GRADUATION SPOTLIGHT: Whitehead Falls Down, Gets Back Up to Graduate

May 1, 2024

By LaTunya Evans, Communications Specialist 

LaPatrick Whitehead understands better than most how quickly one wrong decision can change a person's life. 

In April 2021, Whitehead found himself in a six-by-eight-foot jail cell instead of the comfort of his dormitory.  

Whitehead was incarcerated for six months in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (Rankin County), but he refused to let that lousy chapter be the final page of his story. His resilience and determination to overcome this setback is truly inspiring. 

On May 4, 2024, at 8 a.m. Whitehead will receive his degree in Engineering Technology from Mississippi Valley State University, proving that his bump in the road did not detour his focus on graduating college. 

“I knew my family was disappointed in me because of what I did, so I had to do something to make them proud again,” said Whitehead.   

The Canton, Mississippi native attended Canton High School and graduated in May 2018. Following graduation, Whitehead knew he wanted to attend a university, but his ACT score created an obstacle to his acceptance.  

Not easily defeated, Whitehead searched for a solution. Upon his search, he learned about the Emerging Scholar Program at MVSU, which was directed by Larry Kinds, Sr., Director of Developmental Studies and Academic Support. The Emerging Scholar Program allowed high school graduates who did not meet the regular admission criteria to attend a university. 

Excited, Whitehead jumped at the opportunity and began the program in the Summer of 2018. During his time in the program, Whitehead recounted abundant support, encouragement, and information about MVSU. 

“While in the program, much of the material was familiar; but I did struggle with exams. Still, I learned a lot about Valley, and my love for the university grew,” explained Whitehead. 

After completing the program, Whitehead was admitted into the university as a full-time student. After focusing so much time and energy on achieving university acceptance, Whitehead realized he hadn’t declared a major.  

"When I started at Valley, I was undecided on a major, but I knew I had to have one, so I began looking into majors that would allow me to earn more money after graduation," he said. 

After careful research, Whitehead decided on Engineering Technology. As he drove deeper into his major, his passion for Engineering grew. 

During his time at MVSU, Whitehead created many bonds and attended a variety of college functions on campus and off campus.  

Unknowingly to him, after one college event in October 2020, the path he was creating for his life would be interrupted by a significant obstacle.  

"It was a Saturday during the COVID pandemic, and a few of my friends, my roommate, and I were bored. We decided to go to visit another campus for a party. After the party, some things happened that led to me being arrested and receiving charges," Whitehead recalled. 

In April 2021, Whitehead was sentenced to two years in prison, but he only served six months of his sentence. 

According to Whitehead, the experience in prison was all new to him because he was the first of his friends and family to be incarcerated, so there was no one he could talk to for advice. He faced numerous challenges, from adapting to the strict routines and rules to dealing with the isolation and separation from his loved ones. Because of this, Whitehead decided that showing no fear was best for his safety.  

“Prison was more of learning to adapt and showing no fear. No matter what you were going through, you couldn’t show it because you didn’t want to look soft. You always had to be a strong person,” he said. 

Though Whitehead displayed a hardcore demeanor to the other inmates, his friends and family saw a different side of him. When conversing with them, Whitehead thoroughly expressed his various experiences in prison. Regardless of the matter, they always listened to him.  

He said, "Every time I called, they answered my calls. I always informed them about what I was going through, good or bad, and they always listened." 

His friends and family, including his mom, Sylvia Whitehead; aunt, Shonnon Whitehead; uncle, Ted Whitehead; and grandma, Tuwaine Whitehead, were his pillars of strength, providing emotional support and encouragement throughout his journey.  

Being a fantastic listener for Whitehead, his friends and family were the first to know about his determination to complete the degree he had started. 

"Going to prison was a small hiccup on the road, but going back to school and finishing my education was always an option for me. I always told my mom, aunts, uncles, and grandmother when they visited me or we talked on the phone that I was returning to school for my degree. They always told me they would support me whenever I was ready, " replied Whitehead.  

The unwavering support from his mom, Sylvia Whitehead; aunt, Shonnon Whitehead; uncle, Ted Whitehead; and grandma, Tuwaine Whitehead, and his desire to make them proud gave Whitehead extra determination to finish his degree. Their support and belief in him were instrumental in his journey, and he is deeply grateful for them. 

After his support system encouraged his decision, Whitehead had one more person to notify. Dr. Antonio Brownlow, Chair/Assistant Professor of Engineering Technology, was the person he had informed of his situation before withdrawing from MVSU. 

According to Whitehead, Dr. Brownlow believed he would return to finish his degree and supported him whenever he was ready.  

"Before withdrawing from school, Dr. Brownlow always told me, 'I'm going to make sure you graduate whenever you're ready to come back.' He has always been very supportive and has helped keep me focused," Whitehead said with appreciation. 

Sticking to his word, Dr. Brownlow helped Whitehead transition back into school after being released. This involved a series of meetings and discussions to ensure Whitehead's smooth reintegration into the academic environment. Dr. Brownlow also provided additional academic support and resources to help Whitehead catch up on the coursework he had missed during his absence.  

Whitehead's appreciation for Dr. Brownlow remains strong today. According to Whitehead, he is very thankful and honored that Dr. Brownlow selected him to tell his story for the MVSU graduation spotlight. 

Lively and gratifyingly, Whitehead said, "I appreciate Dr. Brownlow for choosing me for the spotlight. I know I have an interesting story that someone could learn from or be positively influenced by, so I'm glad I agreed to do it. It was worth it."  

The recognition of his journey through the graduation spotlight not only validated his efforts but also served as a testament to the power of resilience and determination in the face of adversity. 

With tons of love, support, and determination, Whitehead started his journey at MVSU for a second time in August 2022. His story is a testament to the power of second chances, instilling hope and optimism in those who may be facing similar challenges. 

In the beginning, the transition was not easy for Whitehead. He recalled feelings of nervousness and embarrassment riding his back after returning to campus because people knew about him being incarcerated. With the help of friends, Whitehead’s nervousness and embarrassment quickly dissipated. 

"My friends have been a big support. They always express how proud they are of me and how glad they are that I returned to school. I appreciate my friends Tyzaris (Armon), JQuan (Williams), Andre (Williams), Kameron (Spencer), and Caleb (Brunson) for helping me through all of this,” Whitehead expressed with gratitude. 

Since returning to school, Whitehead has had intern and job opportunities. Grateful for them all, he plans to take advantage of the job opportunities after graduating this May. 

“I’ve interned with RC Construction, and they gave me an offer for after I graduate. I am also interested in working for Turner Construction,” he said. 

While going to prison was never part of his life plans, Whitehead said he had learned from his mistakes and believed that people could always use a second chance to right their wrongs. 

"Whatever you want to do, I say go for it, even if you have been to prison. Do not let one obstacle stop you, and show the system that everyone who goes to prison is not a bad person or criminal. We are people who made a mistake, but with second chances, we can get back on the right path," said Whitehead.