A Basketball Star Takes His Talents to the Community
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 14:01

My first chat with Roshard Bryant ’14E took place at an international student welcome picnic organized by the Center for Community Engagement. Going into the championship duel of a spirited round of the “Wah” game, we talked lightly about his CEOT leadership and how the game perpetually dominated orientations, while other gamers deliberated on the vegetable we would imitate.

A towering figure, Bryant nevertheless carried a natural ease and amicable charm, an indelible mix I would constantly admire later on.

Indeed, over the course of his time at Amherst, Bryant has left an enduring mark on the campus community as a basketball star, an outstanding student leader on community engagement and a warm-hearted friend.

“He is known by all and loved by many,” Bryant’s close friend Justin Ramos ’13 said. “His presence on campus dwarfs his height, and that is difficult to do.”

Early Education

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Bryant was the youngest child of nine. Despite growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood, he felt sheltered compared to his peers because of the sense of stability and safety within his home.

“We lived in the same neighborhood, we saw the same things, [we] heard the same gunshots, [our] brothers were in the same gangs, but I had a different [life] experience,” Bryant said. “I had a home and parents to come home to every night.”

In contrast to his family, Bryant’s K-12 education was anything but stable, a kaleidoscopic journey through six schools that ranged from public to private, secular to Catholic and independent to boarding in two states.

The resulting exposure to various pedagogies and relationships with diverse educators set an undertone for his later passion for education. Among these schools, however, two vastly different places emerged as definitive influences on him as a student and a person.

The first was the East Harlem School at Exodus House (EHS), an independent school established in 1993.

Formerly a drug rehabilitation center, EHS cultivated children from low-income families in the East Harlem community through rigorous, almost militant discipline, with the strong belief that hard work, respect and faith would bring people out of poverty.

Bryant’s time there from fifth to sixth grade branded these values into his character.

“This is the school where I learned to ‘sit up straight,’ ‘nod your head when an adult is talking to you,’ ‘[make] eye contact,’ a lot of these simple things that they stressed over an over again,” Bryant recalled. “It was an intense place, but … the root of why I value my education so much was developed at the East Harlem School.”

The second was Suffield Academy, a private boarding school in Connecticut where he was one of merely 30 students of color in a school of over 400. Bryant transferred there from his previous 5,000-student public high school, where he picked up and excelled at basketball but did not find the academic fuel he needed.

“Suffield ended up being a huge, huge transformation for me,” Bryant reflected.

At Suffield, he lived up to the expectation, gained great popularity among his peers, and tried many new things he had not savored before — tap dancing, theater and video editing, to name a few. His confidence was boosted.

It was also at Suffield that Bryant became the mentee of Nisa Bryant, then Associate Director of Admissions, who had previously worked at EHS and convinced him to consider Amherst when the men’s basketball team recruited him. He went on a recruitment tour with his teammates to Williams, Wesleyan, Colby and Babson, among many others, and finally chose the school whose academic prestige he believed would pave the way for his future, despite the fact that his family had no idea what or where Amherst was.

A Commitment to the Community

Bryant arrived at Amherst as a member of the men’s basketball team. But after two knee surgeries that kept him from the court, and a frustrating fall semester in his sophomore year, Bryant decided to take the spring semester off and work for New Heights, an organization which he had been a member of as a high school student.

The job turned out to be a blessing in disguise: working for this non-profit educational organization, which provides support and opportunities for young inner-city athletes, soon kindled Bryant’s passion for K-12 education. Upon getting off his crutches and leaving New Heights, he applied to become a Community Engagement Orientation Trip program assistant.

Bryant attended CEOT himself as an incoming first-year student and appreciated the work done by the CCE.

Yet he also saw room for improvement. Bryant considered the old theory-volunteerism model of CEOT simplistic and insufficient, but addressing these flaws in programming would not be an easy task.

Bryant was intrigued, therefore, when directors Sarah Barr and Molly Mead introduced him to popular education, a concept developed by philosopher Paulo Freire.

