Shawn Welcome’s long and winding road to getting his bachelor’s degree required the same perseverance and determination he describes in “Rio,” a poem he wrote last year as a tribute to the Refugee Olympic Team in Brazil.
“It felt really good and, in a way, school was solace,” Welcome said of his recent college graduation. The 34-year-old performance poet earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Central Florida on May 4. “Without context, it’s difficult to understand why it took so long and why I felt so good that day.”
The Brooklyn native discovered an affinity for a rap — both in freestyle and written form — during his senior year at John Jay High School in New York City.
“I’d heard rap music growing up, but it was a distant thing…something that professionals and celebrities did,” Welcome said. “As a kid, I liked writing and it was a strength, but I didn’t really consider doing anything with it.”
Welcome, who lived in New York and Central Florida throughout his middle school and high school years, enrolled in Valencia College in Orlando in January 2002. He was interested in becoming a teacher, but lacked the guidance to follow that particular career track.
“This one lady told me that marketing was a good path, so that’s what I wrote down at first, even though I had no idea what that was,” he said. “In my heart, I could see myself teaching because I knew that when I learned something, I really enjoyed sharing it with people.”
In 2005, Welcome earned an Associate’s Degree in General Studies. He enrolled at Barry University’s School of Adult and Continuing Education in Orlando in early 2006, but found his academic pursuits momentarily derailed.
“I was doing triple duty: I’d go intern at a charter school in the morning, work noon through 5 p.m., then do class in the evenings,” Welcome said. “A semester into it, my car fell apart and my money ran short.”
That was the start of a seven-year scholastic hiatus. Meanwhile, Welcome had developed a passion for poetry during his time at Valencia through the school’s African-American Cultural Society. The same year he had to leave Barry University, Welcome established “Diverse Word” at Dandelion Communitea Cafe, a weekly poetry open mic event that also includes comedy and other acts. In August of 2006, Welcome also traveled to Austin, Texas to take part in National Poetry Slam, an annual performance poetry competition.
In 2008, Welcome married his wife Jannah, and by 2013 he was working as a student counselor for the nonprofit Professional Opportunities Program for Students (POPS), Inc.
“I heard from somebody at POPS that one of the schools wanted to hire me as a teacher, so I should look into going back to school,” Welcome said. There were other factors that contributed to his decision, including Jannah becoming pregnant with the couple’s first child together. “My wife had been a teen mom who had kids when we met. So between having a new kid on the way, the school wanting me to teach, and my boss giving me space to go back to school, I decided to do it. I wanted a new foundation for my family.”
Welcome enrolled at UCF and navigated a schedule that included morning, evening, and online classes. He picked up his diploma on May 4, which was also the day that his biological father and the man who raised him met for the first time. Welcome didn’t find out that the man who raised him wasn’t his biological father until he was 29 years old.
“That was a shocker to me,” he said. “My whole reality shifted.”
Welcome recounted the recent meeting of his two dads during the 2017 Florida College Access and Success Summit prior to performing “Rio,” which also doubled as a tribute to his 100-year-old great-grandmother.
Having endured personal hardship and a delayed path to getting his bachelor’s degree, the poet had a message for the varied members of Florida’s educational community in attendance.
“I just want to encourage anyone working with youth,” said Welcome, who currently works as a coordinator for MVP Families, a program that seeks to assist students with college acceptance and scholarships, develop community leaders, and strengthen the bonds between parents and children. “Their success in life and in school can mend a lot of things happening behind the scenes or in the background.”