She married in her teens and wound up a “divorced welfare mother of two sons.” It was a fellow shift worker at the Liberty House Nursing Home, an African immigrant named Abou, who persuaded to try her hand at higher education. Against these steep odds, she climbed the academic ladder all the way from Virginia Western Community College to a law degree at Yale and professorships at Princeton and Vanderbilt. Prominent mentors along the way—at Roanoke College, where she completed her bachelor’s; Virginia Tech, her first master’s degree; and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her doctorate in political science—helped make it possible. But these days, she reflects, “In some ways, I feel like I didn’t always turn out the way people had hoped I would turn out.”
Seven years ago, my Kenyan department head and his Cameroonian assistant sat me down and told me I needed to get my PhD. He’s told others that, but I took his advice. The rest is history.