University News

Commencement speaker Crystal McClain reflects on her full-circle journey

April 24, 2024

Written by Dave Fidlin | Photos submitted

Portrait photo of Crystal McClain.

Growing up in Milwaukee’s 53206 ZIP code, Crystal McClain knew firsthand that not everyone had the strong and supportive middle-class family she did — one that provided her with the foundation and encouragement needed to pursue her dreams.

In 2003, McClain graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work. Her experiences on campus ultimately led her back to her childhood stomping grounds, where she eventually established the multimillion-dollar social service agency Revive Youth & Family Services.

She will share her inspiring story as commencement speaker for UW-Whitewater’s spring 2024 commencement ceremony at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 11.

McClain views the opportunity to share her life story in Milwaukee, intertwined with her time on the UW-Whitewater campus, as an opportunity to demonstrate how we can successfully give back and help the communities we come from.

McClain was already familiar with UW-Whitewater before she enrolled in college. The Alexander Hamilton High School graduate had participated in Upward Bound, a six-week summer academic enrichment experience that supports high-achieving first-generation high school students and prepares them for college.

“In speaking with my sorority sisters and informing them that I had received an invitation to speak at commencement, the first thing that some of them said was, ‘This is full circle for you, considering your passion and connection to the university since high school,’” McClain said. “I was very much connected with the university at a young age.”

Looking back at her time on campus, McClain credits several faculty members with providing guidance and inspiration as she forged ahead with life goals as a young adult.

“A lot of the professionals that I looked up to were very much mentors to me,” McClain said. “Such as Dr. Roger Pulliam and Dr. Monica Kelsey Brown, who both helped to guide me personally and professionally. UW-Whitewater means a lot to me, for multiple reasons. A lot of my lifelong friendships and relationships, both personally and professionally, were formed on that campus.”

McClain was involved in several campus organizations, such as SWSO, a social work student organization, and Black Student Union, and served as president of the Lambda Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

After graduation, McClain earned a Master of Social Work from the UW-Milwaukee and served as a state-certified advanced practicing social worker.

In 2010, McClain used the wisdom and expertise she had gained to establish Revive Youth & Family Services, where she remains the owner and chief executive officer. The organization specializes in serving at-risk youth through four group homes and one foster home.

Since its founding, Revive Youth & Family Services has expanded its presence in Milwaukee County. Her work and success through the organization has garnered attention, as evidenced by the Milwaukee Business Journal naming her to its 40 Under 40 list in 2018. McClain was also honored with the UW-Whitewater Distinguished Alumni Award for Community/Regional Service in 2019.

With the publication of her debut book this spring, McClain takes her mission-minded work and encouraging message into uncharted territory.

“The Invisible Backpack” is especially geared toward foster parents, blended families and the children who live in such households. The fictional story chronicles the life of 15-year-old James Archer, a boy who has relocated to a new foster home after leaving his former placement.

Regardless of a person’s upbringing and social surroundings, McClain said foundational experiences — good and bad — shape our views and can play into our actions. This life lesson is the basis for the book.

“We all have past experiences that we carry with us. Our perception of things plays into the choices and decisions that we make.” McClain said. “Wherever we come from, we carry certain things. We come with certain beliefs and certain ideas, and that plays into the people that we truly are.”

In her remarks, McClain will share a message of challenging one’s own belief systems, recognizing that everyone carries past experiences, and finding ways to transform that into a fair and equitable experience for all with the graduating class.

“When I work with youth, I think, ‘If this child just had a Monica Kelsey Brown or half the influential adults that took time with me, how better off they would be.’ I quickly realized that I am that person to them. One day they may say to themselves, ‘Ms. Crystal thought I could — and so I did.’”