From age 15 to 20, Steve Whiting spent many years in and out of prison and jail. He did half a year in juvenile hall, half a year in county, a year in the penitentiary, and so on and so forth. He served time for a slew of different charges from assault, to robbery, to gang activity.
“When I say I grew up different, that was my reality,” Whiting said. “That was my normal. For so many years I thought that’s all that life was.”
Whiting was in and out of gangs from his early teens. He said gang life starts small, hanging out with a certain group of people. Then it slowly starts with a series of events that snowball into more serious involvement. First, another gang jumps your friends, so you go jump someone in their gang. Then they shoot at one of your friends, and your involvement becomes deeper and deeper.
“It’s this normalized life of gang activity,” Whiting said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but by 15 or 16, I was pretty into it but the consequences hadn’t come yet.”
Then one day, Whiting said he had an “awakening.” He was at home, recently out of jail, about to smoke some weed, and realized he had no one to call to come over and smoke with him.
“Everyone I knew that I grew up with was either dead or locked up,” he said. “I had to sit there and think about that. I knew at that moment that something wasn’t right. This can’t be life.”
Those were the two paths he could lead, and while he knew he needed a change, he didn’t know what yet. Then he remembered what his mother told him. How she always pushed him to go to school, even after a tumultuous high school experience.
Fast forward to Friday, May 26, 2017. Steve Whiting will walk across the stage at DeVore Stadium and graduate from Southwestern College with a life of prison, drugs and gangs behind him. His road forward includes transferring to UC San Diego with a full-ride scholarship through the Chancellor’s Associates Scholarship program.
Whiting isn’t an overnight success. He grew up in the gang-heavy San Diego neighborhoods of Emerald Hills and Skyline. Being shot at hanging out in front of a house and getting into fights with other gangs wasn’t unusual. When he was 14, his best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting.
“The opportunities where I grew up weren’t a lot,” he said. “You saw what was regular life for people who lived there. It seemed like the only options were being a gang member, a drug dealer or end up in jail or dead. That was what reality was.”
Whiting was bounced from many different high schools because of his academic and social problems and eventually graduated from Morse High School.
“I wasn’t into school when I was in high school,” Whiting said. “I was dealing with another reality that was contradicting what they were saying in school.”
That reality was Whiting looking around his neighborhood and asking himself how do poor black people around here make money? The answer wasn’t always education.
“Selling drugs, robbery, we learned those things because that part of life was glamorized,” Whiting said. “We see the older homies with their cars and pretty girls and the music and the parties, but you don’t see the reality until later when you’re going to funerals and getting locked up yourself. That’s the side of the game that doesn’t get talked about.”
That life was hard to leave behind. When Whiting first enrolled at Southwestern College he started off taking a few telemedia classes, spoke to a couple of counselors, slowly moved onto a full-time schedule. He declared his major in political science with an emphasis in international relations. But it wasn’t until 2013 when he got a scholarship to study abroad in Spain at the Pontifical University of Salamanca that he saw where education could take him.
“That was a byproduct of being in school because it was a scholarship that got me over there,” Whiting said. “That changed my whole worldview. I said there’s more out there. I can do something with school.”
One of the first people who helped guide him when he arrived at Southwestern College was Janelle Williams, his first counselor. When he first enrolled at Southwestern College, Whiting immediately placed into remedial English and math courses, not the strongest start for someone still figuring out education. But Williams helped him to not get discouraged, told him to try again and to keep moving forward.
“That’s why having ethnic counselors and minority counselors is important, so hopefully students from different backgrounds can talk to someone who identifies with them, that looks like them,” Whiting said.
Those first couple semesters weren’t easy even after some much-needed guidance from Williams. Whiting was battling his personal demons, figuring out how to be a student and trying to leave his old life behind him.
“During my first or second semester, I was thinking of what it was like to be in jail all day or being out in the yard all day,” he said. “It gets kind of boring in class some times, but I would rather be here all day doing something with my life than be in jail all day.”
Today, Whiting said that the “old Steve” would barely recognize the “new Steve,” and it’s still hard for him to process how far he’s come. He says he remembers vividly running from the police, being shot at, days being locked up. He doesn’t try to forget those days or leave them behind. Instead, he uses them to empower himself and remind himself how hard he needs to work.
“I’m carrying a collective weight on my shoulders of people who are from the hood, not just me,” he said. “That right there pushes me. Not everyone has this opportunity.”