05/25/2012 05:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Black, Gay, HIV-Positive... And Now a College Graduate!

I don't think I can do this.

This is what I told myself as I finished my first class of my freshman year at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies (NYU SCPS). The words were familiar to me, having echoed throughout my life. It started with my first try at college, when, upon seeing my straight-A report card, my family told me not to let it go to my head. In my family academic achievement was not a huge goal.

Life fed me another slice of negativity when I was told that I was HIV-positive. This revelation gave birth my to my words of doubt; at just 18 years old, I felt that I'd been dealt an unfair hand. I was supposed to have had an open world in front of me, one with unlimited possibilities, but instead I found myself looking in the mirror and seeing, staring back at me in my reflection, qualities that I felt doomed me to fail: I was a gay black man with HIV.

I don't think I can do this.

My mother had a feeling that I was gay but was unaware of my HIV status. She told me that if I ever turned out to be gay, she would kill me; the woman who gave birth to me did not hesitate to let me know that she could take back her gift. She didn't kill me, but she did tell me to get out of her house. I must have slipped and in some way let her know about my sexuality.

When you're sleeping in a rusty Chevy Chevette and the drive shaft is sticking you in the ribs as you're trying to get comfortable, you're not in a place to rewind your life and try to connect the dots to figure out why she did what she did; you're basically in survival mode. With empty pockets and a rumbling stomach, I sat alone, regurgitating the words I knew by memory.

I don't think I can do this.

Although the light in me was dim, it never went out. There was still a spark there, despite my circumstances. I never stopped learning. Though I was not in the ideal place, I always had a love of reading. Even at the young age of 15, I would read the local newspaper every day, and I was a fixture at the library, constantly replacing my paper-issued library card due to overuse.

There was something about me that just liked to learn. I even contemplated going back to college, but I had convinced myself that given my HIV status, there was no point; I would probably be dead before I even graduated. Besides, I didn't need college, I told myself; I could just learn on my own. But it was a dream denied, and now that I was on my own, I couldn't blame my mother anymore. It was I who was putting the roadblocks in my way.

My life-changing moment came at the drugstore, where I was waiting for a prescription. I struck up a conversation with a stranger who was also waiting. He began talking about education, and I shared that I felt I should have finished college. He asked me why I hadn't finished, and I realized that it was a good question. I could no longer use HIV as an excuse, as I'd been living with it for 20 years by then. I tried to use my age as an excuse, pointing out that I would be around 44 by the time I got my degree. He simply said, "You're going to be 44 regardless, so you might as well be 44 with a degree."

He was right. In order for me to reclaim my dream despite my HIV status, I had to remove the words "don't think" from "I don't think I can do this."

Fast-forward to May 2012, and I'm walking across the stage to receive my degree, with honors. As I turn back to look at my classmates, I think of what got me to this place. I realize that the ability to reach this moment was always within me. It was in me when I found an apartment after a month of being homeless. It was in me when I turned my love of writing into several staged plays, one of which received a prestigious Jerome grant. It was in me when I created a theater company. It was in me when I found a successful career as an actor and model with a national ad. I had the ability to live, but first I had to stop focusing on dying.

My college degree doesn't guarantee me a life on Easy Street, but it does prove to me that whatever I may want to do in life, if I just set my mind to it, I can achieve it. As one of my professors said, "Be in it to win it." I wanted not only to win but to be enriched by a level of education that I thought was unattainable. Looking back, although my family never supported my education, they didn't tell me to drop out. I made that choice.

My diploma symbolizes the fact that no matter what obstacles I may face, once I stop blocking my own success, I can do it. That stranger at the drugstore was right: I was going to turn 44. And despite the fact that I've been living with HIV for 25-plus years, I now have something I thought I'd never have: an unlimited world waiting for me.

I can do this.