Friends Akintunde Ahmad and Mark Walden posing at The New York Times.
“No role models and I'm here right now No role models to speak of Searchin' through my memory, my memory I couldn't find one” — J. Cole
Friend: “Who were your role models growing up?”
Me: Silence as I think for awhile.
This is a question I always have trouble answering.
The first person who comes to mind is my father. A mechanic who put in long hours through the pain of multiple gunshots, stab wounds, and motorcycle crashes, he’s certainly someone I respect and admire. But do I want to be like him? The honest answer is no, at least not professionally. I have no interest in making a living off of manual labor, and since Pops had no college education, he wasn’t the person I looked to growing up for inspiration when it came to my future.
The next possibility is an iconic figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. There’s no questioning what these men mean to me and to many, many other young Black men for that matter. But I would be lying if I told you that I look to them as examples of what I want to do in my life. They lived in different times, and although a lot of the issues they faced persist today, the ways in which we go about doing things have shifted. They aren’t my role models either.
So then who? As the youngest of five boys and one girl, I look up to my siblings for guidance, especially my brothers. My mental and physical toughness comes from them, as do many of the morals and values by which I live. However, because I am the first of the boys to graduate from a four-year university, they also aren’t the ones I consult when I think about how to navigate my career.
All this is to say that as a young, Black male from Oakland, CA, I lacked relatable role models growing up. I always took school seriously and knew I wanted to go to college, but I went into the realm of higher education almost blindly. I was confident that if I stuck to the process, I would eventually end up at a good school. Yet, I didn’t meet a single Black man who attended an Ivy League institution until after enrolled at Yale.
I had no mental image of how I would appear on a PWI campus. The only colleges I visited were HBCUs. I originally thought that I would end up at an one, because I could easily see myself in the students. I didn’t realize that there was a whole world of campuses with a host of Black students to which I had never been exposed.
Even those who know and see someone who attended an elite university often don't know or see enough people for it to feel like the norm. Take my close friend, Mark Walden. His oldest brother, Michael, was the first in his family to attend college. Like me, Michael enrolled at Yale. But when it came time for Mark to apply to college, he doubted his ability to attend a prestigious university. "Frankly, I thought it was abnormal for a person of color to do so," he said. "Luckily, I am privileged enough to have two parents and a brother who constantly assured me that my goal was possible — and they were right. I ended up at Emory University."
The good news for future students who feel they are lacking that exposure? Through the use of social and digital media, we can make strides.
In pictures, videos, and words, I make it a goal to display my undergraduate experience to as wide an audience as possible. It may not seem like much — I’m not famous, and I still don’t connect with a particularly large number of people — but those who have reached out to me with questions about my experience at Yale remind me of exactly why representation matters.
I receive messages from younger students who tell me that they look up to me and view me as a means of entrance to a world that they knew little to nothing about. I'm constantly answering questions that these students have about college through social media. I even get messages from parents thanking me for being open about my experiences and sharing that they’ve had their children read my articles or watch my videos for inspiration. We can’t underestimate the value of seeing ourselves in someone’s shoes in order to believe our goals are achievable.
I’m not saying I’m a role model or that anybody should aspire to be like me. But I am proud to be open about my experiences, both positive and negative, because you never know who may be looking for inspiration or a reflection of oneself.