DOVER — When he graduated Saturday, Erich Gillespie Jr. became a small part of Wesley College history: he’s the first African-American male to receive a math degree from the college.
Mr. Gillespie said that he had never considered that milestone until a professor mentioned it.
“I never really thought about it because it’s not a very high ethnic-dominated area, math,” he said. “And I never thought about it that there was nobody in my classes that was African-American — that was doing well, anyway — until two weeks ago when my teacher brought it up.”
Mr. Gillespie decided to major in math when he was a senior at Caesar Rodney High School in 2008. Then a senator, Barack Obama was campaigning for president. Mr. Gillespie recalled a speech Sen. Obama made then, a call for more minority males to study math and science.
“I started thinking. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college,” he said. “I’m good at math. So why not?”
But in college, he didn’t just study differential equations or abstract algebra.
Mr. Gillespie is active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on campus, which he credited with turning his life around. The FCA is an inter-denominational group, a strong support system for college sports players. Members meet once a week and discuss ethics, how to be a better person and a better player.
“I learned how to forgive. I learned how to play for a purpose bigger than myself — I used to be selfish,” he said.
As a student liaison for the organization, he tried to give back in return. He has delivered speeches to local churches, the Dover High football team, and at the Wesley Society Gala.
He also played football, wrote for the student newspaper, tutored students in Spanish and math; Mr. Gillespie stays busy. He never takes the hours in the day for granted, he said.
He doesn’t really take anything for granted. Growing up was rough — he and his four brothers didn’t have much. He remembered his brother stealing cans of soup from Walmart to feed the family for a week. He wore the same clothes to school every day.
He doesn’t like to think about it.
“I don’t think people are aware how poor some people in Dover are,” Mr. Gillespie said. “There was no outreach. There was no community program. No school programs for us.”
But he remembered reading books when he was a kid — he didn’t have a TV — about people with different lives. They had money. Families went to Disney World.
“A lot of people in Dover just get so — one track, either violence, crime, or drugs,” he said. “That’s all I saw. And I’m like, ‘This can’t be the only way out.’”
A diploma, it turned out, was the answer.
“It made me appreciate education the most,” he said, “Because I found out there’s a way you can get out of that. And that’s by educating yourself. So I try to pick up as many classes as I can.”
Now Mr. Gillespie works at an after-school program at the YMCA, where he helps kids tackle math homework or plays sports with them.
And that’s how he knew he wanted to be a teacher.
He is about to start the Masters of Art in Teaching program at Wesley and he plans to be a high school teacher, maybe a college professor one day. He has a minor in writing, so he wants to teach English or math, he said.
But this weekend, he’s just happed to be done with college.
“It’s a huge weight off of your shoulders. A lot of people say that it flies by, but it didn’t. It was very long,” he said. “These math classes — the higher level ones — it’s kind of depressing, honestly. They take a toll on you.”
Staff writer Eleanor La Prade can be reached at 741-8242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.