By Ro Wright
Grambling St. University President, Rick Gallot, made a surprise appearance in a Zoom Virtual Video meeting to honor one of his Spring graduates. That graduate, Andrew Jones, would’ve graduated on May 8 with his classmates at the Hobdy Center for Spring Commencement but due to Corona Distancing precautions, all college public graduations have been canceled.
Jones made national news in 2016 when he was denied the right to graduate as a Senior at Amite High School in Amite, LA because he refused to shave his mustache and small beard. The story created so much controversy it drew the likes of CNN, USA Today, Huffington Post, and hundreds of news outlets around the world.
The school’s policy required graduates to remove all facial hair. Jones complies by shaving his face but he neglected to remove his mustache and beard. The story drew international attention because Jones was not only graduating but he was the Valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA, Student of the Year, and Captain of the school’s football team. With so many academic accomplishments it was even more disturbing that the school hadn’t done anything to help Jones retain any scholarships at all.
In 2016, New Orleans Musician and Author, Ro Wright, was presented the case by his large social media base. Wright reached out to Julie Smothers, Andrew’s mother, and asked for permission to help him get a scholarship. With the family’s approval, Wright put a team together to help Jones get a scholarship. Senator Katrina Jackson spearheaded the Andrew Jones Team and helped to secure him a full scholarship to Grambling St. University.
“When Ro brought this case to my attention I knew we had to respond urgently,” said Jackson who put a plan in place to not only help Jones but provide financial assistance for his family as well. Wright and Jackson even reach out to Rich Motors of New Orleans who gave Jones a car, paid in full. “An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. We have a responsibility to respond to injustice, especially when it prohibits our youth from obtaining higher education,” she added.
At that time Dr. Willie Larkin was Grambling’s President but he was replaced by Rick Gallot just a few months later. When Gallot took the helm he was aware of the Andrew Jones situation and made sure Grambling honored their commitment to Jones. “I heard about how this young man was treated and we wanted to make sure he received an opportunity to get his degree because he worked hard and he earned it,” said Gallot.
The climate in Jones’ hometown was very unbalanced in 2016. While family and friends were proud of him, the School Board and political leaders hated the negative attention they received because of the Jones case. He was told he would not make it. He was told he should just get a job and forget about college. He was told he was a problem starter and the whole thing could have been avoided.
One hidden issue under all the doubt and confusion is that Andrew Jones also became a father during his senior year in High School. That was another part of the story administrators thought was embarrassing. But it didn’t stop Jones from being a star athlete as well as the smartest kid in the entire school district.
Fast forward four years to 2020, Andrew is now graduating from Grambling. Wright has kept in touch with him over the years and acted as a Life Coach and Mentor to him. “I thought the way this kid was treated was completely unfair. As an artist, we have a responsibility to use our platform and fan base as a voice for the voiceless. Andrew deserves more than what was given to him and today he proved many of us were right about him. He is a champion,” said Ro Wright.
On May 11, Wright wanted to salute Andrew for a job well done. Jones joined Wright in a Zoom Virtual Conferencing Call expecting a talk to his mentor in a casual call. He had no idea he’d be joined also by Senator Katrina Jackson, who joined the call live from the State Capitol in Baton Rouge with several state leaders waving to salute Jones.
The tidal wave occurred when Jones assumes the conversation was over not knowing Ro had President Rick Gallot hidden on stand by. When President Gallot popped up on the screen, Jones’ eyes grew bigger in shock and amazement that the President of the University was speaking directly to him.
Gallot, dressed in full robe and graduation attire, stood in front of a podium in front of the Grambling Seal and gave a private commencement speech specifically for Andrew and pronounced him a graduate. “It was an honor to do this because Andrew has made us so proud. He is symbolic of what a young man can do with just a few people who believe in him. His story defines our motto. “Grambling is a place where everybody is somebody,” said Gallot.
Andrew is still an active father and plans to continue higher education. However, he was surprised when the President announced unexpected news. Not only did Andrew graduate with honors, he is also Cum Laude.