From Dropout to Standout
Tigerville, SC (December 11, 2019) Carl Dukes (’12, MEd ’14, EdD expected) quit school in ninth grade. So you might not expect to learn that he went on to become a teacher — who also happens to be working on his fourth degree at the moment.
And last fall, he was named the winner of North Greenville University’s 2018 Young Alumnus Award.
Dukes grew up in the projects of Conway, SC, he says. His mother worked as a housekeeper at a hotel 17 miles away, right on the water in Myrtle Beach. He remembers his father, struggling with addiction, was hardly in the picture.
With Dukes on his own most of the time, he racked up a criminal record early on. Because of the trouble he caused in class, he was forced to become a homebound student. Eventually, he decided to give up on school altogether. That’s when he ended up in South Carolina’s Juvenile Detention Center again.
The center — even if it felt “pretty much like jail” — at least offered him a place to reflect. One day, in particular, he was sitting on his bed when flashbacks from his past filled the frame of his mind.
“I just remember thinking about how, at that age, I’d already carried three of my cousins’ caskets,” he says. “I’m just like, ‘How can I do something different?’ Because where I’m from, I mean, ain’t nobody do nothing different. Everybody hustle. Everybody gangbang. Everybody do they thing to survive, because everybody livin’ in poverty.”
As if in answer to his question, a volunteer preacher visited the facility a short while later and gave a devotion. Dukes heard that God was giving him a second chance in life.
“That stood out to me. At that moment, I [began] realizing that God really had been watching out, looking out for me all this long time. Because I done been in some situations where there’s no way I should have got out of ’em, but I was able to get out of ’em,” Dukes says. “I said to myself, ‘Let me try this God thing.’”
A few months later, Dukes was released from the juvenile facility and called in to meet with the vice principal at his former high school, Trevor Strawderman.
“I distinctly remember Carl wearing a cross and smiling throughout our conversation. A smile is something I had rarely ever seen from Carl. When I informed him of his alternative school placement, he responded, ‘Please just give me one chance. I have found God, and I’m not the same person,’” Strawderman remembers, adding that Dukes even promised to go to alternative school voluntarily if he couldn’t meet the school’s expectations. “I knew at that moment that Carl had changed. We gave him the chance he asked for.”
Dukes brought up his grades and even finished high school on time. Upon graduation, he decided to attend NGU, a smaller university where he felt he could “stay focused.” At NGU, he studied interdisciplinary studies, with concentrations in early childhood education and communication.
He also received a scholarship to play football all four years, and he won the Iron Crusader Award in both 2010 and 2011. After graduating in 2012, Dukes stayed on at NGU as an assistant coach. In the meantime, he earned his Master of Education from NGU.
Just a few months after Dukes finished his second degree, Strawderman — the same administrator who had helped Dukes get back into school — called him up. He’d taken over as principal at North Myrtle Beach High School (NMBHS), and he wanted Dukes to join the faculty.
“It was obvious to me that Carl would be a blessing and a positive role model for our students,” Strawderman explains.
Dukes took the job and discovered that he loved teaching students in the NMBHS special education program.
“I know that I can connect with them and make a difference here, because I was these kids,” he says.
During his first years of teaching, Dukes worked to earn his second Master of Education, with a focus in learning disabilities, from Francis Marion University. He’s still continuing his education, now working towards his third degree at NGU: the Doctor of Education.
“Education is really the key to creating opportunities for yourself,” he says. “My goal for earning my doctorate at NGU is to go into administration then maybe become a superintendent. I just believe a lot of education needs to be reformed.”
His dissertation explores why students drop out and how to help them stay in school instead.
“Don’t get me wrong: we can’t save ’em all. I know I can’t save ’em all,” he says. “But the ones that can be saved, we still losing them as well because we don’t have the right programs in place to help these kids get through the situations they was born into and they don’t have any control over.”
Of course, Dukes isn’t waiting around for new policies to ignite a change. In his classroom, he works to teach his students important life skills they’ll need to rise above their situations. Plus, he’s not afraid to tell them about the real reason his life has changed: Jesus.
“I know what the rules are, but sometimes I’m willing to make that sacrifice. When they ask me a question about myself, I share my faith freely,” he exudes.
Between teaching, coaching wrestling, and studying, Dukes still makes time to organize an annual fundraiser to provide basic classroom supplies for disadvantaged students in his hometown.
“If I can help take the pressure off parents for school materials, then I’m willing to do that,” he says.
Dukes also volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse, mentors inner-city youth, and takes on motivational speaking engagements on occasion.
“Although he is continuously studying and working, he makes time to invest in his community, which in turn is a positive reflection on our university and a testimony to Jesus Christ,” says Dr. Gene C. Fant, Jr., NGU president. “He recognizes opportunities and doesn’t let them slip through his fingers.”
At NGU’s 2018 NGU Connect event, Fant awarded Dukes the Young Alumnus Award in recognition of his dedicated service to the community and powerful testimony.
“I have been an educator for 25 years and have never seen a more drastic turnaround than Carl,” Strawderman agrees. “He has truly been an inspiration to me.”
Photo: From left, Carl Dukes was presented the Young Alumnus of the Year Award in 2018 by NGU President Dr. Gene C. Fant, Jr.