Hazim Hardeman, a graduate of Community College of Philadelphia and Temple University, is the first student from these schools to win the Rhodes Scholarship. Based on a graduation speech by Hardeman at CCP on May 5, 2018, this op-ed has has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
I know that I’m here as a winner of the Rhodes Scholarship, but when I reflect on my story it’s much less about where I ended up than how I got there.
I want all of us to reflect on our stories, and as we consider what lies ahead to consider what possibilities our journey holds not only for ourselves but for others.
And I want us to do this because often times it can be difficult for us to find meaning and value in our stories. But all of your individual stories, even if you don’t realize it now, mean something to somebody else.
So, while at the Community College of Philadelphia we talk about the path to possibilities. What I want us to consider is our path as a possibility.
This path for me begins in North Philadelphia. I always mention that I’m just a kid from north Philly. I do this not only because North Philadelphians are the coolest people in the world but also because I want to suggest that I’m no different than anybody else who comes from where I’ve come from. If I have done things that are extraordinary, it is not because I’m inherently special. Rather, it is a product of the opportunity I’ve been given.
That first opportunity came for me when my mother, understanding the urgency of transgressing against systems that weren’t designed for people like us to thrive, lied about our ZIP code so that my brother and I could attend a predominantly white, more resourced elementary school. There, I was shaped by a culture of investment. I was able to grow and develop in an educational setting in which the student’s ability was assumed, not impugned. I was afforded the basic dignity of having the proper tools to allow learning to occur.
But it wasn’t always easy for me. In my junior year of high school, I nearly failed out. I had a GPA of 0.01. I was behind a bunch of credits and at risk of not graduating on time. I was the kid who cut class, who ran the halls, and whose favorite subject was lunch. (That’s why it’s so funny to me that I’m asked to speak at my high school now as some example when I’m sure when I was a student I was the source of many headaches). To give an example of how bad a student I was, I often tell the story of the time I took a Spanish class, showed up one time and received a 1 as a numerical grade. This was due to circumstances, not ability (which I think is true of all students).
But even then I had people who believed in me, who didn’t give up on me. I can specifically remember one moment that in retrospect probably saved my life. I was given a book by my English teacher, Tyrell by Coe Booth, about a young black boy trying to navigate the trials of adolescence while dealing with a challenging family situation. I’m not sure how this teacher knew that I needed that book at that moment in my life, considering I never went to class. But I did. The book spoke to me. It resonated with me as I saw myself reflected in its pages. It let me know I wasn’t alone in the world.
When looking back on that experience now, I’m reminded of the words of black novelist James Baldwin, who once wrote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” And that’s what I did — I read. And it was through reading that not only was the world as I knew it to be affirmed, but I was given a vision of the world, my world, as it could be. To put it differently, I began to consider other paths as a possibility.
I share this because for me this is part of what considering our path as possibility entails. It calls on us to develop a deeper imagination, to be residents of a world that is not yet. It asks that we don’t simply romanticize stories in which a mother risks her freedom so that her children can get a quality education, but that we call into question why she must do so in the first place. It asks that as we get our fancy scholarships, degrees, job titles, we don’t mistake personal achievement for collective success, individual access and opportunity for meaningful social transformation.
In our lifetimes, many of us will go on to become a first. I’ve been fortunate to be selected as the first Rhodes Scholar from CCP and Temple University. Many of you are the first in your family to attend college, while others of you are the first to graduate. And there’s a particular lure about being a first, the stroke of the ego, the feeling that you’ve been able to accomplish something that others before you couldn’t. But we should never mistake our being first for being the first who were worthy.
So as you take the next steps in your journey, I want you along the way to consider your path as possibility not only in your thought but in your actions — which means as you walk through doors, don’t close them behind you. Leave them open for the next person to walk through, and for the person after that to tear them down.
This story about community college achievement was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.