From addiction and self-hate, to acceptance to Harvard

(WHAM photo)

Graduation Day is this weekend at the University of Rochester.

In the class of 2018, there's one particular student who stands out. He went from drug addiction, to becoming a student an Ivy League graduate school.

Matthew Lyskawa says a high school teacher changed his life. He went from having a 1.8 GPA in high school to graduating with honors from the U. of R. - and now, he's heading to Harvard.

Growing up, Lyskawa hated school.

“In third grade, I was really restless in class. I had horrible behavior. I would cuss out my teachers. I would bully students. I would fight students,” said Lyskawa.

He says his bad behavior started at home, being the only African-American in his family and dealing with his brother, who was bipolar, calling him degrading names.

“Slave, monkey, and other racial slurs. Actually, all the racial slurs you can imagine. That made me literally hate being black, because it was the reason why I was suffering," he said.

The abuse at home made it hard to focus in school.

“When you go to school, you’re like, ‘Why am I trying to learn geometry or history when I have to go home and be reminded of how worthless I am by my brother?’”

He was diagnosed with ADHD. He started taking Ritalin, soon becoming addicted to the drug.

In high school, he had a 1.8 GPA, and was often escorted out of class by police for disruptive behavior.

Then during his senior year, his English teacher, Sheryce Long, gave him a choice: Read books, or don’t come back to class.

“She gave me books on South African apartheid, Life on the Color Line, all books which had to do with race, and I loved them, and I fell in love with reading and I would get emotionally involved in the stories of the people," he said.

Those books changed the way he saw himself, helping him overcome self-hate.

“Realizing that mental illness is what ruined my childhood, not racism," he said. "And understanding that my brother was struggling a lot and he was on medication, and that had horrible side effects for him.”

Today, Lyskawa walks the U. of R. campus, ready to graduate with a degree in philosophy.

“That student who was cussing you out, and being escorted by police officers, and was a truant…now, I’m here. I think that shows it’s so possible, extremely possible, to overcome addiction, racism, mental illness, to overcome your own low-income background," he said.

And his next stop is a doctoral program in philosophy at Harvard.

“There are people like me in the world and you can make it," he said.

“Failing forward," he added. "Every time you fail, you need to be audacious enough to hope that one day what you envision will one day be. And that takes audacity.”

Lyskawa’s goal is to become a law professor.

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