a doctoral degree in education policy and leadership began at Howard but was quickly saddled by the untimely passing of his father, an important figure in his life. After nearly a decade-long academic hiatus, he rallied, leading him to American University’s newly formed online doctoral program, drawn by its focus on early literacy intervention and antiracist pedagogy.
“My higher education had taken place solely at HBCUs, and I had never had an online class, so AU’s program was fate,” he remembered. “I knew that with any program, the Problem of Practice had to deal with literacy, and the AU program’s tenet of antiracism pedagogy also enabled me to study areas I was concerned about, the education and pedagogy of Black boys; the apathy of informing children and Black boys; the social emotional learning of Black boys; instructional bias; and masculinity.”
In April, Hamilton successfully defended his dissertation, “The Influence of Masculinity on Reading Engagement in Black Boys in Kindergarten–5th Grade: An Analysis of Instructional Bias and On Task Learning Behaviors.”
He then heard about SOE’s student speaker opportunity. The amalgamation of his passion for education, areas of study, ability to overcome obstacles, his empathy and optimism, and communication acumen rendered him an ideal candidate.
“We, graduate students of AU, are a heartbeat of a better America. Education is not what makes America great. It is what heals America.” he emphasized. “Those are lines from my speech. I can’t wait.”
The School of Education’s spring 2023 Commencement ceremony took place Friday, May 12, American University. A video recording of Hamilton’s commencement speech be will available to view the week following commencement.
Read more about SOE's spring 2023 graduates here.