Overcoming the Odds (in a Giant Way)

Marquel Thompson, photographed in profile, sits in front of a window and smiles broadly.
Statistics might tell you that recent IUPUI grad Marquel Thompson wouldn’t have much chance at a college degree. But the vision of his mentor—and fellow IUPUI grad—helped prove otherwise. Photo by Ben Meraz.

It’s a long way from Haughville to IUPUI.

Only two miles or so, actually.

But what if you step outside and see your future foretold in the shell casings scattered on your street? What if you can see only two paths for your life: gangs or drugs? Add in roadblocks: single-parent household, low-income family, first-generation college student, a culture scarred by racism.

Suddenly that distance—between a high-crime neighborhood on the west side of Indianapolis and the city’s thriving urban campus—might seem impassable. It did at one time for Marquel Thompson.

“Growing up in the neighborhood I did—walking outside seeing the things that I saw—I didn’t want to deal with it for the rest of my life,” Thompson says. “So I had to find a way to get out, to make a better life not only for myself but for my family.”

Sherman Woodard, wearing a purple button-up shirt and tie, sits back in his chair and smiles. In soft focus behind him is a high school student smiling.
Sherman Woodard, who has a master’s in counseling and counselor education from the School of Education at IUPUI, created the Giant Kings, which champions excellence among black male high school students. Photo by Ben Meraz.

Courting Excellence

Thompson says that his mother had always demanded that he work hard and focus on his studies, but it wasn’t until high school that he realized excelling in school could be his way out. And it all clicked because he became a Giant King.

Giant Kings is a program at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis that provides an all-around support system for young, black males. It focuses on high school and middle school students, plus a mentor partnership with students at a nearby elementary school. The group is open to all, but members are required to achieve at least a 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale.

Growing up in the neighborhood I did—walking outside seeing the things that I saw—I didn’t want to deal with it for the rest of my life.

The program is the brainchild of Sherman Woodard, who has a master’s in counseling and counselor education from the School of Education at IUPUI, where he’s now working on a PhD in Urban Education Studies. In his role as Ben Davis High School’s director of student services, Woodard created the Giant Kings program in response to some troubling numbers.

In 2003, only 39 percent of his school’s African American male students were passing the state of Indiana’s standardized test for their grade level (compared to 56 percent of the school’s total population). Half of those who did pass had less than a 2.0 GPA. And only 4 out of 200 black male students had above a 3.0 GPA.

“These are kids that could do well … but we as a school were letting them down,” Woodard says. He’d seen how positive peer mentors had influenced him, and he thought something like that could be good for the young, black males he worked with every day.

In 2004, Giant Kings was born. The group organizes study tables, guest speakers, mentorship, and professional development opportunities. It also facilitates community involvement, like cleaning up streets or hosting canned food drives—whatever it takes to draw out the excellence in each of its members.

“It’s about the little things that schools can and should do to change culture and climate, especially with African American males,” Woodard says. “And it’s about the energy that comes from putting these guys together.”

A Rough Road

With the help of his support system, Marquel Thompson was able to graduate from Ben Davis and make that journey from Haughville to IUPUI—even receiving scholarships from the Lilly Endowment and Bowen Family Foundation to attend. But that doesn’t mean the road became easy. There were financial struggles, academic setbacks, and violence against black men in his community and across the country weighing on his mind.

But through it all, Thompson focused on school and did what he could to help others. He was an IUPUI campus ambassador, led a pilot for IUPUI’s Ignite program to increase minority enrollment, and he continues to mentor younger members of the Giant Kings.

“A lot of the things that I’ve been able to do—my scholarship, being involved in tons of different programs, jobs, internships—a lot of those came from someone providing me an opportunity,” he says. “These people have opened a door for me. And I never pull that door closed behind me; I turn to see if there’s someone else I can bring through.”

Strength in Numbers

In Thompson’s final semester at IUPUI, his next door opened: a job offer from Fiat Chrysler in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That May, as Thompson got ready for graduation, he considered the statistics that had tried to tell him which turns his life would take. On the top of his grad cap, he wrote:

  • Only 17 percent of black men have a bachelor’s degree.
  • Only 20 percent of low-income high school students end up getting a college degree.
  • One in every 15 African American men are incarcerated.
Marquel Thompson, wearing a graduation cap and a Kappa Alpha Psi scarf around this neck, smiles. Inset is a picture of the top of his graduation cap. On the cap, foam letters spell out the phrase "came two far!” The following notes are also written on the top of the cap: low income students who are academically qualified attend college, only 43% are likely to attain a college degree vs. 80% of high income peers; college education can break the cycle of poverty for many young people and their families in under-resourced communities; every year, 200,000 low income, college-capable high school students graduate and do not pursue a college degree; 1 in every 15 African American men are incarcerated; 44 million students will not enroll in a four-year college and 2 million students will not attend any college due to financial barriers; homicide rate for black male victims was 31.67 per 100K; in the U.S., 5,452 of the 6,309 black homicide victims were male; 4 of every 5 low-income college-ready youth who do not attend college fail to do so because of finances; only 17% of black men have a bachelor’s degree; only 20% of low-income high school students end up getting a college degree.
Marquel Thompson decorated his graduation cap with statistics that he overcame in earning his two IU degrees. Thompson photo courtesy of Marquel Thompson. Graduation cap photo by Ben Meraz.

From corner to corner, he filled the cap with society’s doubts about what he was capable of—numbers whose meaning faded in the face of his own determination and the support he found. In fact, with a 97 percent high school graduation rate and 65 percent of alumni having completed a four-year college degree, the Giant Kings program shows exactly what’s possible when you see the potential in people beyond what the statistics show.

Over the bleak stats that filled his cap, Thompson added one final statement in big, black foam letters: “came two far!”—a nod to his two BS degrees in accounting and finance. He added his tassel and got ready to walk.

“I think that was the biggest moment: to be able to walk across that stage and really see everything that I did. And I could walk past all those obstacles and just laugh,” Thompson said. “No matter how much it may have knocked me down, hurt me, broke me, I was able to recover and get through, walk across the stage, and make a better way—and make it no matter what.”

To learn how you can support innovative educators like Woodard—and future students like Thompson—contact Jonathan Purvis, vice president for development, at 812-855-7739 or jpurvis@indiana.edu.

This article was originally published in the fall 2016 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By
Andrea Alumbaugh
A native Hoosier, Andrea Alumbaugh is a graduate of IU (BAJ’08) and a senior writer at the IU Foundation.