Last week, Nadia James purchased eight white “gratitude stoles,” belts graduates give to people in their lives who help them get through the stage in some way.
“We always talk about how it takes a village to raise a child but it takes a village to do a lot of things,” James said recently at the Dillard University chapel.
On Saturday, James, 30, will cross the stage as one of Dillard’s 2022 valedictorian after earning a 4.0 GPA and a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice, a feat she accomplished while taking classes at night, working full time and being a single mother to her daughter, La’Nyia.
Other valedictorian speakers were Chad Fuselier, Brinisha Hamilton and Iman Wells.
Born and raised in the Lower 9th Ward, James moved between his grandmother’s and other relatives’ homes as his mother battled addiction throughout her childhood. School was not of great interest, until his senior year at Frederick Douglass High. A Teach for America instructor told the class that “no one is born smart” and “something popped into my head,” he said.
Then came La’Nyia and the need to support her, so James put his academic aspirations on hold and worked odd jobs, including at Family Dollar. When La’Nyia was about 5 years old, James realized he wanted to set her a different example. He earned an associate degree at Nunez Community College in Chalmette while working in the school’s financial aid office, eventually taking up a full-time job there when he graduated in 2019.
But then again, he was itching for something more. And with his hectic schedule, Dillard’s evening and weekend courses are interesting.
James often awoke before dawn in the room he shared with his daughter at his grandmother’s house in Chalmette, sometimes realizing that he had left his light on to study the night before. She dresses her daughter, feeds her, and drives her to school. Then go to work until 4:30 p.m., study through lunch breaks and finish assignments and read when things are slow.
He would attend classes from 5:30 p.m. until around 8 p.m., then go home, feed La’Nyia and do schoolwork until she fell asleep.
At times, James considered quitting, especially after his father died last year. But mentors always pull it off.
His professor, Brandon Hamann, who is also a graduate of the weekend and evening program, talked him through assignments and told him to work piece by piece. He moved into his grandmother’s house. And her father became her spiritual motivator: “She definitely wanted me to do this,” she says.
“It’s impossible to do everything alone,” he said. “There are nights when I wake up until 3am trying to finish an assignment and still have to get up the next morning to get the baby girl ready and still have to get ready for work.”
After taking a class with Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Nicole Sheppard, James apprenticed in his courtroom and got to know the inner workings of the court system, something he said he might pursue later in life.
When James learned that he had been crowned a valedictorian, his normally reserved daughter jumped for joy. “You did it, Mom,” La’Nyia told her. James may pursue a double degree in law and social work in the future, and says he hopes his story will be an inspiration to others who are “eager for something more.”
James said his daughter; her fiancé, Dejuan Smith; Haman; shepherd dog; and his grandmother, sister and mother will be in attendance on Saturday, all wearing their stoles. He would wrap the last stole around his father’s urn.
“Getting this college degree so I can move forward and try to create generational wealth for my son, that’s the goal,” James said. “I don’t want him to struggle.”