Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: A young, black scholar leaves his mark at Pacific Lutheran University

Pacific Lutheran University

I get worn out just looking at Jonathan Adams’ résumé.

At only 21, and on the cusp of graduation from Pacific Lutheran University, the Mount Tahoma High School alum and sociology major’s long list of accomplishments is impressive.

He’s studied abroad, in Trinidad and Tobago.

As the Youth Engagement Coordinator at PLU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service, he developed late-night programming geared toward underprivileged and minority middle school students.

As a Rieke Fellow and president of PLU’s Diversity Center, he’s helped students and faculty thoughtfully grapple with some of the pressing issues of our time — social justice, diversity and identity.

As a Youth Outreach Coordinator for the local nonprofit Fab Five, he’s helped Tacoma’s college students of the future — many of whom face the same challenges he’s overcome, as a kid from a South Tacoma neighborhood not known for academic achievement — follow in his footsteps.

And as an activist, he’s focused on issues of race, gender and equity, often working across societal barriers to help bring people together.

The résumé goes on. And on.

“He’s been very active for the whole time he’s been here. He’s just sort of involved in everything,” PLU President Thomas Krise offers. “He’s become a great example of the kind of leaders that we’re proud of. … He’s a great example of a Lute.”

He’s been very active for the whole time he’s been here. He’s just sort of involved in everything. He’s become a great example of the kind of leaders that we’re proud of. … He’s a great example of a Lute.

PLU President Thomas Krise

On Saturday, what Adams describes as a “four very long, great years” at PLU will culminate with him serving as the student speaker during the university’s commencement program at the Tacoma Dome.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t take credit for stumbling on Adams. PLU brought his story to me, a testament to the impact he’s had at the school. Krise credits Adams with helping “spur institutions like like PLU to action” on initiatives of diversity and inclusion — including taking leadership roles in campus conversations relating to the Black Lives Matter movement and important LGBT issues.

And while I like a feel-good story as much as the next sap columnist — and especially a feel-good commencement speech story, given that it is the season for them — it was Adams’ indomitable will and spirit that most intrigued me.

I asked Adams — who’s unique in his accomplishments at PLU, and also in his identity as a black, gay man at the largely white, private liberal arts school — about the message he’ll deliver during his commencement remarks this weekend.

“The work that you put out will live beyond you. Because that’s legacy,” he humbly told me, sitting in a quiet corner of PLU’s Anderson University Center.

“How can you really bask in that moment, and grow?”

Growth is something Adams knows well. It wasn’t long ago that a kid who worked two jobs in high school just to help his family get by wasn’t sure college was in his future.

“I knew I was smart. I knew I had something to offer the world. But there really wasn’t anyone who exercised my brain,” he says. “I thought you just graduate high school, get a job, and that is your life. That was kind of the trajectory I was on.

“I didn’t think about (college) until senior year,” he continues. “It was more or less like, ‘You have to find money to go to college, because we can’t afford it.’ So I was just like, that’s ruled out, because nobody has $100,000 in their back pocket.”

For Adams, the turning point was a visit to Mount Tahoma by PLU’s step team. His interest in joining the dance troupe got him thinking about attending PLU. He later received a full-ride ACT 6 scholarship that made college possible. Locally sponsored by the Northwest Leadership Foundation, the program works with five colleges across the state and targets “emerging urban and community leaders.”

Adams — who plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work through online courses offered by the University of Southern California next year while staying in Tacoma to continue his work in the community — was one of five students to receive an ACT 6 scholarship at PLU that year.

Liberal arts schools have a population that is traditionally … not always synonymous with racial diversity. Jonathan brings an important perspective to the classroom, and a cultural perspective to the broader PLU community.

PLU Director of Multicultural Recruitment Melannie Cunningham

PLU Director of Multicultural Recruitment Melannie Cunningham, who oversees the school’s ACT 6 program that attracts some 350 applications each year, remembers Adams’ selection well. Four years later, she says he’s “exceeded my expectations.”

“Liberal arts schools have a population that is traditionally … not always synonymous with racial diversity,” she says. “Jonathan brings an important perspective to the classroom, and a cultural perspective to the broader PLU community.

“To have this young man on campus, in the classroom, in extracurricular activities, winning awards, it is necessary,” Cunningham continues. “With the stereotype that’s out there of black men ... and the way black men are being portrayed, it is so necessary to present an alternative. Jonathan’s presence on campus, and that of other black male scholars, is important to changing and shifting that paradigm.”

Which brings us back to legacy, the subject of Adams’ commencement speech on Saturday.

“For me, once I leave your presence, or once you leave my presence, I should remember you,” Adams explains of the worldview that guides him.

At PLU, by all indications, Adams won’t soon be forgotten.

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