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Singer's key to success

Brian K. Smith overcomes adversity to graduate from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in music, a day after getting a bachelor's degree in translating Spanish.

May 28, 2011|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Cal State Long Beach student Brian K. Smith hugs some of his fellow graduates before commencement ceremonies. Despite being homeless for a time, he received degrees in translating Spanish and in music.
Cal State Long Beach student Brian K. Smith hugs some of his fellow graduates… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Brian K. Smith grew up with a love of education and a dream of one day obtaining a college degree. But the path to graduation for the Cal State Long Beach student included a few unexpected hurdles.

Besides the rigors of a double major in Spanish translation and music, Smith became homeless at one point after he lost the financial aid that helped pay for his housing.

He resorted to surreptitiously living on campus, spending nights in music practice rooms and working out complicated schedules to avoid detection by janitors.

He even stayed for a while at a sober living facility and nightly had to run a gantlet of colorful and sometimes menacing characters.

But he persevered and on Friday, Smith was awarded his bachelor of music degree in vocal performance, joining 736 other College of the Arts students at commencement ceremonies on the Long Beach campus. He received his bachelor of arts degree in Spanish translation from the College of Liberal Arts a day earlier.

"It's a blessing and a dream come true," said Smith, an outgoing man with a ready smile. "I'm the first male in my family to get a college degree and to go on and get two is really remarkable."

Before Thursday's ceremony, a beaming Smith mingled with classmates and had his picture taken with some of his teachers, including Alexander Rainof, an associate professor in the Romance, German and Russian Languages and Literatures Department.

"I got to torture him plenty," Rainof said. "He's an amazing guy, a real go-getter and interested in a multitude of things — a half-dozen languages, music, religion — a real panorama. He's always been a good member of the team. But he's very proud and kept silent about some of the things he was going through."

Smith grew up in View Park and graduated from Fairfax High School. His passion to perform led him at first not to college but to an agent and then overseas, where he danced professionally and modeled in Europe and Japan. He learned Spanish, Italian, French, German, Japanese and Portuguese along the way.

He returned to the U.S. and took language and music classes at Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles Valley College. At Cal State Long Beach, Smith was admitted to the McNair Scholars Program, named after Ronald E. McNair, the late African American astronaut.

But he soon learned that because of the number of units he had accumulated, he would lose financial aid, which helped pay for the furnished motel room where he had been living. Smith placed his belongings in storage and tried to make the best of it. Because his schedule included morning, afternoon and evening classes, it was hard to find a job, but he sold CDs of his classical, jazz and gospel recital performances to raise money.

He spent nights in a practice room, for which he had a key, and showered in a nearby gym. "Being homeless definitely gives you a lot of time to study," he joked. Sometimes he crashed in the home or car of a friend and spent holidays with members of his church, where he volunteers as a Spanish interpreter.

He eventually found a bed at a downtown sober living house whose clients, sometimes five or six to a room, always seemed to want to fight, he said.

Last year, Smith was one of 23 students — one from each Cal State campus — to win a William Randolph Hearst /CSU Trustees' Award, given to students with superior academic performance and financial need who have experienced personal hardship. The award included a $3,000 scholarship.

His circumstances improved further when a couple from his church invited him to share their Harbor City home.

This summer, he'll work as a Spanish interpreter at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. in Washington, D.C., a paid internship he received through the Hispanic Assn. of Colleges and Universities. In the fall, he'll attend UC Irvine, working toward a master's of fine arts degree in vocal arts.

"I think my story is a message that you shouldn't give up," Smith said. "We all go through hard times. But we all have gifts and we have to continue to pursue our goals."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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