Some of Milford’s top students received wise words from a fellow Buccaneer last month who hoped to reach out and make an impact in his hometown.
Once a student who frequented the same auditorium, Dr. Omari Scott Simmons has since traveled the world over, authored more than 20 scholarly articles and wrote a book recently released titled, “Potential on the Periphery: College Access from the Ground Up.”
He co-founded and directs the Simmons Memorial Foundation and is a professor of law at Wake Forest University’s School of Law.
More importantly, he told the students numerous times, he has given a hand up to others seeking success and encouragement for the journey.
“From 1988–1992, Scottie Simmons used to walk these halls, eat in the same cafeteria as you guys, play on the same sports [teams] as you guys,” Milford High School Teacher and Soccer Coach Ed Evans said while introducing his former school mate to a group of sophomores. “Scottie and I played Parks & Recs soccer. . . Scottie used to have the Recs Specs. He’s taken similar steps as your journeys and hopefully that can lead to some big goals for you, as well.”
Since his Parks & Recreation days while growing up in the NW Front Street area, he said, Dr. Simmons went on to graduate from Milford Senior High School in 1992. He studied at Stanford University for the summer of 1995 and graduated from Wake Forest University, where he now teaches, in 1996 with a dual bachelor’s degree in economics and history.
He received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 1999 and attended the University of Cambridge in London as a Thouron Fellow in 2001.
“It’s a special time for me to have an opportunity to come back to [this] place. It’s very special that Mr. Evans has an opportunity to introduce me to you. It’s probably been a quarter of a century since I’ve sat in the same places as you’re sitting right now,” Dr. Simmons told the group.
Before he had the chance to get too deep into the conversation he was about to have, he told the students a few things he had come to learn about their generation.
“You’re smarter and more talented than I was at that time in your age. And you’re more diverse. And from what I hear from all the studies, you’re more understanding and more tolerant. I was probably more well behaved than you in high school and one of the reasons is because my mistakes didn’t follow me on social media,” he said. “I grew up on NW Front Street. My parents passed away, they were originally from Tampa, Florida. . . At that time, in the 50s and 60s, it was a segregated place. Mom was a teacher at Cape Henlopen. My father was a naval officer. They gave me their operating principles. Most importantly, they gave me the idea of opportunity.”
The principles instilled in Dr. Simmons as a child helped shape his life experiences leading up to his successes.
“The appreciation of education, being tolerant and the idea about success and what that means,” he continued. “In my family, success wasn’t always about achievements. It was about how many people you can help, how many people you can uplift. Overtime, they are things I can go back to. When it really comes down to it, what I do personally and professionally, it goes back to those basic principles.”
Despite an attitude of gratitude and opportunities, Dr. Simmons told the students he never thought he would have grown up to become a lawyer.
“We didn’t have any [lawyers] in the family, so it was an abstract concept to me. When I was seven years old, I played Little League. The first lawyer I ever knew was Justice Randy Holland. He was a mentor to me for a number of years,” he said.
He spoke of other important lawyers from the area, including Bryan Stevenson, a Cape Henlopen High School graduate who is now one of the top public interest lawyers in the nation, and top legal precedents stemming from Delaware like the state’s involvement in the Brown v. Board of Education decision that led to desegregation in schools across the country.
But the legal profession isn’t all that he wanted to bring up to the students during their time together.
“I talked about being a lawyer, but I also wear a different hat. I’ve been a lawyer for about 20 years now. More than that, longer than that, I’ve been a college counselor,” he started explaining. “In 1996/1998, I cofounded the Simmons Memorial Foundation with my late father, to honor my late mother and brother. We started it to help students in our area. When I went to school, college was great and I realized all of the things that were available to folks. But wouldn’t it be great if more students explored these areas.”
The question Dr. Simmons found himself asking was this — “Why didn’t they [fellow students] end up in the places I was going?”
The resounding answer? Equality.
“I realized things weren’t equal. Maybe their parents didn’t go to college, or maybe their parents didn’t understand college in this country, students of modest incomes. . .,” he trailed off.
Through his new organization, he started working with the students to match them with colleges that would benefit them the most.
The Simmons Memorial Foundation, along with helping students with their college applications and other related needs, eventually started taking students from southern Delaware areas on college tours after learning that many had no intention of taking such trips because they had no way there.
“When we first started, we bombed. Students did not listen to the advice we were giving them. Overtime, what we found through the program is that students from schools like Sussex Central and Milford, they were not going to schools that were so local. They started going to schools that were[broader.]
We gave the students ideas of what opportunities look like.”
He encouraged the students he spoke to from Milford High School’s auditorium to find a way to visit colleges before deciding on which college to attend.
“You never miss what you don’t see. And that’s what we’ve experienced with a number of students in southern Delaware,” he said.
The students’ experiences, much like his own as a child from rural Milford, Delaware, were particularly interesting to him and became the subject of his new book.
He interviewed former students for the book to share their personal stories and experiences first-hand.
“The experts really are the students and that’s the only way I would do that,” he said. “Some of these students I have not seen in well over a decade. . . It’s an honest portrayal of what it’s like to be in high school and make that transition, to be a student from rural Delaware.”
Dr. Simmons left one more piece of advice for the students in Milford.
“Ask for help,” he said. “There’s no benefit in not asking for help. If you don’t think you need help, well, you’re not as smart as you thought you were. Very few people succeed on their own. . . There’s going to be people who are going to discount you for a range of different reasons. I would say ignore them. But, the shared experiences you have with other people are really important. I know you’re going to be successful. But, whatever you do, take people with you.”
Reach staff writer Jennifer Antonik at email@example.com