At age 16, Darryl Wilson was preparing to live on his own. Now 26, he’s one of UFV’s top students.
Imagine what’s next.
A decade ago Wilson found himself on a Youth Agreement, a provincial government program for kids that otherwise don’t make it into foster care and live on their own while regularly meeting with a social worker. At 17 he left Abbotsford Collegiate in favour of Abbotsford Virtual School (AVS) where he studied with the support of a Hospital Homebound Teacher supplied by School District 34. Before living on his own, Wilson’s grandmother taught him basic life skills like cooking and cleaning.
Wilson didn’t just survive. He thrived.
Ten years later he’s leaving UFV with the Governor General’s Silver Medal as the top graduate from a bachelor’s degree program. The GPA for his last 30 credits (the time period measured for the medal) is a perfect 4.33.
Wilson doesn’t talk much about his upbringing; he’d rather let his grades and work ethic speak for themselves. Still, he understands people’s interest in his unlikely success. He also hopes other youth in similar situations can see that their past doesn’t have to dictate their future.
“I am from a troubled background myself, but that doesn’t define who I am,” he says.
“It takes a lot of willpower and determination to get out of that environment.”
It also takes a lot of help — and a willingness to accept it.
“I know a lot of youth who are still stuck in terrible situations and in a lot of cases they don’t want the help. It’s tough to ask for help. It can be a hit to your pride. But there are people and programs there for you.”
Wilson points to Brian and Paula Lesage and their families, who took him in after graduating from high school.
“They’ve done a tremendous amount to help me get on my feet. So it wasn’t a one-man job,” he says.
“I did have a lot of determination of my own, but it took a lot of people helping me out to get me to where I am today.”
Without money to fall back on after graduating from Abbotsford Virtual School, Wilson set to work installing cabinetry and woodwork in downtown Vancouver. The work was labour-intensive, and after a few years Wilson realized there had to be a better way to make a living.
With the little cash he’d saved and assistance from Agreements with Young Adults – a program available to youth who were previously in foster care or on a Youth Agreement, Wilson enrolled at UFV with an eye on a business major. A few science classes and one instrumental instructor later, everything changed.
“I’ve always been curious about the world around me. In my first year the original goal was just to get an education so I didn’t need to keep doing manual labour,” he admits.
“For me it was just an expectation that this was going to be a replacement for work and I would put in 40 or 50 hours a week, so that’s what I did. And that’s what success ultimately comes down to: how much time and energy and effort you put in.”
He credits an early class with Dr. Pedro Montoya-Pelaez for steering him into chemistry, a subject he enjoyed as a teenager.
Their relationship continued throughout Wilson’s undergraduate experience. He extended his network of inspirational professors by embracing research opportunities alongside Dr. Noham Weinberg and Dr. Cory Beshara.
They made it very easy to come to class and sit in lectures. I’m not going to lie and say every single course was an enjoyable experience for me — but the vast majority were enjoyable because I had great professors.
Wilson recently returned from presenting his research at the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s 100th conference in Toronto.
“We’re simulating the effect of pressure on small organic liquids, and we’ve come up with a method for calculating what happens to the vibrational frequencies in these molecules at high pressure. It’s pretty cool.” he explains.
He plans to attend graduate school this fall. From there, he wants to earn a PhD before working in either the pharmaceutical industry or as a university professor. His love for teaching developed while working in UFV’s Supported Learning Groups program. Running sessions on organic chemistry, he saw an opportunity to help others, just like others helped him.
“I got a lot of fulfillment from that.”
As for advice for other students hoping to find similar academic success, Wilson sees no shortcuts.
“There’s nothing that really beats hard work,” he suggests.
“Believe in yourself and let other people help you. No matter what your background might be, you can succeed. It just takes a little effort.”