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Mecklenburg students cast their ambitions far and wide

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Top, Sean Mullins spent the summer performing on the drum line with DCI. Above, thanks to their grandmother Charlotte Carlton and parents who instilled a love of travel, Tristan and Tyler Williamson share a curiosity about the world — and plan to pursue a career goal in the diplomatic service. / July 26, 2017
No one’s future prospects should be determined by where they live. Yet according to census data, less than 20 percent of students graduating from rural high schools choose to pursue a post-high school baccalaureate degree or an educational program that could take them away from their home community.

Three students — Tyler and Tristan Williamson and Sean Mullins, all graduates of Bluestone High School — are pursuing dreams that most likely will pull them away from Mecklenburg County. That’s not to say they don’t love the place where they grew up. But as Tyler Williamson explains, he is not a tree; he has legs to take him far and wide, instead of roots that hold him in one place.

His brother Tristan explains their focus on the world beyond Southside Virginia by quoting a man he considers a mentor, former U.S. Trade Ambassador Richard Crowder, a native of Baskerville. “He once told me, ‘Why walk down a hallway when you can walk in a field,’” Tristan recalled.

The brothers envision a future in diplomatic service. Tristan hopes to some day become a future Secretary of State in a White House administration.

Sean Mullins wanted a chance to study and perform percussion with “the best of the best.” Before heading off to study music education at Radford University, Mullins spent the summer performing with DCI, Drum Corp International, an invitation-only drum and bugle corps. He is the first student from Bluestone High School to earn a place with DCI.

As a member of this elite 150-person ensemble, Mullins performed in competitions and parades up and down the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida. His travels will end in mid-August when he and fellow corps members compete in the DCI Championships. His group will square off against similar groups from across the United States, Canada, Central America, Asia and Europe for the title of World Champion.

The stated purpose of a DCI is “to provide a life changing experience for youth through the art of marching music performance.” Mullins is excited by that prospect, which he believes will make him a better musician and teach him lessons in teamwork.

Vernon Carter gave him his start, and time spent with Ricky Allgood as a member of the Bluestone High School Marching Barons helped him hone his skills, Mullins said. Otherwise, his drumming skills are for the most part self-taught.

He worked tirelessly to make it through the audition process: More than 8,000 young musicians apply for 3.500 spots. Those selected are then divided into 150-member drum and bugle corps. He is one of only five drummers in the tenor or quad line for his corps.

Rehearsals for the summer performances and competitions began in January. He had to learn cadences and music, both on his own and during periodic weekend band camps with other corps members.

A commitment and desire to be the best that drove him to audition for DCI, Mullins said, also led him to apply to Radford. The percussion instructor at Radford played with DCI and the student body includes a tenor drummer who won a DCI world championship with his corps group.

With the summer winding down, Mullins said he’s seen first-hand the benefits of hard work, and he will apply that knowledge to his studies at Radford and his future plans as a musical performer.

Tristan and Tyler are completing degrees in International Affairs at James Madison University. Tyler has added a concentration in French — a language he speaks fluently — to his degree. The brothers both graduate in December, with plans to earn Masters degrees.

Both young men took advantage of opportunities to study and work abroad while at JMU — Tyler in France and Tristan in South Africa. Tyler hopes to return to France where he will earn his Masters in International Diplomacy.

Tyler speaks with enthusiasm about his work with CASA, an immigration and educational services group in France that interviews candidates seeking asylum in France and helps immigrants assimilate into French culture. He noted the opportunities his time with CASA afforded him, such as his discussion with French Ambassador to Council of Europe, John Baptiste Mattei, about the United States’ recent exit from the Paris Climate Accord, and a conversation with Nigel Farage, a leader of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom.

Tristan tells how his time living and working with “My Vote Counts,” an organization that campaigns to improve the accountability, transparency and inclusiveness of elections and politics in South Africa. The experience broadened his understanding of South African culture and politics and economics outside the United States.

“Despite having one of the most inclusive constitutions,” he explains, “South Africa is still very tribal,” and its government policies and practices are often a reflection of tribal norms, not the constitution.

Tristan and Tyler both say their time abroad gave them a new perspective, in particular an understanding of how people living outside the United States perceive the country and its people.

All three young men credit their parents with laying the groundwork for their career choices. For Sean, his parents Chris and Kimberly Mullins of Skipwith enrolled him in music lessons at Carter’s Music School in Clarksville. Later throughout his high school years, they were active band parents.

Tristan and Tyler say their parents Chris and Charlene Williamson and grandmother Charlotte Carlton were the reason they love to travel — always taking summer trips or heading to Washington, D.C. They also impressed upon them the importance of education, etiquette and the need to be outgoing.

Despite a relative dearth of opportunities for youths growing up in Southside Virginia, these young men found ways to achieve and succeed.

Their advice for students wondering what the future holds includes these observations:

» Get informed and involved. Tristan and Tyler, in addition to their studies, participated in the College Republicans, volunteered on campaigns and helped to bring the Delta Phi Epsilon — a foreign service fraternity — to JMU;

» Don’t let where you come from define who you are, because once you get out into the world, that does not matter;

» Be open to change and new experiences;

» Don’t be afraid to travel.

The best advice, Tristan and Tyler say, came from their father Chris, who told them: “In order to know people worth knowing, you have to be educated.”

To teachers and school administrators in Mecklenburg County, Tristan and Tyler offer the following advice: focus on coming together for the students and the region, and consider getting involved in a foreign exchange program. All three believe that when teachers, parents and administrators expect more, students achieve more.

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