After years of strife, fortunes have changed for this West Baltimore native with a college degree in hand, and a new life on the horizon.
Donovin Acaro Smith ’21, geography and environmental studies, was 11 years old when he did something bold. It was a sunny day. His school was taking a class trip to the local swimming pool, and parents were welcome to join. Smith’s mother, a honey-voiced woman named Sonia, thought there was a problem. As far as she knew, her son didn’t know how to swim; he however, disagreed. Along with some buddies, he sprinted and leaped into the pool water, as his mom screamed, “Noooooooo Donovin!”
But surprisingly, he wasn’t drowning, or even floating. He was swimming. It was a concerning, yet proud moment for his doting mother.
As he grew older, Smith’s boldness led him to more dangerous situations. At 18, he told his mom he was heading to a cookout with some friends, just minutes away from his grandmother’s place. Later that same night, he called to say that he was on his way to the hospital. He’d been shot twice, once in his left thigh, and once in his lower ribcage.
The pain didn’t hit him right away, perhaps because gunshots weren’t new to Smith;when he was a child, he witnessed his father’s shooting. “He was set up when I was four. Somebody had came in and shot him and he fell off the balcony and ever since then he’s been a parapelegic.”
But the event traumatized him.
“After he got shot for like a year he wouldn’t go out,” says Smith’s mother.
“He stayed in so much he ended up having a vitamin D deficiency,” she continues.
To this day, Smith has to manage with PTSD and Anxiety as a result of his youthful traumas.
An unimaginable future
Despite his turbulent childhood, in his late 20s, Smith following in his maternal grandmother’s footsteps pursued a new life focused around one goal, getting a four year college degree. By the time he was thirty two, he had one to his name, and a big smile on his face.
In addition to obtaining his degree, Smith buffed his resume during his time at UMBC, participating in 5 internships, and developing invaluable relationships with the people around him.
Smith’s advisor and teacher Matthew Baker, professor of geography and environmental systems, and associate dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, sums up his experience with Smith accordingly.
“Given the challenges he faced at the outset of his undergraduate program at UMBC, what he’s achieved is probably one of the greatest success stories that I’ve experienced in my 20 years of instruction.”
Even though he grew up just 20 minutes away from UMBC, Smith had to endure, and grow from his personal hardships before he enrolled in his first classes.
“Not to sound like a tough guy, but I guess those experiences from my dad numbed me, so when it happened to me, it didn’t really hurt. I was just trying to control my breathing so I could make it to the hospital,” says Smith on being shot.
Life continued to be tough for Smith, as he struggled to find purpose, and meaning in his life.
“Whatever lifestyle [my father] indulged in at the time, I saw those things firsthand. I guess once you keep seeing the same things over and over, it just sorta keeps resonating in you, so when I got to that age, I wanted to do the same thing,” even though his father frequently warned him about that lifestyle.
“Some things I was doing I didn’t feel right about, or I felt bad about. Maybe because of those circumstances, I was confused about what it means to be a human being,” he said.
The right people were around him from the start. His mother’s positive influence, and the love and support of other family members helped Smith through his most turbulent years.
By the time Smith got to high school, he realized he could “get anything I want up there.”
“What do you mean?” his mother asked,
“Mom, I can get anything I want. Guns, drugs, anything,” he replied.
His mother quickly transferred him to Pikesville High School, where he still got into trouble, but “it got much better” his mother says, “Without a doubt it changed his trajectory.”
Smith expresses regret at his lack of interest in academics during his high school days.
“I remember I used to walk into class, only thinking about getting through the day, I didn’t care what I learned about,” he said. “When I finally got to college, and I was in Chemistry class, I could see how excited those students were to be in there. I just thought to myself, wow man, this is foreign to me. I wish I developed that attitude way earlier.”
A new mind-frame for a new environment
Ultimately, he did develop a more positive attitude towards education. When he graduated from high school after being held back a year, Smith enrolled in the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). He struggled there, but he got through it, earning an associates degree. He then applied to a few four year institutions. When he got into UMBC, his mother said, “Wowww Donovin! You gotta do it.”
“At first, I was just [going to college] to keep my mother and grandmother off my back, and to try and make my father happy, to make sure he knew that I’m grateful for some of the mistakes he made for me to be where I’m at. Then, when I started believing this was real, and not some kind of unrealistic reach or a joke, I knew I was doing it for myself too,” says Smith.
But before he got to that stage, he had to work to adapt to a new atmosphere and new environment. “The biggest obstacle to be honest, for me, was building up my self esteem and feeling comfortable in my own skin. My first couple of years were rough. Like I might get a B or a C and then maybe like two D’s or an E. I was going to tutoring, I was trying. But I noticed when my self esteem went up, my grades improved and I skyrocketed and I never looked back,” he says.
How did he get his self esteem up? Through trial, error and trial again.
“The moment I started believing was when I was with a friend in a mapping class called GES 286. I ended up failing, and he got a D. But when we took it over the second time, I felt way more comfortable. When I started excelling in that class, that’s when I started feeling like I could do it,” he says.
“One of the things that has impressed me about Donovin the entire time that he was here was his resilience,” says Baker in GES, “his ability to bounce back from challenges, his perseverance and his absolute, unwavering dedication towards reaching his goals and because of those things it was really easy to support him, and it became an obligation to see that he did well.”
Anyone who has met Smith will know that his courteous behavior, and radiant smile go a long way to winning people over. Also helpful was Smith’s fearlessness in regards to asking questions.
“He was always really clear about why he was asking what he was asking, and what he was trying to understand. I think he was also willing to be humble about what he was learning so that he didn’t let embarrassment get in the way of his learning. As a result he made remarkable progress,” says Baker.
Interning his way up
Throughout his time at UMBC, Smith developed tremendous experience in his field, undertaking five separate internships since his second shot at life began at UMBC.
His first, was under the wing of Baker, where he researched sediment pollution in the Patapsco river. His most recent internship before graduation involved environmental research at the Smithsonian, researching environmental influences on barnacles.
“The most rewarding part for me was working next to and being close to doctors and biologists every day, asking them as many questions as I wanted so I could really learn from them,” says Smith.
“It taught me that you have to keep building your skills, learning how to compile fragments of information that might coincide with one another,” he continues.
Today, Smith sees his graduation from UMBC as his life’s crowning achievement. He describes his educational experience as a microcosm of his life as a whole. “There was a point at UMBC where my grades were looking so bad that I was about to switch to community college and try to come back. One of my highlights was being able to turn that around and just survive the tough academic atmosphere,” says Smith, who credits his mom, Dr. Baker, his friends and some of UMBC’s institutions who helped him succeed.
“The Retriever Learning Center (RLC) is where I did the majority of my tutoring and it was really helpful. But with me having anxiety and PTSD I had to get my questions off. I was trying to survive! Sometimes with so many students attending, there wasn’t enough time for me to get as much help as I wanted. Thankfully I was able to get accommodation from student disability services who granted me an individual tutor which made a big difference.”
Several months post graduation, he misses “being in the library, chilling with my friends. Even though we didn’t all have the same majors or classes, we really developed good study habits and it made me feel better than just being at the library by myself.”
To anyone that finds themselves in a similar position to the one he was in before attending UMBC, Smith recommends perseverance: “Give yourself a chance, and time to grow on your own. Separate yourself from your friends and environment and try to look at life from as many positive angles as possible.”
And with that perseverance “he’s on his way, he is on his way,” says Smith’s mother.