Pretty soon, he was more about throwing parties and making money than academics and the high jump. His grades plummeted and he ended up being dismissed from the university.
“I was distracted by making x amount of dollars each week,” said Dixon, now a Jonesboro city councilman. “I was doing everything to get instant gratification.”
Today, Dixon is back at Clayton State and just months away from receiving a bachelor’s in political science in December. He’s on the dean’s list and continuing to compete in the high jump, albeit running a bit slower than he did in the early 2000s.
“I’m blessed to be able to compete,” he said. “But being a 36-year-old is a different beast. It’s definitely a push.”
Dixon’s return was inspired in part by a mentor and a retired pro basketball player who recently enrolled in college in his mid-30s.
There are many students like Dixon at Clayton State. Nontraditional students make up as many as 40% of Clayton State’s student body, which was about 5,300 last spring. Nontraditional students are defined as learners who entered as freshmen at least five years after they graduated from high school, according to the University System of Georgia. The average age of undergraduate students at Clayton State is nearly 25, second oldest in the University System.
With projections that college enrollment in Georgia will drop in a few years due to declining birthrates, University System officials are looking at older students as a potential area of growth. Online brochures for nontraditional students note free tutoring and other services in its Center for Academic Success. The University System offers access to several courses and degree programs that they believe are well suited for adult learners.
Nontraditional students at Clayton State can get academic coaching and flexible class hours or hybrid instruction as part as their academic experience at the school, said Ashlee Spearman, its associate vice president for enrollment and student success. The university also has introduced eight-week mini-terms for busy nontraditional students unable to commit to semesters of several months.
“This is a target population that we are looking to expand,” she said, adding that the goal is not just to increase numbers. “This is not only about enrolling them, but retaining them and graduating them.”
Those who have been on the journey with Dixon or observed his progression said his determination fits his never-give-up personality.
“It was good to see that he was able to put things together, get refocused and now serve his community,” said retired Clayton State Athletic Director Mike Mead, who was the track coach during Dixon’s initial years at the school.
Dixon holds Clayton State’s high jump record, though it is unofficial because he was ineligible for the track team at the time because of his grades, Mead said.
Former Jonesboro City Manager Ricky Clark has been impressed with Dixon’s ability to juggle school and his work on the council, particularly his interest in helping children in the community.
“He has a heart for things involving the youth and for things that connect the community as a whole,” said Clark, who is now city manager of Forest Park. “I always tell him, ‘I’m just so proud of you.’”
Dixon moved with his family to Clayton in 2003 from Burgess, South Carolina, a small community outside of Myrtle Beach. A high school junior at the time, Dixon was part of the first class of the newly constructed Mundy’s Mill High School in Jonesboro.
After graduation, he enrolled at Clayton State to study business administration and compete as a high jumper. He said he fell in love with the sport after hearing stories about the achievements of his uncle, Omarr Dixon, a high jumper who competed in the U.S. Olympic trials in 1996.
Initially, Dixon was focused. He practiced, studied and worked hard his freshman year.
But once he discovered his skill at throwing parties, it became clear to him that his heart was no longer into learning.
By 2007, he was on academic probation and found himself ineligible for the team because of his grades. He would sign up for classes in an attempt to improve his plight, but then drop them if it appeared he was going to get a grade that would make matters worse.
“It was a double-edged sword,” he said. “I would drop classes to avoid the bad grades, but then find myself ineligible because I wasn’t taking enough courses.”
He was dismissed from the college that year, just before eligibility for the team in spring 2008.
“I could never focus on my academic journey because I was focused on my entrepreneurial journey,” he said.
Between 2008 and 2011, he tried to return to school, but was unsuccessful. He would reapply, but be denied because of his GPA. He would appeal and that too would be denied. In an effort to demonstrate to Clayton State that he was serious about continuing his education, he took a course at Georgia Perimeter College, and was readmitted to Clayton State.
But he wasn’t as ready as he thought, and after he struggled with his grades, he was dismissed again.
In 2012, he went to work as a clerk at QuikTrip, a job that he later turned into a managerial position. He is still with the company.
He ran unsuccessfully for Jonesboro City Council in 2015, but won a special election in 2016 at age 29 to fill the seat of Councilman Wallace Norrington, who died earlier in the year. In 2019, he gave up his City Council seat for a run for mayor, but was unable to get on the ballot. He was elected to the council in March for a second term.
“After that, I was idle,” he said. “I looked to my mentor, (Clayton County) Solicitor General Charles Brooks, and he suggested I go back to school. That was the turning point.”
It wasn’t easy. He returned to Clayton State with a 1.7 GPA. He had to demonstrate he would not fall into his old ways of choosing money over academics.
He also had to push away a desire to get back into high jumping.
“I wasn’t even focused on athletics to be honest,” he said. “I wanted to get my education.”
But he changed his mind after watching the Amazon Prime documentary “Redefined: J.R. Smith” on the NBA player, a key contributor on two championship teams. Smith, who played for the New Orleans Hornets right out of high school, enrolled in college at North Carolina A&T State University in 2021 in his mid-30s. He played on the school’s golf team after it was determined he was eligible to compete under NCAA rules.
“When I saw that documentary and heard that story, I thought, ‘Whoa, I can do this,’” Dixon said. “Once I got my GPA up, I went to Coach Mead and asked if I was still eligible. He said yes.”
Returning to the team presented its own hurdles. Thirty-three at the time, Dixon was not the same athlete he was in his teens.
But he said his compatriots are supportive.
“They help me keep up,” he said. “We push each other.”
Age has its benefits, however. Dixon is more settled today than when he started college more than a decade ago. He has a better attention span, grasps concepts more fully and understands politics not from theory, but from practice.
“It’s totally different,” he said. “Comprehending information is easier and understanding the urgency of learning is better. I have a passion and desire to want this information.”
And as a nontraditional student with real-world experience, he hopes he can be a cautionary tale for anyone who takes education for granted.
“I wish I had this when I was younger,” he said of being more focused. “I would be surprised where I would be. I’m so excited to be in the room with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to make sure they don’t go down the path I went down.”