Isaiah Armond Jamal Henderson tries to live by a motto he picked up from his undergraduate mentor and kinesiology professor: “Whenever you have an opportunity, say yes and figure out the details later.”

That led Henderson to apply for a Training in Interdisciplinary Education and Research (TIER) Project scholarship at Chico State even though he’d never heard of the community or University.

“To be honest, I thought I was heading to Chino for a bit,” he said with a laugh.

Well, he got the TIER scholarship, which is a federally funded grant program that trains preservice professionals to work with children with significant disabilities, and after arriving at Chico State for graduate school, he has more than figured out the rest of the details. Henderson is scheduled to graduate in January with a Master of Arts in Kinesiology and a focus on adapted physical education. This week, he will receive the CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. The award, which comes with a $7,000 grant, is one of the most prestigious in the entire CSU system. It is given each year to students who demonstrate superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service, and financial need.

Henderson has maintained a 3.9 GPA while participating in various volunteer activities for individuals with disabilities. He also serves as a peer advisor for Chico State student veterans transitioning to civilian life and is the treasurer of the Student Veteran Organization.   

“I am not surprised in the least at what Isaiah has been able to accomplish during his time with us at Chico State,” said kinesiology professor Josephine Blagrave. “He is a driven and passionate individual who really works hard to understand how he can improve the lives of the populations we as adapted physical educators serve. I am so excited for his future and the amazing things he will do.”

Henderson currently student-teaches P.E. to junior high and elementary school students in Oroville three days a week. His focus is bringing adapted physical education, which means altering equipment, changing the learning environment, or changing the rules of activities to make physical activity more inclusive for students with physical and developmental disabilities.

“These kids are capable of so much more than what other people think. If you give them the right tools, they can accomplish so many things, and they greatly benefit from exercise just like everybody else,” Henderson said.

He attributes the desire to connect with a niece who has disabilities as what sparked his interest in the field. 

Henderson is a first-generation student who grew up in a single-parent, low-income household in Vallejo. He spent his youth taking odd jobs like mowing lawns and cleaning gutters to help the family while also trying to be a good role model for his little brother. 

Following a short stint in community college, he decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps to both honor his late father, a veteran who passed away when he was two, and to create a better future for himself. 

It turned out to be the best decision he ever made, he said. As part of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines Division (known as the Warlords) for the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is designed to be deployed and ready for immediate response to any crisis—from natural and humanitarian disasters to combat missions—he traveled the world aboard U.S. Naval ships. His unit served as a 24-hour police force on the ships, often mediating issues onboard between sailors.

“My tours taught me how to be a man, how to work with different people, and how to defend those who can’t defend themselves,” Henderson said. “It also gave me a different perspective on life. I realized I was capable of so much more.”

While deployed, Henderson made a pact with his fellow marine and good friend Edgar Nava. They decided they would return to Nava’s native Orange County, live together, and graduate college.

The first thing Henderson realized is that he needed to change his mindset.

“I was trained to destroy and now needed to learn to uplift and teach people,” he explained.

He majored in kinesiology because he always liked physical education, playing sports, and being active. He excelled in his undergraduate studies at Cal State  Fullerton and rolled that into a TIER scholarship and even greater success at Chico State.

After finishing his master’s degree, Isaiah plans to use his education and military experience to teach high school students with disabilities how to be physically active in physical education and help them achieve a lifelong appreciation for movement.

As he nears the finish line, he finds himself both enjoying his time in Chico and reflecting on the details of his long journey. Having gone from growing up in a single-parent household, to five years in the Marines to being on the cusp of a master’s degree, he’s ready to say “yes” to the next opportunity (confident he’ll figure out the details later).

“Getting a master’s feels like such a moment of triumph—like the underdog coming out on top,” he said. “I can’t wait to get started uplifting students and showing them that they can do what I did.”