As a child growing up in Columbus, Antonio Bush didn’t always have the material things that he desired — the fancy clothes, the big house, the latest toys.
As one of three sons raised by a single mother in a low-income household, he attended three different elementary schools as the family struggled to survive. Yet, his mother, Victoria, always instilled in her boys the importance of working hard and striving for excellence, setting the example by juggling multiple fast-food, teacher’s assistant and child care jobs.
“One of the things I always remember is that we would always be dressed nice, no matter if we were wearing Walmart clothes or whatever,” Bush said in a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “The sagging wasn’t happening; we were tucking in our shirts. My mom instilled that you weren’t going to leave this house and disparage our name. When people said the ‘Bush Boys,’ it meant that we were going to be respectful.”
It was that upbringing that fueled Bush’s passion for learning, leading to a Ph.D. by age 30. He currently works at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researching the plight of underrepresented populations in the STEM fields, with the hopes of improving health outcomes in minority communities.
Bush, 32, recently won the 2017 American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy New Investigator Award and an international pharmacy education award at the 2017 Biennial Monash Pharmacy Education Symposium.
In addition to his mother, Bush also credits his older brother, Zack, local educators, coaches and staff at the Boys and Girls Club of Columbus for his success.
“I think a lot of who I am now is from my experiences and the way that I grew up in Columbus — the village, so to speak — that looked out for me,” he said from his home in Chapel Hill. “I’m a first generation college student, and I never knew that I would go to college. I never knew what that looked like, but I always knew that I wanted something better than I had.”
Still, it wasn’t always easy defying the odds, Bush said. His family lived in various low-income neighborhoods around the city, where there were many negative influences. Upward mobility was never guaranteed in such a challenging environment, especially for a young black male.
“Where we grew up, we saw the guns,” he said. “We would hear the gun shots at night. I grew up with people who did and sold drugs. And for me, I just didn’t want to get in trouble and my mom wasn’t having that.”
“I look at the news often back in Columbus,” he continued. “And sometimes there’s not a week or two that passes where I don’t know someone who has gotten murdered, murdered someone, or is the news for something else. I always realized that I was one mistake away from being one of those people.”
A Time of Self-Discovery
Bush said he had a life changing experience when he was a third-grader at Dimon Elementary School. All the students gathered for an awards ceremony. While many were recognized for academic achievements, he received an award for something frivolous like being funny.
“I think at that moment, for me, it was like, ‘Am I not smart?’”
He began focusing on academics and proving that he could compete in the classroom. Soon he was an Honor Roll student making straight A’s. Teachers began to see the improvement and recognized him for his achievement. But there were some other challenges he had to work through.
“I had an attitude problem and I didn’t understand exactly where it came from,” he said. “Mom did the best she could to teach us how to grow up as boys and become young men. But it’s kind of related to emotions and the people around us. The only emotion that you are allowed to show is how to be upset or angry or how to be happy. So as a kid, not understanding feelings of being sad and having my feelings hurt, it kind of played a lot into my attitude.”
That’s where the influence of his older brother and mentors at the Boys & Girls Club came in.
“My brother, Zach, was someone I always wanted to be like,” he said. “Even to this day, he’s someone I truly admire. He’s one of the most patient and kind, one of the greatest men that I know. And he sacrificed a lot for us. In some cases, he sacrificed his childhood to help my mother take care of us when my mother was working multiple jobs.”
At the Boys & Girls Club, Bush said he learned many lessons from the rec specialists and directors who worked there. He took his first flight with Brian Fitzpatrick, a former Boys & Girls Club director, while headed to a conference. Employees with the organization also taught him dinning etiquette and how to tie a tie. The Boys & Girls Club also helped him get college scholarships and a job at J.C. Penneys.
And, at times, the men in the program were brutally honest, Bush recalls, much to his benefit.
He remembers one encounter with the organization’s current director, Rodney Close, who first joined the organization in the 1990s. They were at an assembly and Close tried to quiet everyone down.
“He was new and I was like, ‘You’re not going to tell me what to do,’” Bush recalled.
