Retired NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal tells PEOPLE about the importance of mentorship, education and parenting
Credit: Ashley Dinges/WNET

He has a Bachelor of Arts from Louisiana State University. His MBA is from the University of Phoenix. His Doctorate in Human Resource Development is from Barry University, where he wrote a dissertation entitled “The Duality of Humor and Aggression in Leadership Styles.”

When people think of Shaquille O’Neal, it’s easy to focus on his larger-than-life persona. But the 7’1,” 43-year-old retired NBA star wants you to remember him for so much more – and is dedicating his time to mentorship and encouraging students to stay in school.

PEOPLE hung out with O’Neal as he taped a segment for American Graduate Day, a live, 7-hour broadcast that will air on PBS stations nationwide on October 3.

American Graduate day is a nationwide effort to highlight the importance of mentorship and to help students graduate high school. (There’s also a hashtag: #AmGrad).

For his segment, O’Neal, 43, spoke with Demarcus Womack, a 24-year-old college student who credits mentors for helping him stay in school. Throughout the day, the brodcast will profile more than 50 nonprofit organizations that work towards keeping children and teens engaged the classroom.

While taping the segment, O’Neal began to think of the mentors in his own life. “I believe in role models, how they can influence people,” O’Neal tells PEOPLE. “It’s important to keep kids on the right track.”

And who influenced O’Neal? “My grandmother, Odessa Chambliss,” he says. “She was a nurse; she was the smartest person in the world. She didn’t graduate from high school. She had to get a GED and then went on to nursing school to support me and my mother. You don’t have to make a whole lot of money to be a role model. My role model made $25,000 a year.”

“I was a medium-level juvenile delinquent,” he says. “There are a lot of extracurricular activities that can lead a kid down the wrong path. But I had people in my life – my mother, my father, my grandmother – who sacrificed a lot to make me successful.”

The Importance of Education

So why did O’Neal, whose net worth is somewhere in the 9-figure range, decide to invest so much time and energy getting advanced degrees? After all, he didn’t need the degrees to make a living.

“I had to do it,” O’Neal insists. “One, for my children. Two, for the African American community. Three, for the sports community. And four, for my mother.”

I promised my mother that I would get my bachelor’s,” he says. “And then the reason why I got my master’s was because every time I’d go to a meeting with my business managers, they wouldn’t look at me. They’d just look at my lawyers. So I thought, ‘Okay, you guys don’t think I understand business terminology. Let me go learn it.’ ” So I got a master’s degree.

Then my mother called me and said, ‘You know, we don’t have any doctors in the family.’ So I looked into it. It took 5 years, and I did it.

“I didn’t do it so people would call me Dr. O’Neal,” he says. “But I went to my kids’ PTA meeting the other day and a guy addressed me as ‘Dr. O’Neal’ in front of my son; it was a really proud moment for me.”

I Want to be a Nice Guy

With his NBA career behind him, O’Neal has found himself as a mentor – both to the kids in his life, and to fans around the world.

“I realize that I’m a far away/near mentor,” he says. “There are kids in my life, but then there are ones who are watching me from far away. I have a responsibility to them, too.”

“I want to go through life helping people,” he says. “I want to be a nice guy.”

“My mother told me when you receive a lot of gifts, you’ve got to pay people back,” he cointinues. “My role in this world is to be nice to people and to show people the way. I tell kids all the time – it’s sort of silly, but it’s the truth – that I’m successful because I listened to my parents.

Parenting by Shaq

O’Neal doesn’t go easy on his five children when it comes to their education.

“I expect them to do their best,” he says. “My son got a D on a paper one time, and he said he couldn’t find the information.”

“I went off,” he says with a laugh. “I said, ‘Let me tell you something, buddy. You’ve got Google. You got Bing. What do you mean you can’t find it? When I was your age, I had to go to a neighbor’s house and buy an encyclopedia.’ ”

“If I were in school now, I’d be a genius,” he adds. “I’d be valedictorian. The world is at our fingertips. As adults, we have to help kids realize that.”

You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have education, you can’t make it grow,” he says. “I didn’t want to be like 80% of the athletes who stop playing and have nothing. I don’t want to be part of that statistic. So I educated myself. I want that for my kids, too.”