TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – As the University of South Florida community prepares for another graduation, one student is sharing his harrowing experience about how he overcame the unthinkable while on his journey to receive his degree.
Nicholas Stewart has a story to tell.
“It’s been hard, mentally hard, trust me,” said Stewart.
Stewart was born in New York but raised in Jamaica. He eventually returned to the United States without his parents at the age of 17, in search of better opportunities.
“Being in America, there are so many resources and so many avenues to excel. In Jamaica, it’s kind of a bottleneck, like you either do tourism or telemarketing. You can dream big here,” said Stewart.
Stewart moved to Florida where his first ‘American Dream’ was to complete high school.
“I had to take two city buses to school and two buses back,” said Stewart. “Looking back, I wonder how I did it.”
Stewart ultimately finished his senior year in the United States and recalls his high school graduation as being lonely. The then teen, walked across the stage to receive his diploma without his family cheering him on.
Little did Stewart know, his steps beyond the graduation stage would be just as desolate.
“My graduation was literally just me and my friend there. Although I was in the top 10 percent in my school, it was just me walking across the stage thinking, ‘Okay I did this. I am ready to go to college.’”
Stewart was accepted into several universities, but ultimately, he accepted an offer from the University of South Florida. This accomplishment made him a first-generation college student.
Stewart explains while college was his vehicle for overcoming a troubling past, he still experienced homelessness since coming to America. He describes surfing from the couch –to couch, and on occasion, depending on various family members and friends for temporary shelter, all the while pursuing his degree.
“When people say, ‘where do you live, where is your home?’ I say ‘home is wherever I am,’” joked Stewart. “No matter what I was going through, I had to put on this facade that everything is okay, everything is going great. The weight is heavy but I carried it well in a sense.”
Despite Stewart’s living arrangements, he managed to secure several prestigious opportunities, including working for the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute. He also conducted ecotoxicology research at Macquarie University in Australia. Throughout his academic pursuits, Stewart also became a Gilman Scholar.
“I have been hit with so many ‘no’s’ and ‘are you sure,’ I always say ‘it’s going to happen.’ I think I developed several mottos and phrases in my head. Like just because it’s a no for you, doesn’t mean it’s a ‘no’ for me. I will find my ‘yes,’ some way, somehow.”
Stewart hopes by sharing his story about having nothing, to becoming a college graduate, will inspire others in our community.
“Know that what you’re doing has purpose and meaning. No matter how small it is. No matter how minute it seems to others. Aim for the stars, never settle. Never take no for an answer,” said Stewart. “It may seem hard now but diamonds are made under pressure.”
Stewart aspires to become an environmental geologist, he plans to protect and restore water resources around the world, particularly in the Caribbean. Stewart sites the devastation caused by Hurrican Irma to Jamaica in 2017 as being the catalyst for his career choice.
“I want to understand the water crisis in marginalized communities,” said Stewart. “Communities like women in heavily misogynistic or patriarchal countries or Trans women. How are they affected by the water crisis,” explained Stewart.
Stewart will graduate with a BS in Geology this summer. Stewart ultimately has plans to attend Columbia University for his master’s degree and eventually go on to pursue his doctorate.