My whole life was centered around Richmond, CA.
My grandpa, Dr. Joseph Stokes, was one of the first black dentists in Northern California, and he started the first African-American medical practice in West Contra Costa County with a couple of his friends. They revolutionized healthcare for the low-income, African-American population in Richmond, and were extremely prideful in their ability to give back to their community. After he left his practice, he worked at the local county jail for a while. Unfortunately, it was there that he recognized there was only so much he could do for the youth in the community after they left his office. Day by day, he began to see inmates that had been his patients from back when they were children. He knew their parents, their grandparents, where they used to live, and now he only had a half hour appointment window to find out what went wrong in their life. In Richmond, this is a reality. A painful one at that. And he did whatever he could to make sure my reality didn’t involve being behind those bars.
Instead of going to middle school and high school in Richmond, my parents sent me to Albany, a small, upper-middle class town right outside of Berkeley. It was a culture shock to me, whether or not I realized it at that young age. I went to school in Richmond for 7 years before going to Albany, and now I was planted in an unfamiliar environment and was told by my mom that it was for my own good. She was right. Albany is one of the best public schools in the state, and I was able to thrive in a competitive academic environment for the remainder of my K-12 education. But that didn’t mean I didn’t feel like an outsider. During my junior year in high school, I was getting ready to apply for college. My mom and I sat down together and came up with a list of schools and majors that I wanted to apply for, including UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and other top-tier schools. I was pretty confident in myself that I could get in, especially since I spent a good part of my life proving to myself that I had the potential.
The next day, I walked into my counselor’s office and handed her my list of schools. She looked at me, and then looked at the list and paused. She crumpled up the list, and tossed it in the trash.
“We’re going to think of some more realistic options for you.”
I was crushed.
I couldn’t believe someone, whose profession it was to help kids get into college, would say something like that. At this point, I firmly believed that I was not good enough. My mom and I had planned to finish applications in a couple of weeks, and I told her to not even bother with top-tier schools anymore. It would be a waste of time and money.
Around March of my senior year in high school, everyone started getting their acceptance letters into college. I got a few acceptance letters from some decent schools, but was rejected from most places. I was taking a nap, and my mom comes busting through my door.
“YOU GOT INTO UCLA! YOU GOT INTO UCLA!”
“You’re crazy, I didn’t apply there. To be honest, that’s kinda mean if you’re joking.”
“No! Before we submitted the application, I clicked the checkmark for UCLA when you went to the other room and I applied for you!”
And just like that, I was a Bruin… on accident.
If my mom didn’t do that for me, my life would be completely different.
I hated my first two years at UCLA. Going to my first frat party, they let all of my white friends in but I was the only one left at the door. When I moved into the dorms, I was one of two black people on my floor. There were a total of about 1,000 residents in that one dorm, and there were a total of 7 African-Americans. Actually, I’m not even full black, and the other guy on my floor was half, so together we basically made… one full black dude? It was a culture shock, again, but this time I was fully conscious of my circumstances.
During my sophomore year, I was introduced to the Black Male Institute of UCLA, which is an undergraduate research cohort. BMI researched black male retention, access, and advocating for black male youth to get into college. My friend took me to a meeting and wanted me to be involved. At the time, I didn’t care to be a part of it. I wasn’t into social justice or anything. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life yet, but I just wanted to get out of UCLA.
The professor assigned us to write a reflection paper on an article, which we had about 30 minutes to write. He read my paper and was impressed. He wanted to me join the research cohort.
The professor was Dr. Howard, and he saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. From then on, he became my mentor, and helped me through everything. He helped me with research, setting up visits to grad schools, and when the video released, he helped me with navigating the media. I love spoken word, and made a video about the issues at UCLA, and then all this happened. I didn’t have the intention of it blowing up like that. I just wanted the administration at UCLA to see it, and to do something about it.
When I saw the impact I was able to make after that video, I knew I discovered my passion. Dr. Howard was talking to me about what I wanted to do next. I told him I was completely against grad school because I just didn’t have the money for it. He laughed,
“You know PhDs are free, right?”
As I finished up my undergraduate career at UCLA, my grandfather was too sick to fly down to attend my graduation. I dressed up in my cap and gown and visited him during his final days, and was able to tell him that I graduated college, and I was applying to grad school, and this was all because of him. He never, ever cried… and he cried there in front of me. Even in his state of dementia, he recognized how important this moment was, and told me how proud he was.
On his final day, I get a text from my mom and I sped over to make it to my grandpa in Richmond. I said my last words to him.
“I’m going to be a doctor just like you. No matter what I do, nothing is going to stop me from being the next Dr. Stokes. I promise, I love you so much.”
I had applied to a lot of PhD programs, but most universities don’t accept students straight from undergrad because they want students to get their masters first. I was expecting rejection letters, and I got them. One school did believe in me, and offered me a full ride for their PhD program.
But then I receive another letter. From an Ivy League school. Something I never thought I would say.
I was rejected from their PhD program, but the University of Pennsylvania had accepted me into their Master’s program.
I declined the full ride PhD offer from the other school, and chose to pay the money for the Master’s program instead. I didnt want money to be the reason I didn’t attend a school like that. And I know my grandpa wouldn’t have wanted that to be a reason either. I’m sad he wasn’t able to see my acceptance letter, but it was enough that a promise I made my grandpa was going to be fulfilled.
When my grandfather passed, we held his memorial in Richmond, and so many people from the community came to remember him. He had such a big impact on the city, and it made me really prideful about Richmond. Seeing my grandpa’s legacy unfold solidified what I wanted to do with my life, and nothing is going to stop me at this point. I’m not a lost college graduate trying to find my footing. I have a purpose in my life. I have a legacy to continue.