Success on the track did not translate into academic success.
“I was terrible in math, really terrible in every subject. The team captain called me and said walk outside, what do you see,” he describes. “I described abandoned houses, drug dealers on the corner, garbage everywhere. He asked do you want to stay here? When I answered no, he said let’s start working, let’s get you out of here.”
In his senior year in high school, his efforts paid off. More than a dozen college recruiters called. Then at the state championship, disaster struck. Nafees tore his left hamstring and pulled his right one.
The offers vanished. Because Nafees had cracked down on his academics, he was admitted into his dream school, Hampton University. Nafees and his supportive parents traveled six hours to campus only to discover there was no financial aid. He felt he had lost everything.
What followed were short stints of hourly jobs. In his free time, Nafees found himself at Liberty Place, a dense business complex. Sitting on a bench, he observed this window into another world, this mass of professionals.
“They weren’t just talking about work. They described vacations, family updates, goals. They were well rounded,” he recounts. “I listened to their vernacular. I was a hood kid with the language that went with it but I thought, I’m going to be one of them someday.”
The budding scientist began to flourish. He enrolled in community college where an academic advisor insisted, he was not cut out to study science. In the face of doubt, he resorted to the strategy he’d used in sports. Work relentlessly. Stay focused. Remain motivated.
Recruited to run track for Neumann College, he earned an academic scholarship. He nearly failed several science classes as he coped with bouts of homelessness and other personal struggles.