D’Karlos Craig overcame a number of obstacles — including being homeless — to earn his degree from UW-Eau Claire. He hopes to help universities become more diverse places.

If D’Karlos Craig feels discouraged or starts to doubt himself, the UW-Eau Claire senior knows exactly how to turn around those negative thoughts.

“I replay the image of sleeping in my car for four or five months and it reminds me how far I’ve come,” said Craig, a sociology major from Minneapolis. “It’s not been easy, but I’ve made it this far.”

It has taken more than seven years and two separate stints as a UW-Eau Claire student, but Craig graduated on Dec. 16 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UW-Eau Claire, making him the first person in his family — and in his circle of childhood friends — to earn a college degree.

“I come from a place where I didn’t see people doing what I’m doing,” Craig said. “I’m overcoming a lot of hurdles and I’ve made it this far, but I didn’t grow up hearing stories about people who have done this so I didn’t have a map.”

In 2010, a former UW-Eau Claire football coach first introduced Craig to UW-Eau Claire and convinced him he could be successful at the university.

“It was a last-minute decision to come here,” Craig said. “I was recruited to play football, met some guys here and decided it could work.

“I got here and it was a complete culture shock. I don’t think there were more than four African-American males on campus at the time. It was different from anything I knew. And then I got hurt about three months after I got here so I couldn’t play football anymore.”

Despite the culture shock and the injury, Craig worked his way through his classes, although he was not fully engaged in campus life.

A couple years into his college career, a loved one died. He was still reeling from that loss when he lost another loved one, and then another and another.

During a few short months in 2012, eight of Craig’s family and friends passed away. The deaths hit him hard, and his grief soon turned to a deep depression. 

He began to doubt himself and questioned whether he belonged at UW-Eau Claire after all.

Realizing he could not focus on his studies amid those challenges, Craig subsequently dropped out of school. 

However, he stayed in Eau Claire, working two different low-paying jobs to make ends meet. Still, he could not afford to pay his rent and soon found himself homeless.

For the next several months, Craig lived out of his car as he tried to heal himself and figure out what to do next.

Finding his place

Fortunately, for him, early in his time at UW-Eau Claire he had met Dennis Beale, a fellow student who quickly became a valued mentor and who now serves as coordinator of the College Success program at UW-Eau Claire.

While Craig doubted himself, Beale never gave up on him and continued to encourage him to give college another try.

“I knew my jobs were going nowhere and I still didn’t know what to do,” Craig said. “It was one of the most challenging times of my life. I was about two days away from packing up and going back to north Minneapolis when I talked to Dennis again. He encouraged me to come back, and this time I listened.”

Craig enrolled in an introduction to sociology class his first semester back and knew immediately that he had found the right academic fit. 

He participated in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, an immersion experience that takes UW-Eau Claire students to numerous places in the southern U.S. that are important to the country’s civil rights movement.

The experience was so powerful that he joined the group again the following year, but this time as one of the student coordinators. Visiting the civil rights sites and talking with people who played a role in the civil rights movement was life-changing, Craig said. 

Craig subsequently got involved in UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Beginnings program and began mentoring people on campus and in the community. 

More recently, he helped to form Black Male Empowerment, a group made up of African American men who are students at UW-Eau Claire.

“It’s a community of support,” Craig said of the group. “If we’re dealing with a social issue, there are multiple people in the group who can provide different perspectives or support. I like everything about it.”

Changing role

Transitioning from the role of mentee to mentor is empowering and rewarding, Craig said. As new students come to UW-Eau Claire from backgrounds similar to his own, he shares his stories, advice and support with them.

“I advocate for them, give them my experiences and stories so they can learn from them,” Craig said of the students he mentors. “The biggest thing is that they can talk to me about their problems and I get it. I also can tell them about resources on campus that can help.”

Craig said he is proud of the connections he made with young people in the community.

“I’m still in contact with some of the kids I mentored,” he said of the middle and high school youth he met through his work with Blugold Beginnings. “They text me to tell me about things going on with them or to wish me luck on a test. I just heard from one of them yesterday and it made my day.”

No limits

Craig is applying to graduate schools, with a goal of eventually working in higher education. He is especially interested in helping universities become more diverse.

A McNair Scholar, his research interests include racial disparities, retention and understanding institutional racism and its impact on African Americans.

While some people have tried to block him from opportunities, Craig said he chooses to focus instead on the many others who have supported him. 

“I’ve proven to myself that I can do many things,” he said. “If someone doubts me, that’s their limitation and not my own.”