NORMAL — Kenneth Porter's road to graduation from Illinois State University had a lot more twists and turns than most of the approximately 3,700 students participating in commencement ceremonies Friday and Saturday.

For one thing, he has to miss commencement for a trip to Japan — courtesy of an assignment from the U.S. Naval Reserves, which he joined to help pay for his education.

But that's only one of the twists.

Porter called coming to ISU “one of the best decisions of my life.”

“I would like to call it a second chance, but it was my only chance,” he said. “It was ISU or bust.

“Someone like me was never supposed to be here in the first place,” said Porter, who received the diploma cover for his master's degree a week early in a special presentation from ISU President Larry Dietz.

“I did a terrible job in high school,” he said. “I failed everything but gym and computers” his freshman year at Morgan Park High School in Chicago's far south side.

He planned to drop out. However, Porter decided to turn himself around when his mother looked at him and asked, “Is this it?”

Taking honors and advanced placement courses wasn't enough to raise his grade point average.

“I got denied by every single school but ISU,” he said. "They didn't take me just by the numbers."

Porter had met Marlon Snipes, Chicago regional specialist for ISU's admissions office, when Snipes visited Porter's school.

“I basically just begged him,” Porter said of his meeting with Snipes. “I made my case. … He just said, 'Fine, I'll take a chance.'”

Despite his dismal freshman grades, Porter had taken challenging classes the rest of his time and scored a 24 on the ACT college entrance exam.

“I felt, if given a chance, he was going to make the best of it,” Snipes said, explaining why he advocated for Porter's admission. “I knew he had the potential and he had the drive. … I'm proud of him.”

Porter did well at ISU his freshman year, but didn't have the money to continue. He enlisted in the Naval Reserves, seeing the military as a way to serve and pay for school.

After basic training and seven months of mobilization, he returned to ISU in the spring for his sophomore year. At first, it was difficult to readjust.

“I connected here in this room,” he said while sitting in the Veterans Study Center, which opened in Moulton Hall in September 2012. He also became involved in Veterans at Illinois State, a registered student organization.

John McHale, associate professor of communications, said he has extra appreciation for students with military experience.

“Ken had gone out and seen the real world and brought that back to the classroom,” said McHale, who encouraged Porter to go to graduate school.

Porter was a student in McHale's class and completed an independent study with him. As a graduate student, he was a teaching assistant for McHale.

“Not only does he show poise in the classroom, he has emphathy for students, too,” McHale said.

Porter made his mark in the classroom and out.

He won several awards at ISU, including the Commitment to Diversity Legacy of Leadership Award for graduate students. He has been president and, most recently, adviser to the campus chapter of the NAACP.

He credits the sacrifices of his mother, Jacqueline Porter, and support of ISU faculty and staff.

"I've been able to reach out to people and they've been responsive," he said.

With a master's degree in communications and a bachelor's degree in public relations, Porter would like to work on progressive education issues in Chicago and fight for students in all parts of the city to get an equal education. But the petty officer with one year left in his Navy commitment hasn't ruled out staying in the military.

“I think I've been successful because I haven't had a specific goal,” Porter said. “I've been open to opportunities along the way.”

McHale has another idea for Porter.

“I see him running for state senator from Chicago,” McHale said. “Ken has the poise, the intelligence and the leadership skills we need more of in this country.”

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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