It is perhaps fitting Crystal Jones Brinson crosses the stage to receive her college degree May 20 in the Hytche Athletic Center, the building named for the late University of Maryland Eastern Shore president who has long inspired her.
“I made a promise to Dr. William Hytche that if I ever attended college, I’d attend UMES,” Brinson said. “I promised him that I’d honor him, and make my family proud.”
The 41-year-old Princess Anne native is a UMES degree candidate in sociology. The following day, she’s scheduled to participate in graduation exercises at Salisbury University, where she simultaneously worked on a second degree in social work – a unique, dual-track program offered by the two public universities.
A monumental accomplishment for someone who found public school befuddling because she struggled with dyslexia, “a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Brinson met Hytche as a child when both attended Metropolitan United Methodist Church adjacent to the UMES campus, and befriended his grandchildren. That put her regularly in his orbit and she remembers him talking about the importance of education.
“Having dyslexia and reading problems (were) somewhat embarrassing,” Brinson said. “I hid my disability for a long time, pretending as though it didn’t exist.”
“The thought of … a college degree, gaining a full-time professional career at one time was not in the cards for me,” she said. “I didn’t want anyone to know I struggled. There are some days now that I still struggle.”
After high school, Brinson joined the U.S. Army, which she said “made Dr. Hytche very proud. He reminded me that even when I returned home from my active service, education would still be available and just as important.”
Life has a way of getting in the way of best-laid plans and intentions. Brinson gave birth to her first child, who as an adolescent pushed her to keep the promise to Hytche she made before he was born.
Several years ago, she enrolled at Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury, where she befriended administrator Camesha Ann Handy, who helped her overcome the anxiety of taking on the challenging of earning an associate’s degree in chemical dependency counseling.
Brinson completed that task in 2019, the same year her son received his high school diploma.
Her mission, however, was not over.
“When I saw that I could achieve that, I decided to keep going,” Brinson said.
Seeing Brinson succeed at the next level “means everything to me,” said Handy, Wor-Wic’s student engagement director.
“I’m so proud of her,” Handy said. “Because of her age and all the challenges she’s faced, she’s proven to herself – and her family – that perseverance and hard work pays off.”
While working full-time as an office associate in the Wicomico County school system’s Title 1-early childhood program, Brinson enrolled in the UMES-Salisbury University sociology-social work program.
“This struggle, accompanied by the will and drive to be successful, brings me to this place,” she said. “I know what it’s like to want something, but not believe that you could attain it due to no fault of your own.”
“I know what it’s like to have the instructor call on you to interpret a chart that you can’t read; not because you don’t read, but because all the letters become jumbled.”
“I also know the feeling of, ‘I know I can do this’,” Brinson said. “I just need to keep moving forward. I just need to seek assistance. I only need to believe.”
“We all have a hidden disability; it’s called fear. Fear of what people will think, fear of what they’ll say, fear of how we’ll be perceived, fear that we’ll fail,” she said.
Over the years, Brinson has remained in touch with Hytche’s granddaughter, J’Naudia D. Hunter-Phillips, who lives in Houston.
“I have watched Crystal grow and overcome so many things that now bring her to the first pinnacle of her educational achievement,” Hunter-Phillips wrote in an e-mail. “To know from whence Crystal comes and to watch this crowning achievement, I know my grandfather … would be as proud of her as I am.”
Next up for Brinson is graduate school at Salisbury University, where next fall she will start work on a master’s in social work. She eventually wants to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership – at UMES.
“My dyslexic shell has been removed,” she said. “I don’t live in fear of it anymore. I have promises to keep and people to inspire.”