Deonte Bridges, Booker T. Washington High School’s first Black male valedictorian in a decade, is making headlines after his touching graduation speech was posted on YouTube. In it, the Atlanta native speaks on overcoming arduous adversities, like being robbed at gunpoint, and his mother, Paris Hardaway, being diagnosed with leukemia. He spoke with ESSENCE.com about what helped him excel in school and his message to students in their daily lives. The 18-year-old has been awarded enough scholarship money to cover any undergraduate and graduate university of his choice. He spoke with ESSENCE.com about what helped him excel in school and his message to students in their daily lives. ESSENCE.com: Describe the challenges you faced growing up in Atlanta over the years? DEONTE BRIDGES: The adversity I encountered throughout my life made me stronger and wiser. I believe everything happens for a reason, so I am thankful for all of my obstacles and hardships. After losing my brother, I felt so alone because he was my best friend. ESSENCE.com: How old were you when your mom was diagnosed with leukemia, and how did it impact your childhood? BRIDGES: I was thirteen years old. While my peers were concerned about the latest video games and just having fun, I was concerned about the well-being of my mother. I matured very quickly because I knew that I had to be there for her. ESSENCE.com: Describe the area you grew up in. What went on in the neighborhood? BRIDGES: The conditions in my neighborhood were not horrible. However, it had its share of negative influences such as drugs and violence. After being robbed at gunpoint, I was very paranoid about leaving my home. I was able to develop a greater appreciation for life. ESSENCE.com: With a lot of outside negative influences, what kept you motivated to excel in school and to be the bright young man you are today? BRIDGES: I knew that the negative influences represented lifestyles that were not promising. As I stated in my speech, I felt the need to do what was necessary and not what was labeled as popular. I wanted to make it to the top, and excelling inside and outside of school was the way to go for me. ESSENCE.com: What was your reaction when you learned you were valedictorian this year? And what did it mean to you? BRIDGES: I was very proud of myself. It is truly an honor to be the valedictorian of such a historic institution, the very same high school that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself attended. Hard work does pay off. ESSENCE.com: Over the years, what has inspired you and kept you going? BRIDGES: My family and my desire to make a difference have inspired me to keep going. I always wanted to make everyone proud and touch the lives of others. ESSENCE.com: How long did it take you to write or prepare your beautiful graduation day speech? BRIDGES: It took me almost a month to prepare my speech. I give credit to Mr. Charles Allen and the graduation committee for guiding and prepping me for this momentous occasion. ESSENCE.com: What did it mean to you to say the speech? BRIDGES: It was very rewarding because I understood that the outcome of my life could have been different. My life could have been easily taken away from me. I could have easily decided to succumb to peer pressure or simply throw in the towel. Being able to say my speech was a dream come true. ESSENCE.com: What did it mean to you to have your mom sitting in the audience on graduation day? BRIDGES: It was truly a blessing. I am forever grateful that she was able to witness her son make history. I love my mother because she was one of the reasons I continued to strive for excellence. ESSENCE.com: Your speech has made national headlines and has been watched by tens of thousands, if not more. Did you expect this reaction, and how do you feel about it? BRIDGES: At this point, it seems so surreal. I never imagined so many people would be touched and inspired. I am very blessed and humbled by all of this. I was never comfortable sharing the details of my life. However, I see the impact it has had on the lives of others and I hope my story will continue to serve as an example of perseverance. ESSENCE.com: What is your message to other students, especially those who face challenges in their daily lives? BRIDGES: Continue to strive for excellence. Do not settle for less. Be thankful for what you have and remain humble. Anything is possible with hard work, determination, and patience. ESSENCE.com: What are your future hopes, dreams, and goals? BRIDGES: My dream is to leave my mark on this world and help change the lives of others for years to come.
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