Interviews
2:42 am
Fri June 15, 2012

A Single Dad And His Unlikely College Roommate

Originally published on Fri June 15, 2012 12:33 pm

In 1996, Wil Smith enrolled as a freshman at Maine's Bowdoin College. At 27, he had recently finished serving in the Navy. But he set off for school with his 1-year-old daughter, Olivia, in tow. Now that she's a teenager, Olivia sat down with her dad at StoryCorps to look back on their "college days" together.

"I wasn't planning on having you as my roommate," Wil tells Olivia. "I actually thought that if Bowdoin College knew I had you, they wouldn't let me come to college. So, I hadn't mentioned it to anyone."

To help make ends meet, he got a job working at a Staples office supply store, as a cleaner on the night shift.

"I had to take you in with me at work sometimes and hide you in the closet," Wil recalls with a laugh. "I think I lost something like 27 pounds, just from stress and not eating, because I didn't have enough for both of us."

Wil played for Bowdoin's basketball team. During the 1999 and 2000 seasons, he was the team's co-captain. And to help him focus on his studies, he got some help from his friends.

"My basketball teammates were my first baby-sitters," he says. "I just remember coming from class, and there were four giant guys — and then there was this 18-month-old who was tearing up the room."

Olivia asks, "Were you ever embarrassed bringing me to class? Or just having me in general?"

"I felt a little awkward, but never embarrassed," Wil says. "There were times when the only way I could get through was to come in and look at you and see you sleeping — and then go back to my studies."

Wil graduated from Bowdoin in 2000. He eventually became the school's associate dean of multicultural student programs, a post he kept for 10 years.

"My graduation day from Bowdoin is a day I'll never forget," he says. "You know, all of my classmates, they stood up and gave me the only standing ovation. "

"I remember walking up with you and having my head on your shoulder," Olivia says with a laugh.

"Yeah, the dean called both of our names as he presented us with the diploma."

"So, technically I already graduated from college," Olivia says.

"Nice try," Wil says. "The degree only has my name on it. So you still got to go."

Earlier this year, Wil Smith was diagnosed with cancer; he's now undergoing treatment for stage-three colon cancer. He also serves as the dean of community and multicultural affairs at Berkshire School in Massachusetts.

"I really admire your strength," his daughter says. "And I love you."

"I draw my strength from you," Wil answers. "I always have, and I still do."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.

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