Shalamar McNair struts on the north campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College as if he owns it. His confidence soars. His smile shines. His personality commands. Students and staff greet him cheerfully: "Shalamar!" "I know a lot of people by faces, but most people know my name," the 28-year-old said Monday while sitting on a campus wall.
On this day, he was especially proud and eager to show off the black PHCC three-ring binder tucked under his arm. It bulged with pamphlets for student groups he's involved in, like the Men of Excellence, and a letter written in January welcoming him to the honor society Phi Theta Kappa. He reached in and pulled out programs for awards ceremonies, reminders of his success.
Reminders of his climb from homelessness and desperation.
He added another memory to the binder on Monday, a personalized invitation to today's commencement ceremony at 10:30 a.m. in the gymnasium at the New Port Richey campus, 10230 Ridge Road. The invitation has his name on it embossed in gold lettering. Not every student gets a personalized invitation, but this is a gift from a bookstore cashier he met while working as a custodian cleaning offices five hours a week on the campus he now considers home.
McNair is set to graduate with an AS in business administration and nearly a 4.0 grade point average. And if that weren't enough, he also will be the commencement speaker this morning. His speech bears personal experience, a message of hard work and determination paying off.
"For them to choose me,'' he said, "is an honor."
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McNair graduated in 2000 from Hernando High School, where he was a star wrestler. He moved to the Orlando area and graduated from Valencia Community College with an associate of arts degree in general studies before flunking out of the University of Central Florida.
Along the way, he fell in love, became the father of two daughters and went through a breakup before finding new love. He had a dark period, he said, a period of rebellion, brushes with the law for marijuana and petty theft. He doesn't like to talk about it and shakes his head when he does.
"It's not the same person," he said of himself. "It's not."
Shortly after McNair enrolled at PHCC and started taking his first class last summer, his sister, with whom he had lived for six months, asked him to leave. It wasn't because of any falling out, he said, she just had too many mouths to feed already and had a hard time making ends meet for her family. He couldn't find a job to help contribute.
He stayed with a neighbor that first night,then floated without a permanent home. Sometimes he stayed at the Jericho Road Ministry's shelter in Brooksville or at youth summer camps when he volunteered with Shiloh Problem Solvers. Joel Blount Jr., his college mentor, also gave him temporary shelter.
Sunday night, McNair slept in a permanent home for the first time in more than a year and felt relaxed for the first time in a long time. It's a four-bedroom house near Hernando High.
While looking for a trailer to rent, which seemed to be all he could afford, he bumped into a high school buddy he hadn't seen in a decade. They got to talking, and the next thing McNair knew they were roommates. Soon, McNair's fiancee, Misty Cauley, 35, and her two children will join them and the couple will marry in June.
McNair gives most of the credit for his recent success to Blount.
The two men knew each other in high school but reconnected on campus. As a PHCC employee, Blount became McNair's professional mentor and has watched and cheered him on. They were in many of the same clubs and Blount was last year's student commencement speaker.
"The vision that I had for myself is now being portrayed through someone else and I think that's great," Blount said, adding that they have even won the same awards. "I am really mind blown about that."
McNair already has a job lined up. He starts Monday at PHCC's Brooksville campus as an enrollment management specialist — a paid mentor just like his own, Blount.
"I can go through anything and make it," McNair said of his experiences. "I'm a better man for it now, I guess you would say."