At 17, I had life figured out—I’d be set (and ready for adulthood) if I just focused on making good grades, keeping a decent job, and fitting in with friends. The grades and the job helped me get the things that I wanted like Playstation games, sneakers, and money. And then having all of those things helped me fit in.
Two things that I wasn’t focused on? College and traveling. I didn’t think that either was meant for me.
College seemed like a waste of time since I already had everything figured out. I was on track to be the class valedictorian, had a decent job at the Banana Republic, and had a cute girlfriend. What more did I need? And travel was something that happened on TV and in the movies. It was out of my reach so, I didn’t even dream of it.
But soon enough, both of these impractical options became part of my reality.
I knew I wouldn’t be going to college, but my parents assumed I would be going. For half of my senior year in high school, I tried my best to avoid the conversation. Finally, I was cornered with a direct question.
“What university are you going to?” one of them asked. Uh oh.
“I’m not,” I said with the unearned confidence of a 17-year-old. I told them that I’d be attending a technical college like my older brother.
Technical colleges made sense to me because most of them promised job placement after graduation. Meanwhile, I hadn’t heard of any university offering a similar guarantee.
My dad was not having it. Instead of looking pleased or relieved that I had come up with a plan, he threatened to kick me out of the house. He refused to settle for nothing less than a four-year college.
I spent a decent amount of time coming up with another solution. Eventually, a friend told me about New Jersey Institute of Technology, a four-year university. With the word technology in the name, I figured it would be similar to a technical college.
I worked up the courage to share my latest plan with my parents. And they approved. I also told them that I’d be staying on campus because I don’t take kindly to threats of being kicked out the house. I actually don’t remember how I worded it but in my memory, I was stern and tough.
College and Clubs
August rolled around and school was about to begin. College was being forced on me but, since I was covering most of my tuition and expenses, I had to take it seriously. Having such a big financial responsibility ended up being a great thing because I didn’t want to waste a dime. I finished all my homework, never skipped class, and joined clubs.
I spent most of my free time at one club, in particular, The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). I was drawn to the students in the organization who looked like me and had well-planned career aspirations. They all wanted to be engineers of some kind—from biomedical to electrical or industrial.
The students were career driven and had already started formulating their long-term goals. I didn’t have that. I was focused on the day-to-day and not what I would do in four or five years. My new friends made me reflect on my career goals. I spent as much time with them as I could, hoping their passion would rub off on me.
Soon enough I learned about the NSBE national conference, an annual event that brings all the U.S. NSBE chapters together for networking, workshops, and a career fair. All my new NSBE friends planned on going so I was determined to go too even though the registration fee was steep. I worked extra hours and saved my money so I could head to Anaheim, California with them. That extra hustle paid off, and I even received a scholarship to attend the 5-day conference for free.
The big day came and at 18-years-old, I took my first plane ride. I played it cool but it was a big moment for me. Here I was, a freshman in college heading across the country (without my parents). Talk about feeling grown and in charge.
When I think back on the conference, I remember everyone being dressed up for the opening and closing ceremonies. The speakers were great, but it was the 10,000 aspiring black engineers dressed in their finest business attire that really got me.
We were all in one place sounding, feeling, and looking oh-so-sharp. Seeing all these black achievers in one place gave me so much to think and dream about.
Being around all these young, black, bold students who believed in themselves made me believe that I can do, be, and achieve more than I had before imagined.
So, as much as I don’t want to admit it, the threats from my parents paid off because I found my tribe. The friends I made through NSBE and the conference I attended opened my mind up to a world of possibilities. See, no one ever told me that I couldn’t be an engineer, but no one ever told that I could be one either.
We don’t know what we don’t know. But ignorance isn’t bliss. It means you’re missing out. And it means you won’t realize your full potential.
So here I am today, a college grad, user experience designer, writer, podcaster, and world traveler. I finally realize I don’t have it all figured it out (who does?) so now I stay ready for whatever and whoever comes my way. Just as I think, “I’ll never do that…” or “I’ll never go there…”, the world has a funny way of proving me wrong.