“And he said, ‘Bush, either you’re going to do right, or you’re going to end up in jail.’
“And no one had ever said that to me,” Bush said. “And that was enough to get me thinking.
“.. He told me what I needed to hear, and it was powerful for me,” he said. “Rodney and I learned to like each other after that, but it was a bit tough.”
Following in his older brother’s footsteps, Bush eventually became the organization’s Youth of the Year.
“Without the Boys & Girls Club there is no way that I’m the person that I am today, I say that with 100 percent confidence,” he said. “It’s not that I didn’t get into mischief, but I was always blessed to have good role models, many of them at the Boys & Girls club — the rec specialists, directors. They talked to me about life and didn’t sugar coat it.”
Aiming for a Brighter Future
The real turning point in his life occurred while a sixth-grader at Eastway Elementary School, now Lonnie Jackson Academy, Bush said. From there, he went to Rothschild Middle School and continued to soar.
“Once I went to Eastway, I don’t know what it was, it was just something that clicked,” he said. “Maybe it was a new environment. Maybe it’s that I was at a new school. But I think just being there kind of allowed me to be me.”
From Rothschild Middle School, Bush went to Carver High School, where he entered a magnet program, which required taking a summer Algebra course. When it came time to apply for college, he had no idea how to do it. One of his teachers, Cassandra Reynolds, and a guidance counselor, Diane Lyons, came to his aid, helping him apply for college and prepare for the SAT.
The two women had connections at Albany State University. They helped him get into a program called Armed for Success, designed for students who excel in high school and want to start college early. Bush entered the program and began college classes the April before he graduated in 2003.
While at Albany State, he met the president of the college who told him he had received a partial scholarship. He also received scholarships from the Boys and Girls Club and other organizations.
While matriculating at the school, he met another mentor, Ontario Wooden, who had a Ph.D.
“I didn’t know what a Ph.D. was; I didn’t know what a master’s was, but he had one,” he said. “And just seeing the genuine, authentic person that he was, and some of the things he was able to do, I think he gave me a person to chase. I wanted to get my Ph.D. before 30 because he did it. I’m definitely my own person, but he gave me something to shoot for. ”
In 2007, Bush graduated from Albany State with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. In 2010, he graduated from Indiana University with a master’s in higher education and student affairs. In 2014, he graduated from North Carolina State University with a Ph.D. in educational research and policy analysis.
For his dissertation, he researched the experiences of black male HBCU graduates in STEM doctoral programs, looking at experiences and actions that made them successful. That research led to a job at at Duke University as a program director in the School of Medicine for a National Institute of Health program for underrepresented students in STEM. From there, he landed a fellowship at UNC in the School of Pharmacy, primarily conducting educational, qualitative research.
“A faculty member is something I never thought that I would be because I never had the confidence to do it, because I never saw people who looked like me in faculty roles,” he said. “So to be here in a tenure-track position goes against everything that I told everyone in my Ph.D. program. But I’m in a really unique situation, allowing me to use my specific skill sets.”
Inspiring Future Generations
Bush is now married for four years and living a life he couldn’t have envisioned as a youth.
His two brothers also have been successful, he said. His older brother, Zack, is a Navy veteran who served during 9/11. He is married with two teenage boys.
His younger brother, Gabe, is married with two young children. He serves in the Air Force Reserves and has forged his own path.
“I watch them as they learned how to be husbands, learned how to be fathers, how they grew to be the amazing men that they are,” he said. “They inspire me.”
Despite the crime level in Columbus, Bush said he knows of several young men in Columbus trying to positively impact the lives of young black, growing up like he did. Some are people who have returned to the city to make change.
“I have friends who serve as sheriff’s deputies, police officers, high school teachers, basketball coaches, probation officers, etc.” he said. “I admire these young men and women. They are the difference makers.
“... It takes some to leave the village physically to break the cycles and become the pioneers of our community; paving the road in unchartered territory and lifting as we climb,” he added. “It takes some to stay in the village, having a positive, physical presence that is unmatched and often unnoticed. It takes us all.”