DENMARK - Voorhees College students had an opportunity to informally engage in a variety of discussions with actress, singer and business owner Dawnn Lewis on Feb. 8. Best known for her role as "Jaleesa Vinson" in the TV sitcom “A Different World," Lewis spoke during a Black History Month assembly in Massachusetts Hall.
Christina Davenport, a mass communications student, presided over a “A Conversation with Dawnn Lewis." Lewis said she grew up with three brothers and did whatever her brothers did.
“When my mom saw her 7-year-old daughter getting taller and developing, she put me in dance and acting classes," she said.
Lewis said she began singing at the age of 4 and acting at the age of 11.
“I was encouraged primarily by my teachers. If you have teachers, uncles and aunts encouraging you, you will learn to appreciate what they see in you,” she said.
She dared to be what she enjoyed doing, Lewis said.
“Being creative saved my life,” she said.
Lewis said she moved six times as a child, but it was always in Brooklyn, New York. She told the students she had to take public transportation to get to school.
“It would take an hour to get to elementary school,” she said, adding that she had to take those long rides to school on public transportation all through high school.
Lewis said she started high school at the age of 14 and graduated at age 16.
“I knew if I didn’t leave New York, I would not go to college," she said.
She challenged the Voorhees students to know what they would do with their “change” after leaving home and coming to college.
“I had dreams and visions for me that I couldn’t accomplish if I stayed at home," Lewis said, adding that “freedom is also responsibility." She said she was determined to meet that responsibility at the age of 16.
Lewis opted to attend the University of Miami because she wanted to go to a school that would allow her to sing and dance. “I had already been performing, and I wanted to attend a school where I could perform as a freshman."
While at the University of Miami, her talents inspired the birth of a musical theater major at the school.
“When you fight through and preserve, you can’t help but bring others with you. It’s not why you do it; it’s just one of the positives that come from perseverance."
The celebrity reminded the students that each day they are not where they were yesterday.
“Each day is another step forward. Give yourself credit for every step you take. Nobody has it all figured out," Lewis said. She said she was told "no" for three months as she sought the role of “Jaleesa" on "A Different World."
The actress and singer said that even though she presented herself as being confident, inside she was nervous.
“I presented myself as being good enough, but something in my spirit was saying I wasn’t good enough," Lewis said, noting that she had begged for an agent for years before she finally got one. “You have to be ready when an opportunity comes along," she said.
Lewis told the students that the fact they chose to be at Voorhees College said a lot about them. She advised them to begin to see themselves not as just what they see on the outside, but what they feel on the inside. Lewis cautioned the students about wasting people’s time and urged them to "do your part."
Voorhees College President Dr. W. Franklin Evans borrowed a line from the movie “The Help” to describe how he felt about Lewis, saying, "You is kind. You is smart. You is important."
After a brief question-and-answer time, some of the students joined Lewis in the library for a special session.
Her appearance was part of the Voorhees College Black History Month assembly series. Actor Tim Reid will be on campus at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 15, in Massachusetts Hall as part of that series.