If this were anyone else’s story, it probably wouldn’t end with a college graduation.
Terrell Woods lost his parents to drug addiction when he was only a year old. They were arrested and sent to prison and Woods was sent to the foster care system. But his uncle took him in and gave him a family. His uncle’s girlfriend at the time became the woman Woods would think of as his mother.
His life didn’t get much easier. Woods lived in one of Newark’s most notorious drug dens until it was condemned when he was in the sixth grade. He had friends in middle school who were shot and killed. He was surrounded by drugs and violence throughout his childhood.
But somehow he developed a positive outlook. He earned good grades and saw school as his way out.
“I grew up in the hood, but I made my own decisions and chose my path,’’ Woods said. “My family was involved in drugs but they would tell me I was too smart for that. There was always love. I had people who cared for me. I always had clothes on my back for school. There were people who had a lot less.’’
In the seventh grade, Woods was given a life-changing opportunity. He was accepted into the first class of Rutgers Future Scholars, a mentoring program for first generation and low-income students in Newark, New Brunswick, Camden and Rahway that rewards those who get accepted into Rutgers with free tuition.
Woods always thought he was college bound. School came easy to him and he didn’t want to fall into that same cycle of drugs and imprisonment as so many others he knew.
“This was my ticket out,’’ Woods said. “I saw my cousins grow up and turn to the streets selling drugs. I didn’t want to be in that cycle so I had to find a way to do something different. Future Scholars took the hassle away of having to worry about how to pay for college. I just had to worry about getting in.’’
Woods will graduate from Rutgers University-Newark Wednesday cum laude with a degree in criminal justice and history. He plans to take the LSATs in June but also wants to pursue his dream of a music career. He calls himself a raptivist – someone who uses music to shed light on the economic factors that keep people in poverty to provide hope that there is a way out.
“I want to help my community, the black community, the low-income community, have a better understanding of the world and how to move through it in a positive way because of a lot of us don’t know how to and get lost,’’ Woods said.
But his dreams don’t stop there. Woods also wants to pursue a career in criminal justice and become a U.S. Supreme Court judge. He aims high because he wants to reshape drug sentencing laws that have led to the high rate of mass incarceration in the United States, which disproportionately affects young black men. He wrote a thesis about the war on drugs and how it’s led to the deterioration of community relations with police and wants to start a nonprofit that teaches young people their rights when they encounter law enforcement. He said he has had run-ins with police growing up in Newark, but instead of getting angry with this system he wants to become part of it to bring change.
Although he’s grown up under difficult circumstances, Woods has received a lot of support from people who believe he can achieve his dreams. The woman who became his second mother nurtured and supported him like a son. And Rutgers Future Scholars provided a second family that gave Woods somewhere else to turn if he needed help or was in trouble.
“I feel like the program gave me a lot of confidence,’’ Woods said. “Someone was going to bank on me to graduate for college for free. They really think I can do it and that made me feel like I could.’’
Another major influence has been Woods’ girlfriend, Destiny Coleman, a junior at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, who he started dating when they were both students at Science Park High School in Newark. They recently moved in together and are expecting a baby girl in July. He said they have already picked out the name Nuri which references the “Nūr” in the Islamic faith meaning “God’s light.’’
“We’ve been together since our freshmen year of high school. We came through college, got our first apartment together and first car,’’ Woods said. “She is the main person pushing me and telling me I can do anything I want.’’
Woods said he is driven by a desire to make life better for the next generation.
“I try to tell my story and what I went through so people know they are not the only ones,’’ Woods said. “When things happen, it’s not over. Life goes one. If you want to make a difference you just have to push.’’
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