NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Life is about second chances. Just ask Johnathan Fitzgerald.
The soon-to-be Tennessee State University graduate has gone from college dropout to graduating with top honors as a biology major. He has already been conditionally accepted to medical school and will start in the fall of 2015.
But Fitzgerald readily admits, his journey was not always easy, and eventually found out what he was looking for was already in his own back yard.
Along the way, he attended numerous colleges, started a career and family, and ultimately dropped out of school to adopt his two-week old niece to raise as his own daughter.
“I knew I had the potential to do something great with my life,” Fitzgerald said. “My educational journey has truly been a long and arduous journey.”
The journey started in 1996 at McGavock High School for the Nashville native. He graduated with honors and was ranked in the top 11 percent of his class, while his senior class voted him “Most Likely to Succeed.”
“My goal was to go to college to become a physician and follow in the footsteps of my uncle,” said the 36 year-old Fitzgerald. “It has been a dream of mine from a very early age. I always wanted to specialize in internal medicine.”
The first leg of his journey took him to Atlanta where he attended Morehouse College and majored in pre-med. He lasted a year because he was not prepared for life so far away from home.
“I had no role model for what it took to go through pre-med classes or college life,” Fitzgerald added. “I returned home because I just didn’t have the support system I needed in Atlanta.”
His next stop was Volunteer State Community College, where he took general education classes, then transferred to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Instead of pre-med, he changed his major to music.
“I always loved music and was a musician in high school,” he said. “I played viola and was in the band, so I thought I could pursue a career in music.”
But he quickly found out that working full-time and going to school was not easy. After a series of life-changing events, he eventually dropped out of school to adopt his two-week old niece, leaving a 1.9 grade point average in his wake.
“It was not a hard decision to make to drop out of school to take care of my daughter and my family,” he said. “She needed me and, at that point, my family came first.”
For seven years, Fitzgerald continued to raise his family, adding two more children along the way, and concentrating on his business career. But there was always a “monkey on his back” nagging at him to go back to school.
In 2009, dressed in his best suit, he made the drive to Tennessee State University, a university that was right in his backyard, and one he never really considered.
“While I was growing up my father would bring me to the football games and I remember singing, ‘I’m so glad,’ and watching the band perform,” Fitzgerald said. “But I heard negative things so I didn’t give TSU a good look.”
But that first walk through the doors, he said, was like a second chance at pursuing the dream of becoming a doctor. Giving it the “old college try,” he walked into Dr. Lois Harlston’s office and told her he wanted to give his dream another shot.
Harlston, chair of the Pre-Professional Students in Health Services, helped Fitzgerald get into the dual Bachelor of Science/Doctor of Medicine (BS/MD) fast-track program with Meharry Medical College. The program prepares students to go to medical school by allowing them to study three years at TSU then enter Meharry as a first-year student. Fitzgerald was one of five students to be admitted into the program that year.
“He was very serious and had his entire education mapped out,” Harlston said. “He told me about his life struggles, but also told me he would do whatever he needed to accomplish his goals. Jonathan has far exceeded my expectations and has performed at the top-tier level.”
During his four years, Fitzgerald’s hard work has paid off. He has been named to the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, been the recipient of three TSU scholarships and, most recently, been named the Outstanding Undergraduate Student in Biology by the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Sciences. He is also graduating with a 3.907 GPA.
It has been a very long journey for Fitzgerald to realize his educational dream and will graduate with nearly 1,000 other candidates Saturday, May 10. He is also keeping a promise he made to his mother who passed away in 2012.
“Before she died, I promised her that I would press on and become the doctor that she and my father always knew I could become,” he said. “I know she will be smiling down on me when I finally receive my diploma. All it took was a second chance, and TSU was willing to give that to me.”
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With nearly 9,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 undergraduate, 22 graduate and seven doctoral programs. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.