BY ALEXIS CLAYTOR
You need to actually believe that you’re a great person and that you can do great things, and so I get that feeling of being surprised, but also why not?
This is how our conversation starts, inspiring me to see the greatness within myself and within the project I’ve recently started. An idea that I was honestly a bit surprised to see accepted into the accelerator. Just like most conversations with Nnaemeka (Emeka, for short), I knew I would leave with more inspiration and clarity than I initially had tucked away in the crevices of my mind, heart and soul.
Social justice educator, advocate, FYP community member and all-around dope individual, Nnaemeka Ekwelum is not only a close friend of over 10 years, but he’s also one of the most intelligent and self-aware people I know. Check out our conversation below about his first-year experience teaching, applying to PhD programs and the magic behind walking in your own truth.
What gets you up every morning and why?
So right now, in my life, what gets me up is knowing how badly I want to pursue my PhD. And so even just a few minutes ago I changed the wallpaper of my lock screen up to my name. It says Dr. N. Emeka C. Ekwelum and then the next line says “N. Emeka C. Ekwelum, PhD.” hahaha.
You know, just trying to remember that. Every time I look at my phone, or want to distract myself by like you know reading some article or doing whatever, I’m constantly reminded of what my purpose is.
It’s also largely knowing that I’m living and walking in my purpose. I’ve gotten to the point in my life when I don’t actually want to make compromises on who I am—whether that’s professionally, personally, or whatever. And so everyday being just an opportunity to demonstrate that. I just love the idea of feeling free and feeling like I know that I’m walking in my truth.
Part of it is because I’ve done the work to get to this point. It was very hard. Kind of like what we were talking about with your transition in your first year, I had to go through a lot of that stuff to get to this point now. So I think part of it is just knowing that whatever I’m working on and whatever I’m working towards, even if I fail at this point, it’s going to be failing towards something more successful in the long run. Just knowing that allows me to move and walk with confidence.
In your work and creative process, what keeps you up late at night?
Just like anyone who’s striving to be successful, I’m really critical, and sometimes to a fault where it can be a little paralyzing. A lot of thinking about my day, and what could have been done better. I think a lot of that is constantly trying to think about how I can evolve and grow.
And, I will say, a lot of what keeps me up at night are what get me up in the morning. I do my best work at night. It’s when my mind is most active. So it’s typically when I’m laying in bed when I’m dreaming about the life I want to live and the life I want my family to have. I also read a lot of articles that are related to things I’m looking into. I do a lot of thinking at night about my goals.
What were your neighborhood and upbringing like, and how have they influenced the person you are today?
When I think about how I was raised, it’s really interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. A lot of who I am is influenced by the black women in my life. I’m very grateful for that. And I’m talking about my mother, my sister, my best friends, like black women—you know, the people who kind of set me straight and set me right in the world.
Now with that said, I’m at a point now where, especially because my research interests are looking like they are shaping up to be focusing on the development of black boys or at least looking at like how black boys become black men, I’m realizing that outside of my brothers, I don’t really have black male mentorship in my life. When you’re finding doctoral programs you have to get a committee of professors to work with. And it’s really actually influencing who I want to work with, where some of the professors I really want to work with are two black men. I think one because I really believe in the work they’re doing, but I’ve also heard great things about them personally. So it’s interesting now that I’m actively seeking that type of mentorship because of my past experiences.
This is such a big question, because also I think what drives me as well is my family. So my family, we were like homeless at one point. When I say homeless, like we all stayed in 1 bedroom in my aunt’s house, where her 4 kids, her husband and my grandma also lived. It was a three bedroom apartment. We didn’t have our own home, and we had been evicted. I think going through those particular struggles are what drive me, too.
If you can think back to your first year as an educator, what was one of the biggest mistakes you made in your novice years and what lessons have you learned from it?
Being a black person within white context professionally was very, very difficult for me. It’s also being the type of black person that I am. I’d like to think that I have radical sensibility. Where I was working was very traditional, and they weren’t really interested in prioritizing the changes that originally empowered me to become a teacher.
I was one of few people of color on the faculty, but also being the youngest for 2 of my 3 years working there, there was a way in which I expressed and demonstrated my politics that immediately gave people, I guess, a reason to not listen to me. And because of that, even as I was continuing to express truths, it made it that people wouldn’t listen to me because “Of course Emeka is talking about this”, as opposed to “Maybe we should listen.”
So my approach—I needed to study the crowd a little bit more to learn how to navigate that. But with that said, I also appreciate what I did too, because I think it really set the tone so people knew not to f- around with my politics—which I really appreciated.
We deal with a lot of stress and a lot of uncertainty, which just upsets who we are as people. What does it mean when you operate throughout the day and you don’t really know what people really think about you as a black human being? I also think about the oversaturation of the black “crisis” in media. What other culture do you know that wakes up every morning to their twitter feed of another article about a black man shot down or a black child who was reprimanded at school because they had “nappy” hair? No other culture wakes up every morning and has to deal with all of that—everyone dissecting our lives and analyzing it like that. So it also makes me think about what this does to our psyche and how these things can limit what productive conversations we can have on race.
If you were to talk to your first-year self, what words of wisdom would you share?
When negotiating your compensation, do not sell yourself short. When you know what you know, and you know you do it well, don’t let anyone convince you that you’re deserving of any less than what you think you deserve. So my advice would be to live and strive to know yourself, so when it comes down to those crucial moments you don’t second guess yourself. I know in the first year it’s tough, because you feel like you don’t know a lot of things and it is your first year, but appreciate that process because once you know who you are you just walk with so much more confidence.
Emeka is now enrolled in a graduate education program at Harvard University.
Interested in sharing and submitting a personal essay on your first-year experience? Stay tuned for more information here on firstyearproject.com to see how you can get involved as an FYP community member!