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In My Opinion: Strong As Oak

Diedre L. Badejo ’73 is deeply rooted in community.

Diedre Badejo with her daughter, Kim, at USC in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy of Diedre Badejo.
Diedre Badejo with her daughter, Kim, at USC in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy of Diedre Badejo.

Consider Khalil Gibran’s passage in the chapter “On Giving” as told in 1923’s The Prophet: “They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish … . And what desert greater shall there be than that which lies in the courage and the confidence, nay the charity, of receiving.”

Gibran intimates that humans — like trees — must give and receive freely if we are to bloom continuously. And like trees, we must also weather many storms.

I am a bicoastal sapling, and where I stand now is as much a mystery as it is a revelation. Always passionate about learning, I’ve frequently met with resistance. As a high school junior, I won a merit scholarship but a rather indolent counselor refused to guide me through the college application process. Frustrated, I took classes that summer, graduated early, got a job, got married and at 18 became a mother. After three years, I fled an abusive marriage, lost the scholarship and gained responsibility for our 16-month-old daughter. But I never lost sight of completing college. Being a first-generation college student is often fraught with such near misses.

A few years after arriving in L.A., I graduated from Los Angeles Community College and after winning a Ford Foundation scholarship, USC Dornsife offered me the gift of a second chance — and an undergraduate degree.

USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project (JEP), too, gave me a chance to give that which I so desperately wanted to receive. It became, and remains, an opportunity to build a ladder of hope to students destined to become “firsts” in their families.

My JEP peers and I saw in the eyes of these young students familiar bright lights telegraphing ambition, talent, vision and hope. We also saw in their classrooms despair scattered among the few outdated textbooks, long, dingy corridors and the passionate teachers exhausted with supplementing more and more materials to give their students a fighting chance. 

It was an early lesson in educational disparity that moved beyond the individual indifference that I experienced at better-funded schools, to a more structural disparity that, until then, I was unaware existed.

A transformative mission emerged — to get hopeful students to see themselves as they wish to be seen, not as others wish to see them. They fueled my commitment to excel in service to those who sought to receive not just hope but also help in achieving their own goals.

Believe me, since then no matter the task, the brilliant eyes of those JEP kids continue to inspire me. Recruiting middle and secondary school students, and mentoring graduate students, junior faculty or emerging leaders invigorates new ways of thinking and doing, and keeps me grounded in the obligation of second chances.

As department chair at Kent State University, I’d ask Upward Bound high school students if they knew what department chairs did. Most didn’t. I’d explain, then ask, “Who wants my job?” As hands slowly rose, I’d say, “Your training starts today.” One young student perched between her parents and grandmother took me up on it. After being admitted, she became a work-study student in my office, then a faculty assistant and an outreach program tutor. She was last seen in graduate school preparing, as I had encouraged, to do my job.

Arriving at USC, I only knew I wanted to graduate, write, teach, research and understand the world. To me, USC was the portal to personal and community evolution. Living life fully is like being a ripple in a pond. Starting with my own family, it means disrupting patterns, creating new seascapes. Now, whatever “firsts” my children and mentees achieve, they will do so from the starting gate of their own post-secondary experiences.

Fortunately, USC’s faculty and JEP nurtured many first-generation students like me. It is often said, to whom much is given, much is expected. Today I speak with a voice that was once threatened with being silenced by enmity and fear.

Like artists sculpting bonsai trees, I believe we are responsible for bringing to light the hidden jewels of those who entrust themselves to us. As we prune and reshape them, we receive a gift that reflects our own courage, vision and labor. And that is as it should be.

Diedre L. Badejo graduated with her bachelor’s in English in 1973. A Fulbright Senior Scholar and professor of African, African Diaspora and Comparative Studies at the University of Baltimore, she’s widely published. She is also an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow, class of 2006-07. Her pioneering work on the Yoruba goddess Osun led her to serve as content expert on the Osun Osogbo segment for a forthcoming PBS documentary, Sacred Journeys, to be aired in December 2014.

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine's Spring-Summer 2014 issue