Morehouse College salutatorian Ernest Nelson will never forget his college commencement last month where he shared the stage with President Barack Obama. Nelson was also Westover High School’s salutatorian in 2009.
ALBANY — Last month, as Morehouse College Salutatorian Ernest Nelson sat on the stage during the school’s Spring Commencement, he glanced down the front row of dignitaries and looked at keynote speaker President Barack Obama, who was sitting just feet away from him.
And what was his assessment of that moment?
“Wow,” Nelson answered, when asked what was going through his head. “I was thinking, ‘this can’t be real.’ But it was actually happening.”
Nelson, who graduated in pre-med at Morehouse, is accustomed to the stage. He was also Westover High School’s Salutatorian in 2009. He wasn’t however, really expecting the president to show up for his graduation at Morehouse.
“I found out that if you are going to be at arm’s length of the President of the United States, that the Secret Service is going to give you a pretty thorough going over. We’d invited him to come to the commencement, but we never thought it would take place until the Secret Service began calling.
“Then we knew it was really going to happen and made me look forward to sharing the stage with him.”
It was at this point that Nelson, who will begin his pursuit of a career in pediatric neurology or pediatric neurosurgery this fall at the Georgia School of Medicine, thought about why he was sitting on that stage in the first place.
“My teachers are a major reason I am where I am today,” Nelson said. “Pamela Jackson in math, Stacy Brunelle and Barbara Jack at Westover and Eartha Watkins in middle school have all been a tremendous influence on me,” Nelson said. “Mrs. Jackson was a great role model, she steadily reinforced and encouraged us to be our best and to get involved. The same goes for Mrs. Jack and Mrs. Brunelle.”
After graduating from Westover, Nelson had his pick of colleges, but chose Morehouse, a private, all-male, HBCU (historically black college or university) in Atlanta.
“I chose Morehouse because it is unique in that it is all-male,” Nelson said. “The leadership experience I have gained here, well, there is nothing like it in the world. Many people look at it as just another HBCU, but it’s more than that. Morehouse is concerned about the betterment of not only the African-American community, but of the whole world. It has a very strong biology program and has a legacy in pre-med.
“Plus, I also got a full ride,” he said, smiling.
As for the President’s address, Nelson said Obama talked about not having a role model growing up, and said urged the graduates to not only be role models for African-Americans, but for all mankind.
But Nelson said this excerpt from the President’s address, left a bigger impression on him:
“You wield something even more powerful than the diploma you are about to collect, and that’s the power of your example,” the President said. “So what I ask for you today is the same thing that I ask of every graduating class that I speak to: Use that power for something larger than yourself. Live up to President [Benjamin E.] Mays’ challenge. Be sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings and injustices of society and be willing to accept responsibility for correcting those ills.”
So, as Nelson prepares to take his next step into the future, is he surprised by where he is today?
“Not really,” he answered. “I knew where I’d be, I was just not sure of the path I would take to get here.”
Nelson, the son of Shalisa (an occupational therapist) and Ernest Nelson Sr. (a physician assistant) is also an accomplished clarinetist and alto saxophone player.
But the Secret Service didn’t ask about that.