Dewayne Benson recalls the person who shattered his idea of leadership.
When the clarinetist with a self-described colorful personality experienced undermining from his high school band instructors and peers, Kimberly, the future drum major, stood up for him.
She was no authority figure, but she shared marching tips and encouraged him to see his potential. When Benson switched from band to San Jacinto College dual credit classes, he embraced Kimberly’s self-worth schooling.
“From her, I grasped the true definition of leadership and exactly how the biggest tree can come from the smallest seed,” he said.
The former underdog has triumphed as Channelview High School’s 2020 valedictorian, an Associate of Applied Science math graduate, and a Gates Scholar. Benson radiates confidence that comes from barreling through challenges.
“It’s a message a lot of people need to hear: you can define your own abilities, break the glass ceiling if you really want,” he said.
San Jac spark
“Test the boundaries of what you can do. If you’ve never been challenged, you’ll never find out your true potential.”
-- Dewayne Benson, Gates Scholar
This fall, Benson heads to the University of Texas at Austin as a computer science major. He credits San Jacinto College not only with boosting his academic prowess but also with preparing him for Longhorn land.
At the end of his sophomore year, after juggling three-hour band practices and criticism, Benson knew it was time to find a replacement: “If I can handle all that, I thought, ‘Let me see how this dual credit program goes down.’”
He joined the North Campus’ Modified Early College Academy, taking basics as well as rigorous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses with older College students.
“Professor (William) Ollis, Dr. (Paul) Goains, and Professor (Scott) Wheatley -- I want to give a shout-out to all of them,” he said. “They prepared me for the rigor of college work. UT Austin is not going to be easy.”
Ollis, a math professor, says Benson stood out for his inquisitiveness and comprehension, grasping complex topics like genius mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in essay assignments.
“Dewayne’s best trait is his desire to succeed,” Ollis said. “He approaches his studies with maturity and responsibility, and he applies the requisite time to master any topic.”
Gateway to success
While a dual credit student, Benson still fit math club, yearbook, National Honor Society, and Rotary Interact into his high school activities. When a guidance counselor approached him about applying for the Gates Scholarship, he jumped on that too.
Awarded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this last-dollar scholarship goes to 300 minority high school seniors nationwide each year. It covers full cost of attendance beyond other financial aid and expected family contribution and extends to graduate school.
After submitting an application and writing heartfelt essays, Benson made the pool of 600 finalists out of 40,000 applicants.
Because of COVID-19, he did his one-hour finalist interview with a judge on Zoom. Although he was confident about his interview, winning was another story.
“I really wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “I feel like most people throw a celebration because it’s a big accomplishment, but I can’t allow myself to blow the party poppers yet.”
He takes the win in stride, letting the reality of the responsibilities ahead sink in.
Firefox and felines
In the last four years, Benson has leaped over many hurdles. When COVID-19 hit, he continued to persevere. Although online classes revealed his procrastination bent, they also strengthened his time management skills.
Benson feels ready for UT -- after all, he carts an impressive resume to Austin.
“I’m a Gates Scholar, valedictorian, and degree holder -- three things at once,” he said. “Most people can’t say that.”
He plans to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees, then work full time in software development. Although he would welcome a gig with Firefox or Google, he admits he will be happy working behind a computer anywhere as long as cats prowl nearby. (It’s OK if you’re picturing crazy cat lady, he says.)
“I love all animals, but I have a preference for cats,” he said, laughing. “I need to have tons of cats.”
Photo credit: Dewayne Benson