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VCU senior honors mother by being 1st in family to graduate

May 20, 2018

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Amanda Watts wanted her son close to home.

Brandon was considering the U.S. Air Force or schools in Blacksburg and Fairfax, but she pushed him to pick Virginia Commonwealth University, a 45-minute drive from the family’s home in Prince George County.

He could study computer science anywhere, and she wanted a front-row seat when he walked across the stage and became the first in his family to receive a college degree.

She won’t be there. Amanda Lynn Watts died of an unidentified respiratory illness April 20. She was 40 years old.

“She was fighting to get to my graduation,” Brandon said. “That’s what she wanted. She kept saying that she wanted to get to graduation.”

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The two were always close.

Brandon’s biological father left the family when Brandon was 7. A proud “mama’s boy,” Brandon said his mother became a friend whose advice he’d seek as he pounded through Advanced Placement courses and, later, college coursework.

His drive was inborn and imprinted. His mother took night classes to complete her high school education. His adoptive father worked hard to earn his GED. Brandon will have a degree.

That’s unsurprising to Christopher Watts, who joined the family when Brandon was young. But that he chose computer science is ironic.

“We certainly didn’t think that would be something he’d be into,” Watts said.

The four-person family’s limited budget never could stretch far enough to afford internet service while Brandon was growing up, first in Port Charlotte, Florida, and later in Carson, in Prince George.

Instead, Brandon would stay late at school or use the computer at his grandparents’ house. Early interest bloomed into a full-fledged dream. He fell in love.

After graduating high school, he came to VCU as a mathematics major. A theory of computation class his sophomore year, however, got him hooked on computer science.

He was accepted into the program and got hooked on data science and machine learning.

One day Brandon hopes to start his own company focused on artificial intelligence.

He was a junior in high school when he decided to live out his parents’ call to make something of himself, while setting an example for his younger sister, now a high school junior.

He enrolled in almost all Advanced Placement classes — so many that his teachers thought it was a bad idea — in an effort to get ahead.

“I knew that if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right,” he said.

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Waging that battle became excruciating this semester, as Brandon shuffled from school to the intensive care unit at VCU Medical Center.

Every day the senior would go to class, hop on the VCU campus connector bus and stay with his mother until 11 p.m. before making his way back to his apartment off Chamberlayne Avenue and eventually back to class.

“She didn’t make it, but I have to finish the last leg of it for her,” he said softly during a recent interview at the university student center.

He couldn’t give up. He didn’t waver. He continued to impress professors, who described him as intelligent, thoughtful and highly self-motivated.

In less than a month, Brandon revamped a computer science program and got the results for three research projects.

“I couldn’t keep up,” said VCU computer science professor Bridget McInnes. “He is an excellent student, an excellent leader and an excellent researcher. It is a rare combination.”

McInnes had Brandon in class last fall and recruited him to come back this semester to work in the Natural Language Processing Lab.

“Brandon will leave a lasting impression,” McInnes said.

He was selected to return for a second internship at CarMax, which is slated to begin in June.

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But while the dean’s list student impressed his professors and maintained good grades, he still wasn’t there.

His mind was on his dying mother, unsure of how much time he’d have left with her. She had been hospitalized in December with pneumonia and a month later began a three-month stretch of on-again, off-again stays at the VCU hospital while doctors struggled to find the root of her illness.

She went into the ICU in March and later onto life support. Brandon would visit her every day, doing homework in the hospital room just to be in the presence of his first friend.

In late April, though, Brandon and his father decided together to take her off life support, not wanting her to suffer.

“I’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions, but that’s on a whole other level,” he said. “I just told (my dad), ‘We have to let her go.’”

In one of their last conversations, she reiterated that she wished she could see him walk — “She wanted to be there,” Brandon said.

He graduated May 11, striding across the stage in a cap decorated in honor of the woman who wanted to be there.

She was there, his father said:

“She’s looking down on him. I know she’s real proud.”

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com

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