RENNERT — Artie Stewart knows how difficult it can be to get to graduation day in May.
Stewart will graduate Tuesday from Robeson Community College with an associate degree in Business Management. He tells his story to inspire others to further their education and to improve their lives.
It’s been 10 years since vision loss sidelined Stewart from the world of work. He is totally blind in one eye and has very, very poor vision in the other.
It’s been 11 years since he got a kidney transplant that freed him from a routine of dialysis three times a week.
“I’d rather be breaking rocks on a chain gang than in dialysis,” Stewart said with a laugh.
And, it’s been 33 years since he last engaged with higher education, dropping out of UNC Pembroke after two years. He said it’s like he lived in a cave all those years and emerged to find a brave new world.
Stewart is 57, which by itself is an obstacle to academic success. Academics invented a polite word for students like him — non-traditional. Retention and degree completion among non-traditional students usually lags behind their younger, traditonal counterparts.
But succeed Stewart did. He earned three scholarships along the way, from Mountaire Farms, Lumbee Guaranty Bank, and BB&T, and he earned top honors this spring.
Stewart was named RCC’s Business Student of the Year at UNCP’s annual Business Visions Awards Banquet. He also earned RCC’s 2018 Student of Excellence Award.
It’s possible there has never been a 3.2-grade-point average that was so hard earned.
“It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done,” Stewart said. “My vision was a problem.
“Doctors told me to stay on the computer for three or four hours a day,” he said. “I worked on the computer probably 16 hours a day, sometimes all night.”
In online discussion groups, one of Stewart’s young classmates said he wrote “short stories” for answers.
“These 18- and 19-year olds would write one or two sentences, and I would get an ‘A,’” he said. “I always advised them that hard work is the key.”
If Stewart encouraged his classmates, there were two people closer to him whom he inspired even more — his wife, Fanina, and son, Jacob. The threesome are an RCC family.
“I enrolled when Jacob was accepted to Early College at RCC, because I thought he would need motivation,” he said. “That was the whole purpose of my going back to school.”
At the same time, Fanina’s progress toward a degree at RCC was losing momentum. With the family behind her, Fanina graduated in 2017 with a degree in Business Management.
“I told her that ‘if the old man can do it, you can too,’” Stewart said. “The same goes for Jacob.”
By all accounts, Jacob, who is a junior at Early College, is doing well. He will attend his second enrichment program at Michigan State University this summer.
Artie’s success is deeply rooted in family history and the support he got from professionals and from RCC.
“Both my parents were college graduates and teachers,” he said. “I’m sure it broke their hearts when I dropped out of college. I wish they could see me graduate.”
Stewart had found a niche in the restaurant business, and the paycheck proved irresistible. He worked for several restaurant chains in North Carolina and South Carolina, including Lumberton’s Cracker Barrel.
When he became sick, help came from many people and places. Shelton Clark and Michael Locklear at Vocational Rehabilitation were critical. From the Division of Services for the Blind, Amanda Crawford got him adaptive software that magnifies words on his computer screen.
At RCC, the list of people who helped Stewart begins with Becky Howell, who tutored him on the computer.
“I never would have made it without her,” he said. “At the start, I was like a 2-year-old on the computer.”
Stewart also credits Patricia Locklear in RCC’s admissions office, and George Pate and Audra Harris in the Business Department.
“These are good people who made it possible for me to succeed,” he said. “RCC is a great school.”
Stewart is well known at RCC, said President Kimberly Gold.
“Artie is a real inspiration,” Gold said. “We’ve asked him to speak to different groups. He is a very positive person.” He sets goals, and regardless of the challenges, he succeeds.
“Every time I talk with Artie, I am inspired,” Gold said. “He really works at being a role model for other students.”
One other person got a shoutout from Stewart — Kenneth Locklear. Stewart underwent 17 months of dialysis before a kidney donor was found.
The donor, Kenneth Locklear, lived down the street from Stewart, and they sang in the choir together at Zion Hill Baptist Church.
Locklear said God led him to donate a kidney to Stewart. God may have had a hand in their sharing the same rare type B blood.
By the time of the transplant, Stewart was in poor health and had lost a lot of weight. Diabetes was racking his body.
With a new kidney, Stewart was able to return to work until his eyesight deteriorated. There are a couple of lessons, he says.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself,” Steward said. “Also, I’d like to remind people of the importance of organ donor programs.”
Commencement is a time to celebrate accomplishments and look to the future. Artie and Fanina have made their plan for the future.
“We’re going to UNCP to study business,” Stewart said. “We will keep each other motivated.”
Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]