Wilson family responds to "overwhelming" attention after viral commencement video
Stephan said he and his mom worked very hard to continue to be themselves amidst all the attention
Flint alumnus Stephan JoQuan Wilson knew his May 4 commencement ceremony would be special. He was invited to perform at the ceremony where he would receive his bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater.
Little did he know, hours later video of Wilson and his mother, Sharonda, would bring national attention to their family and Central Michigan University.
Wilson was invited many times to sing at university events. He sang at commencement ceremonies, School of Music events and even at President Bob Davies' investiture. Because he was singing the national anthem and the alma mater, he was excited to learn that his family was invited to sit in the President's box.
That wasn't the biggest surprise the university had planned for the Wilson family.
A staff member approached Sharonda and asked if she would stand by her son during his performance. Then, another staff member asked her to come down to the floor with the other graduates and walk with Stephan when he received his diploma.
Commencement coordinator, Kyle Pybus-Jerome, handed Sharonda a graduation cap that was hidden behind a binder she was holding to her chest.
Wilson was asked to stand by her son.
To the family's surprise, Davies introduced Sharonda during his remarks. He explained that she was missing her Ferris State University commencement ceremony to be at CMU with Stephan. Then he conferred her degree and told her to move the tassel on the graduation cap she was wearing.
The stunned McGuirk Arena audience erupted in mix of applause, cheering and tears.
University Communications captured the moment on video and posted it on social media later that day. The video spread quickly and was shared by national news outlets like CNN and BuzzFeed News.
Wilson insists that neither he nor his mother had any idea about what CMU had planned for them that afternoon. Their reaction, as it appears in the now famous video, is completely authentic.
Two weeks after the video went viral, Stephan said he was humbled by the amount of people who watched it and how they reacted to it.
"I'm glad I went viral for a moment that was so special and beautiful," Stephan said. "Not everybody goes viral for those things."
The week after the video was first posted was a whirlwind, he said. Wilson left immediately after his commencement ceremony to go on a tour with the Central Michigan Chamber Singers, an audition-based student choral group. The group toured through Alabama and Florida, performing at churches and high schools, visiting historical landmarks and completing two community service projects.
Although he received dozens of phone calls and Facebook messages, he felt being on the bus with friends, and out of state, was a comfortable place to be during the media frenzy.
"The people who knew me in that area were confined to that bus," he said. "My mom had people coming to her office."
Sharonda said the attention was overwhelming.
"I'm a very behind-the-scenes person," said Sharonda, who received phone calls and emails from national media outlets requesting interviews. She said CMU's communication team was a big help with fielding calls from media and relaying information to her and Stephan.
Stephan said he and his mom worked very hard to continue to be themselves amidst all the attention. In the weeks following the video going viral, Stephan said he was ready for life to get back to normal.
In June, Stephan moved to Charleston to work with the resident acting company at the Charleston Stage theater. He applied for the position in February and accepted it in March. As part of the company, he is provided free housing and teaches theater classes to K-12 students. He had his first opportunity to direct a summer theater camp in July, and he and the seven other actors in the company are working on a main stage production of "Footloose," which is set to open Aug. 28. Wilson said he has 11 family members flying down for opening night.
His contract with the company ends in April 2020, so Stephan is preparing for auditions, and is excited to see where he will end up.
"I feel like I'm still allowed to climb that ladder and do what I graduated to do," he said.
Sharonda said her bachelor's degree has allowed her to apply for jobs she wanted, but wasn't qualified for yet. Over the summer, she was hired to work full-time in the admissions office at Mott Community College. Stephan said she has been giving tours and assisting students who are interested in going to a community college to transfer to a university later.
Sharonda said she is excited for Stephan to begin his career in Charleston and looks forward to visiting him. She said the rule for all of her children is to talk on the phone at least three days per week, which she will enforce while he is in South Carolina.
"When I can hear them speak, I can tell if something's not right," she said.
Stephan said his mom's decision to miss her own commencement to be at his is characteristic of how she has been throughout his academic career. He said she went out of her way to communicate with his teachers in high school to make sure he did his homework, and she continued to check in with him about homework at least once each week in college.
She has always been there for Stephan and his three siblings. He said she would leave work early to go to recitals and she always drove her kids to school and extracurricular activities. At one point, she was driving her children to three different schools while working third-shift at a 911 call center.
When Sharonda found out her commencement ceremony was the same day as Stephan's, she never considered missing his ceremony to go to her own. She was perfectly fine with receiving her degree in the mail this summer, knowing she earned it. Because Stephan struggled in school, she felt his graduation day was extra special. She wanted to support her son at graduation just like she had supported him through high school and college.
"My mom has been recognized for this one sacrifice, but she's made so many more sacrifices," Stephan said.