Growing up in Inglewood, I often wondered about my future. My mother died when I was five and my father was not a stable presence in my life. I was raised by my grandmother and three aunts, all of whom were raising their own kids by themselves. Despite the challenges I faced, my grandmother always told me that the one opportunity I had control over to make my life better was education. With that in mind, I kept pushing myself forward in school even when it was tough – determined to make my family proud.
After graduating high school I enrolled at UC-Riverside, excited and honored to be the first in my family to pursue higher education. But as I set foot on campus those first few weeks, I began to question whether or not I was capable of staying here. I counted up all the ‘strikes’ I thought I had against me that made me less deserving of a spot in college: black, male, low-income, and first-generation college student. I was further unsettled by the lack of people who looked like me I saw on campus. I often wondered — why was I the only person of color in some of my classes? Why did black men seem to be an endangered species on my campus? And most importantly, what made my path so different from many of the students of color I went to high school with? Why had I made it to college when so many of them had not?
These questions penetrated every corner of my mind until I began to seek answers. I got involved with student government on my campus and tapped into my power as both student and citizen – a constituent who can enact change. As I grew and progressed at UCR my experiences with the student government, opportunities abroad, professional development, and interactions with my community taught me to be much more confident in who I am.
After graduating, I landed a full-time internship in the corporate world that put me on the path to achieving my ultimate goal of financially supporting my family. But I quickly realized that driving sales in red and khaki was not for me. I felt unfulfilled. So later that year, I secured an internship with an education organization in Washington, D.C. As I learned more about the current state of education and the inequity that plagues our system, I knew it was the cause I would take up as my own.
Too often, ‘getting out’ is the goal for people who grow up in communities like mine. But, over time, I’ve realized that as a first-generation college-educated black male, I have to do the opposite. I need to get back in, to move home to California and help kids growing up in circumstances like mine unleash their potential and create the bright futures they deserve.
So, next year I will enter the classroom to teach secondary history in my hometown of Los Angeles. This work will be incredibly difficult. The responsibility I have to help my students achieve big goals and support them on the way to getting there is the most serious I have ever taken on. But the stakes are too high to just walk away. My grandmother taught me that education was the key to rising above my circumstances. Now, it is my responsibility to teach the next generation the same crucial lesson.
As I transition from “Brandon” the student to “Mr. Walke” the teacher, I know I will need to work in close partnership with the parents, teachers, and community members who have been working towards justice and equity long before I arrived. And I also know that as a classroom leader, I can build a powerful coalition to make access to opportunity equitable. Together, we can ensure that a quality education is not a privilege afforded to few, but a right afforded to all. I hope you’ll join us in this work.
From TRiO Scholars peer mentor, Teach for America corps member and UCR student Brandon Walke.