It was supposed to be a slam dunk. Instead, as Brandon Fleming leaped for the basket, he felt the tearing of a tendon in his knee.
The injury severed his college basketball career before it began. With no interest in school outside of athletics, Fleming dropped out.
That was 2008.
Now, in 2014, Fleming is a Liberty University graduate and founder of the S.Y. Scholars, a college-preparation and leadership program that serves about 50 Lynchburg-area youth. He’s also a truancy prevention coordinator and teacher at E.C. Glass High School.
His radical change of attitude toward education serves as a template for what he wants to inspire in students.
“I’m a firm believer that if you can change a child’s mind, you can change their life,” he said. “What I endeavor to do is change the way these kids view school, to change the way these kids view life and to change the way the kids view themselves.”
Born in New York, Fleming grew up in the D.C. area and spent his final year of high school in South Carolina.
He earned an athletic scholarship to Liberty University, and then felt lost when an August training injury took away his chance at basketball glory.
His status as an athlete allowed him to skate through classes without learning in high school, he said. He lacked the knowledge and mindset to succeed in college. By October, he was gone.
After heading back home to South Carolina, he spent two years working in a vitamin factory. The painful drudgery of climbing up and down a ladder to pour vitamins into a machine convinced him that he had to find a way out.
Fleming’s current roommate, Walter E. Virgil Jr., met Fleming for a second time when he returned to Lynchburg in 2010 to pursue a degree at Liberty and returned to The Ramp Church where Virgil attended.
It was clear right away that something had changed.
“It's hard to be able to explain the look in the eyes of a young man who is now determined,” he said. “All in one look at someone’s face — it was evident that I was looking at a different guy.”
Fleming gave away his television and chose to spend his free time reading. He gambled that becoming a reader was his best chance at gaining the knowledge and skills he needed to succeed in his classes at Liberty.
In the midst of an inner renaissance brought on by all that reading, he had the idea for the college preparation program that would become S.Y. Scholars.
He started the program as a ministry of his church and named it after his pastor, the Bishop S.Y. Younger.
Today, it is a nonprofit organization with a 10-person volunteer staff and competitive application process for students. Fleming serves as president, while fellow Liberty University graduate Charmagne Scott is the director.
“One of the things I suggest to them is that you can be a scholar and have a vibrant personality,” Fleming said. “We can redefine what it means to be a scholar. I teach them that a scholar is a person who is a master at their own craft.”
Students and staff get together on Saturdays for workshops on life and academic skills and field trips to local colleges and museums. Sponsors sign up to reward students for good grades by contributing to college funds.
Corderius Cowans, the program’s career counselor, said he sees Fleming’s influence reflected in the students.
Some of the scholars have adopted Fleming’s same flattop haircut, Cowans said, and it’s just one little change in the midst of bigger ones, like improved grades.
He said he thinks Fleming’s past plays into how he connects with students.
“He can relate to some of those students who come in with those different types of struggles and those stories of defeat,” he said.
Fleming completed the coursework for his B.A. at Liberty in December 2012 and attended graduation in May.
He said he crammed as many required classes as possible into the span of 2.5 years. He barely pulled off finishing in that time, he said, because he was consumed with the S.Y. Scholars program and the needs and dreams of his young students.
Seeing Fleming grow and thrive has been a sweet experience for his friends.
“The only way you can be able to appreciate someone’s triumph and their victories is when you understand the defeats they've experienced,” Virgil said.
For more information about the S.Y. Scholars Program, visit www.sysprogram.org.
S.Y. Scholars Symposium, Saturday, Feb. 1
Lynchburg’s S.Y. Scholars are hosting a symposium entitled “The State of Education in America” on Saturday at Liberty University’s Williams Stadium Club Pavilion.
A panel of speakers representing Lynchburg area government, schools and colleges will discuss the state of education in the country today.
- Scott Brabrand, Lynchburg City Schools Superintendent
- Beth Parker Ackerman, Liberty University Dean of Education
- John Patterson, Liberty Christian Academy Superintendent
- Tracy Richardson, E.C. Glass Principal
- Michael Gillette, Lynchburg City Mayor
- Muriel Mickles, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Central Virginia Community College
- S.Y. Younger, Founder of J. Alfred Cage Bible Institute
- Jo Ellen Parker, President of Sweet Briar College
- Matthew Towles, English and Modern Languages Department Chair at Liberty University
Doors open at 6 p.m. and the program runs from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. It includes live jazz music and a banquet meal. To purchase tickets or for more information email firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Jessie Pounds at (434) 385-5561 or email@example.com.