To Bryant, its core of sharing stories, finding personal relevance of education by the oppressed and the belief that “any form of education comes from individuals themselves” had the potential to transform CEOT into a more meaningful experience.

Encouraged by Barr and Mead, Bryant traveled with two other students and an alumnus the following summer to Highlander Research and Education Center, a leadership training school in Tennessee that produced Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.

During their four-day stay, the group witnessed first-hand how lack of social privilege and knowledge of the land affected those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The visit to Highlander had a huge effect on Bryant and CEOT. Inspired by a methodology he encountered there, Bryant helped to redirect the focus of CEOT from theory and service to learning through communication.

“We have to create relationships with these individuals and find out what’s going on in the community before we can even think about asking an organization how we can help.” Bryant explained.

By integrating such activities as community walks and scavenger hunts, CEOT gave students more opportunity to interact with local people and institutions and to understand the history and legacy of Holyoke and Amherst. Students embraced the new format and said that they learned to critically think about their roles in community engagement through the trips — exactly the type of change the CCE and Bryant were looking for.

Amherst & Beyond

Apart from basketball and community engagement, Bryant’s academic path and extracurricular activities also weaved into his narrative on education. At Amherst, Bryant immersed himself in Sociology, Black Studies, English and Theater and Dance classes. Currently a Black Studies major, he found great enjoyment and inspiration in courses such as “The Craft of Speaking” (one of his favorite classes at Amherst), “Democracy and Education,” “Giving,” “Storytelling as Performance” and a course on American education, the latter two at Hampshire College and Smith College, respectively. Bryant took classroom participation to the next level by making everyone think.

“[Roshard] was perhaps most influential [in] the ways he challenged students and the professor alike to examine their own presuppositions when it came to issues before us, and as a result of his efforts, we were able to see ourselves and the social world very differently.” Professor Ronald Lembo remarked.

Outside of classroom, Bryant has co-chaired the Black Student Union, contributed to the development of Amherst Christian Fellowship and helped out La Causa and Charles Drew House, where he lived his sophomore year.

In addition, he served as an Athletics Liaison for the CCE for two years, worked for a summer enrichment program at the Amherst Regional Middle School and gave his voice in the dialogue surround the re-envisioning of the Multicultural Resources Center.

In others’ eyes, Bryant’s dedication to these activities exemplifies his character.

“The first word [to me] that describes Roshard is ‘sacrifice’ because he is always giving his time and energy to others even when he does not have the time. Despite his personal endeavors, he is always willing to prioritize someone or something over himself,” Christopher Lewis ’13 remarked.

Professor Barry O’Connell, with whom Bryant took “Democracy and Education,” agreed.

“Roshard brings unusual and special qualities to everything he does,” Professor O’Connell said. “He has become one of the memorable leaders on campus, one of the two or three genuinely outstanding ones I have known in my 40 years here.”
Even as he is about to conclude his college years, Bryant has shown no sign of slowing down.

As of now, he is petitioning to study abroad in Chile next fall to further explore popular education and planning to graduate with his designed major in Popular Education and Social Change, if all goes well.

Afterwards, he looks forward to earning a Master’s degree in education and learning as much as he can on the art and craft of teaching and storytelling, an approach he found critical in the collective classroom experience.

“What about teacher preparation programs? Not until they are treated like medical residencies,” he said. “The same amount of expertise and training that needs to be put into taking care of somebody’s body [also] needs to be put into taking care of somebody’s mind.”

Whether playing a game with him, asking for his help on my Black Studies paper, or interviewing him for this profile, I have often encountered insights like this in the past year I have known Bryant, where his intelligence and dedication shine through. Lewis vouched for Bryant’s passion.

“It does not matter what the project entails; if Roshard commits to it, you can guarantee that he will give 110 percent of his effort,” Lewis said.

Bryant’s ultimate dream and hope is to become a principal at a public high school, and he gives himself 20 years to get there. Professor O’Connell is confident about Bryant’s future.

“His leadership abilities are such that all who know him well expect he will make a considerable impact after and beyond Amherst,” Professor O’Connell said.

With his exceptional combination of energy, commitment and charm, Bryant is well on his way.