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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Touched by an 'angel'

February 9, 2011

Dionne Griffin and his roommate in Middlebrook Hall.

Dionne Griffin has a special affinity for Middlebrook Hall, which is enhanced by the view of the Mississippi River from his dorm window. He signed up for Students Crossing Borders, where American natives are paired with international roommates (Griffin's roommate is from South Korea). "When people from different dorms come to my floor and they see how cool and connected everybody is, they're like, 'Oh, I wish my floor was like this.'"

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

For U student Dionne Griffin, a chance encounter has inspired an ongoing dream

By Rick Moore

When Dionne Griffin tells you his abridged life story, it’s easiest to focus on a signature moment of intense emotion. It’s the time when a 15-year-old Griffin is out on the street, weeping on a curb, and, in his words, “on the edge.” He’s seriously considering stealing some food from a Holiday station when he has a life-changing encounter with a woman he now considers his angel.

It’s easy to dwell on that, and it makes for easy headline copy, but when you talk with Griffin you’re left with the sense that his darkest days are far behind him.

Although Griffin thinks of himself as being in an extended dream, this is his pleasant reality: He’s a freshman who revels in his multicultural friendships at Middlebrook Hall (as well as the view from his window of the Mississippi River) and a dedicated economics major on the cusp of the dean’s list.

Some well-timed Minnesota Nice

Griffin seems to have internalized his tough times as motivation for his aspirations.

He grew up in Chicago as part of a large family, but when tough financial times put their house in foreclosure, the family split up. Griffin, his father, and four siblings moved to St. Paul with to stay in a one-bedroom apartment with his aunt and her boyfriend.

“I could be in the living room, the kitchen and the dining room all at the same time,” Griffin jokes.

After a stint in a different apartment, his aunt kicked out his father and the siblings, and the family further divided. Griffin and his older brother wound up living with a friend of his brother, but Dionne wasn’t comfortable in that household, so he took to the streets.

Which brings us to that summer day in 2008 when a despondent Griffin contemplated just how insecure, if not hopeless, his life was.

That’s when a car pulled up and stopped.

“This lady, she asked me if I had a place to stay. She seemed really concerned about my situation,” Griffin says. “There were a lot of cars passing by, so I don’t know what made her attracted to me sitting right there, but she said that she saw my facial expression. She said it seemed like I had too much grief for a child of that age.”

The woman proceeded to hand Griffin five dollars, told him to get something to eat and drink, and encouraged him to pray for a better future.

“That was revitalizing for me,” he says. “Somebody looking from the outside would say that’s a minuscule form of assistance. But to me it was a big deal.”

That experience became the catalyst for an essay Griffin wrote at Humboldt High School in St. Paul, and the essay lent his personal touch to a host of scholarship applications. “I had a nice academic history, as well (a 4.1 GPA at Humboldt), so the combination of those two, I think, is what attracted a lot of the scholarship foundations to me,” he says.

The rewards soon followed. First, a $20,000 Horatio Alger Foundation scholarship, through which Griffin was chosen the Minnesota representative at a student leadership convention in Washington, D.C. He also was awarded Dell, Kirby Puckett, and Wallin scholarships. All told, he earned about $70,000 in scholarships to attend the University of Minnesota.

Living the dream

Griffin finds himself happily immersed in collegiate life. Last semester he joined the Business Association for Multicultural Students and the Gymnastics Club, and this semester he’s swapping out the latter in favor of a breakdancing club.

“It’s really hard to be upset right now,” Griffin says, the gratitude spilling forth at a coffee shop much as the tears did three summers ago on a curb in St. Paul. “I feel blessed, of course, but I also feel like this is just a dream come true.”

He’s driven by a desire to say “thank you” to his scholarship foundations by doing his best in the classroom, and he has lofty ambitions there.

“Getting a 4.0 and being on the dean’s list would have been the ideal response for me, so that’s definitely still on my goal list,” Griffin says. “I feel like I have the potential to do better than that, and I can and will do better than that.”

And he’ll continue to appreciate the environment he’s in—the University of Minnesota and Middlebrook Hall, specifically—and how far he’s come in a few years.

Says Griffin: “It’s hard to explain it completely, but I just feel like a vacuum almost, inhaling so much information—academically, culturally … from everywhere.”

Tags: Student Related Affairs

Read Dionne Griffin's scholarship essay, The World is Mine.