While lying on the floor of a train station in Atlanta, a homeless Marc Lamont Hill learned his most valuable life lessons.

On Saturday, the well-known CNN political contributor and host of Black Entertainment Television News told a crowd of mostly men, including high school and college students, what he learned — and how it has guided his life.

Hill was keynote speaker for the Uplifting Black Men Conference, coordinated by Virginia Tech’s Student Success Center and held at the Inn at Virginia Tech.

About 370 people attended the one-day conference, which included break-out sessions about key issues, a student panel, and inspiring speakers, such as Winston Samuels, an alumnus and co-founder of Maxx Performance, a food ingredient, feed additive, and biotechnology company.

The event, in its third year, aims to connect black men and help people understand diversity and resilience among the black community.

Hill’s powerful testimony of a time when he dropped out of college, tried to survive on his own, and, eventually, hit rock bottom, was greeted by a standing ovation from the audience.

Hill grew up in Philadelphia and attended Morehouse College in Atlanta on a basketball scholarship. But basketball didn’t work out for him. After sitting the bench, Hill quit the team, and soon after, dropped out of college.

He took a $5,000 tuition refund check, which belonged to his parents, bought a Geo Metro and set out to make a living selling incense from the car.

Before long, Hill ran out of money, and his car was stolen.

One December night, while sleeping on the floor of a train station near Lenox Square, a shopping center, Hill said a homeless Vietnam War veteran hit him, waking him up.

“You don’t belong here,” the man said.

Hill explained that he had dropped out of school. The veteran encouraged him to rethink his decision, to seek wise advice from others, to not let time and society’s view of him stand in the way of his dreams and ultimately, to start over again.

“What he was giving me was a more mature sensibility, something called hope,” Hill said. “Hope is a reminder that we can overcome our circumstances collectively.”

After that fateful conversation, Hill returned home, got a job working 45 hours a week, went to school full time, and paid for it himself. He eventually earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Now, along with his media roles, he is a professor at Temple University and an author and social justice activist.

“Your life, your dreams, your values, your goals are worth the patience and the time,” Hill told the crowd. “Don’t ever let time be the enemy to your dream.”

During a question and answer session after his speech, Hill encouraged the men to keep fighting for social justice, even though it can be exhausting.

“I want to quit all the time, but the reason I don’t is because we come from a tradition of people that went through far more with far less,” Hill said. “There are moments where I want to give up because I feel like I can’t change the world. But I realize that sometimes our work, our fight, our resistance is the thing that keeps the world from getting worse.”

Nahdir Austin, a chemical engineer who lives in Roanoke, said the conference was one of the most inspiring events that he has attended.

“It dug into so many of the issues I face,” he said. “I have never experienced this kind of black community in my life.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

Photos by Jun Yu

Uplifting Black Men Conference
Nahdir Austin (middle), a chemical engineer from Roanoke, talks with students from East Carolina University during the Uplifting Black Men Conference.