Keith Sheppard

Senior Social Work Major Keith Sheppard Goes from Gang to Graduation in 2020

Keith Sheppard was 17 when he experienced the longest two hours of his life. He’d been hanging out with a Crips sect in Newark for a year, having been brought into the street gang by his cousin, when he was held at gunpoint by a rival sect while waiting on their block. Fortunately, no shots were fired, and the standoff ended in a brawl in which no one was badly hurt.

“I was still pretty green. It was definitely a scary moment,” said Sheppard.

The incident embodied the difficult time Sheppard had from his adolescence to mid-20s, when he bounced among five high different schools and had brushes with the law. But when he turned 24 and his daughter was born, that all changed. He went to community college and earned an associates degree in Sociology, then attended Rutgers University–Newark and completed a B.A. in Social Work, becoming the first in his family to graduate college this spring. His achievement is testament to his hard work and perseverance, as well as RU-N's commitment to supporting students from underserved populations in Newark and beyond.

“My daughter taught me the value of life. And Rutgers-Newark gave me support and an opportunity. Without them I would not be here today,” said Sheppard.

Sheppard grew up in Newark, one of three children raised by a father who was a Newark Police Department detective and a mother who worked the deli counter at a nearby A&P supermarket. His father, who served 30 years on the force and is now retired, was assigned to the 4pm–midnight shift for much of his career, missing out on time with his family. Meanwhile Sheppard, who attended St. Benedict’s Prep for middle school and did well there, was going through a rebellious streak. He insisted on leaving St. Benedicts and transferring to West Side High School, where he flunked out in ninth grade, beginning a downhill slide that lasted through his mid-20s.

To repeat his freshman year, Sheppard transferred to Bloomfield High School. While there he began hanging out with his cousin’s gang. Three weeks into his sophomore year he brought a knife to school for protection after someone discovered he was a Crip. The knife fell out of his pocket in class, the teacher reported him, and he was expelled from school. Sheppard had hoped to play football for the school team, but by court order he spent the rest of the year at an alternative school for troubled kids in Irvington, NJ, that ended up being a wash academically.

The following year Sheppard attended North Plainfield High School after his parents moved the family to that suburban enclave. He relished the new beginning and was looking forward to joining the football team when, a month into fall semester, a fight broke out in a hallway. Sheppard and others were watching when a teacher grabbed his arm, which he pulled away reflexively as he left for class. She accused him of pushing her and got him expelled. He was home-schooled the rest of his junior year by teachers who came to the family's home each afternoon.

“I was really sad. I missed football season and had no chance to make friends in this new suburban place,” said Sheppard.

He was not allowed back as a senior and instead attended night school, earning a traditional diploma in 2005 but gaining little educationally. The following fall he started at Raritan Valley Community College, passing his remedial classes as a freshman but pulling out after his sophomore year due to lack of interest: He’d been working two jobs and hanging with the gang, and had further brushes with the law, a pattern that continued from 2007 to 2011, when his daughter, Nylah, was born.

My daughter taught me the value of life. And Rutgers-Newark gave me support and an opportunity. Without them I would not be here today.

That’s when Sheppard took stock of his life and decided to use his experience to help others. 

He left the gang and enrolled at Union County Community College, earning an associates degree in Sociology while living at home, raising his daughter and working two jobs. He then transferred to RU-N in 2016, at age 30, where he received a RU-N to the Top scholarship that covered all four years of his tuition, along with a New Jersey Equal Opportunity Fund (EOF) grant.

Sheppard focused exclusively on his coursework at RU-N, diving deep into the Social Work curriculum while sampling electives in African-American Studies, Sociology and Music Culture. He forged deep connections with his Social Work professors, EOF counselor and academic advisor from the Office of Academic Services.

“Professors Audrey Redding-Raines and Elizabeth Sloan Power were tough but so supportive and encouraging,” said Sheppard. “And Cynthia Hawkins from OAS and Carl Milton from EOF guided me and were motivational. They were all instrumental for me.”

In 2018 Sheppard complemented his coursework with a full-time position as a childcare counselor at Bonnie Brae, a residential treatment facility for at-risk boys in Liberty Corner, NJ, a half-hour from Newark, a job he still holds today. The work is challenging and requires tons of patience, but Sheppard is devoted to the kids, who yearn for the kind of connection and mentorship he brings to the job. For him, it’s more than a paycheck: He strives to make a difference in their lives.

“I want to give back to these kids and be a role model,” said Sheppard. “Many of them were born with strikes against them and have been neglected or abused, and that makes me want to be there and be a voice of change for them.”

While completing his Social Work degree, Sheppard also did a 16-hour-per-week internship at a Family Support Organization of Union County, in Plainfield, NJ, working with parents and families.

As he earned his degrees, Sheppard’s parents and siblings stepped in to help him raise his daughter, and he and his father currently are putting together a new venture: a nonprofit called Straighten Up Now (SUN), which will provide mentoring and programming for at-risk youth in Newark. Sheppard’s father came up with the idea and is funding it, and Sheppard will oversee the social work component. While they gradually build that, Sheppard plans on gaining additional fieldwork experience and earning his master’s degree in Social Work. 

Sheppard’s future looks bright.

“Life is beautiful and what you make of it. I’m glad I went to Rutgers-Newark and am blessed to have graduated,” said Sheppard. “My professors, advisors and classmates were great, and I’m so excited about the road ahead of me. I want to give back to society and youth as best I can.”