When Elyria native Thomas Smith graduated from high school, he set out to live his dream — playing football. A self-proclaimed jock, Smith went to Findlay College and then the University of Mount Union on scholarships. He thought he was on his way to playing in the NFL.
But fate had other ideas. Smith has an entrepreneurial side and it soon took over. He gave up football for a dream of creating jobs.
“I want to create jobs for my family and friends and neighbors,” Smith says of why he switched from football to an ambitious path of schooling, more schooling, a real estate internship, classes and licensure, and owning a growing landscaping company — all at the same time.
He transferred from Mount Union to Cleveland State University to be closer to home, and while working toward his bachelor’s degree in communications, he began courses at Lorain County Community College to get his real estate license. At the same time, he started interning with Chase Group Real Estate to gain a better understanding of the business — and a head start on his career.
A passion for real estate and a new direction
Despite the heavy load, Smith is going full steam ahead, says his boss, Matt Chase, president of Chase Group Real Estate at Cutler Real Estate.
“Thomas is one of the only agents I’ve known who started working before he even got his license,” says Chase. “He would come in early every day just to listen and learn from other agents, though he couldn’t interact with clients until he got his license.”
And since Smith has been licensed, he is off to a successful start. Real estate is not easy to break into — there’s a lot of cold calling, learning systems and showing up when you might not get paid.
“A younger guy with ambition is hard to find these days, but that’s what it takes,” Chase says. “And Thomas has it.”
While still attending college full time, Smith gets to the office by 8:30 most mornings to prospect. In his first year as a licensed agent at the Chase Group — and the youngest person selling homes on the team — Smith has sold nearly $2 million worth of real estate.
“If I had 10 more Thomases, our team could sell $100 million a year,” Chase says.
Smith is investing his commission in equipment and a vehicle for his lawn care business, which has more than 20 customers. He says he wants to be an example for other African-American men.
“That is a big passion of mine — helping people know that someone with their skin tone can work hard and make a better life for themselves and for the people and community around them,” he says.
Finding success at LCCC is a family affair
In his desire to succeed, Smith followed the lead of family members who have also turned to LCCC to move their careers forward.
Thomas’ father, Christopher Smith, a disabled veteran, returned to LCCC for an associate degree after a Gulf War injury left him unable to perform his prior job’s duties. While in school, he worked at LCCC’s Spitzer Conference Center, then as a proctor in the testing center, then as a secretary in the Accessibility Services office, helping pay his way through school. Today, he works with a men’s group, the Ambassador Brothers of Lorain County, where he attends events on behalf of the organization, doing outreach and networking.
“I love to spread a message of hard work and positivity,” he says. “I found a real community at LCCC.”
While attending classes, he was fortunate to meet other vets, who helped each other navigate the process. He also took advantage of tutoring.
“When you’re my age (34 at the time), you need a little help,” he says. “I had been in the Army and around the world, but getting back into a routine of studying and being in class on time was a challenge at first.”
Thomas’ sisters, Parris and Chynna, also earned associate degrees from LCCC through the Lorain County Early College High School program. Parris graduated in 2010 with a diploma from Southview High School and an associate of arts degree from LCCC, and went on to earn an associate of science from LCCC, a bachelor’s in psychology from Cleveland State University and a master’s degree from Walden University with a focus on public administration and social change. Today she works for the Lorain County Urban League.
Chynna graduated from Clearview High School, earning two associate degrees in the process. She went on to earn a neuroscience and psychology double major from Baldwin Wallace University and is attending medical school at Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic.
Christopher Smith is proud of his and their accomplishments, and grateful for the role LCCC played in helping them succeed.
“We know education is important, and we were glad to find this great resource in LCCC,” he says. “We each needed something different but were able to find our way to make positive moves in our lives.”
Thomas Smith says that, for him, LCCC was not just a place for education, but a campus that offered caring, involved faculty and staff, where he found meaningful mentors whose examples have inspired him and helped shape his future.
Education leads to new opportunities
The Smith family is an example of what LCCC terms “inclusive excellence.”
“It’s a new way to think about diversity,” says Jonathan Dryden, provost/vice president for academic and learner services. “Diversity talks about differences, but inclusion talks about how to include every person in the process of education, making sure each student gets their individual needs met.”
Unlike most four-year institutions, all of LCCC’s students commute, and most are also holding jobs or internships, handling family responsibilities or volunteering, making it difficult to engage them after class. Students are from a variety of backgrounds and in different stages of life, so designing a curriculum and a college experience that works for each person is a challenge.
“Inclusive excellence is a way of helping all those people with different situations and needs,” says Dryden. “We don’t treat everyone the same, but we give everyone what they need.”
He says that while equality is a wonderful thing, it misses when students arrive without the background or resources to be successful.
“It’s a journey to teach faculty, staff and students how to ask for what they need. But we’re working together and getting it done,” he says.
The Smith family illustrates the idea of helping each student in a way that provides equity: Thomas attended LCCC for a real estate license, his father Christopher earned an associate degree as an adult student using funding from the GI Bill, Parris started in the ECHS program earning her associate degree and high school diploma at the same time, while Chynna earned two associate degrees while in high school through the dual enrollment program. Every program was suited for what the family member needed and a stepping-stone to more opportunities.
“As one of our LCCC leaders has said, ‘Equality is giving everyone a pair of shoes, but equity is making sure everyone has the right size,’” says Dryden.
Thomas Smith says an LCCC education has changed his life, and the lives of his family.
“Education means opportunity, and we’ve had many doors open because of access to education,” he says. “LCCC has empowered me and changed my whole family’s projection for the future.”