Jadayah Spencer — About Me
I was born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It generally has a rough reputation (it’s often referred to as Bed-Stuy Do-or-Die), but it’s the place that I love and call home. There, in my childhood, I attended Little Sun People, an Afrocentric day care center that taught young children Swahili, Spanish, English and African Dance while (every day) instilling in them the pride and confidence that comes from knowing about Black History. From there, I attended public school until eventually going to a Muslim school until eighth grade.
In first grade, I’d come home from school and my mother would ask me, “What’d you learn today, Jadayah?” I never liked to lie, so one day I said, “Nothing, Mom.” Shocked, she asked me, “What do you mean, nothing?!” Then I explained to her that I had spent my day helping my fellow students understand the concepts I had already grasped. The next day, she walked up to the school and asked my teacher and principal: “Since you all have my daughter tutoring, are you going to give her a tutoring salary?” Next thing I know I’m being transported upstairs to a second-grade classroom. Then after I entered the third grade, I soon found myself getting skipped again to fourth.
In eighth grade, I was homeschooled by an aunt from my mosque who was also a teacher–she personally taught my cousin and me. In ninth grade, I tried transferring out of the violent school I was in. I originally wanted to transfer into Bedford Academy, but to my disappointment my transfer application wasn’t accepted and I ended up going to Frederick Douglass Academy IV. The year I graduated high school, I returned to Bedford Academy, not as a student, but as the keynote speaker to their graduation dinner (quite the personal triumph for me). I’m currently a third-year student majoring in Anthropology, with a double minor in Social Entrepreneurship and East Asian Studies at New York University, attending on a Dean’s Scholarship. Yale reached out to me in my junior year of high school but my parents didn’t want me too far away from home.
I grew up in a home where (in the spot) a television would normally go in a home, there was a King Tut figurehead, and my mother and father took me to libraries, bookstores and museums as often as they could. Just like the great African traveler Ibn Battuta, my mother believes that travel is the best education, so she took me to cultural events and gave me books and games about other countries all the time. When I was younger, one of the games I enjoyed playing on my own was spinning my talking globe around and “visiting” whatever country my pen landed on. Interestingly enough, my father, who was the personal photographer to James Brown, tells me that I’ve managed to travel farther than even he has. My parents taught me about the greats in Black History–about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, about Shirley Chisholm, Elijah Muhammad, Hannibal of Carthage, among many others, and made sure I knew of the struggles that Black people have been through to be where we are today. I still believe we have a long way to go, wherever we may be on the Earth. I also strongly attribute my love of cultures and languages to my parents, who taught me about people from all over the world, and inspired me to eventually go out and see the world for myself.
(I honestly can’t even put into words how grateful I am that they valued my education that much, as to let me know of what I was capable of, I thank God for them.)
Thanks to Mom, I’ve had a passport since I was two, but over the last two years I’ve been blessed to visit five continents: I visited Tanzania, East Africa and Brazil, South America with the International Youth Leadership Institute (www.IYLI.org). IYLI is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering and developing Black and Latino high school students as leaders through travel to countries in Africa and Latin America. They conduct monthlong travel programs for as little as $300, a price only a tad more than that of a pair of Jordan sneakers. I’m now a volunteer and board member for the organization. I’ve also visited Italy in Europe and the United Arab Emirates as part of the NYU Presidential Honors Scholars Program. Lastly, I’ve just returned from four months of studying abroad in Shanghai, China, and I’m finally back home in New York City now. While I was in China, I interned for two organizations and conducted ethnographic research on Chinese and foreign university students’ perceptions of each other; trying to figure out where the gaps in understanding between people were. I was able to cover the vast majority of my travel expenses with my school by applying for financial aid, grants and scholarships which made travel extremely affordable.
I believe there’s no limit to what we can accomplish. I don’t believe in the notions of “can’t” or “impossible”, and I believe that if we manage to think outside of the systems set up for us, we can achieve great things. I traveled to five continents in the past two years, and I was able to, not because I came from an incredibly rich family or because the high school I attended could afford to send me abroad, but because I sought out opportunities to do so. Minimum wage does not equal minimum opportunity, but I feel as if many (if not most) people fail to realize this. Coming from “The Hood” doesn’t mean that I have to grow up to be a negative statistic. I finished high school six months early at the age of fifteen, and returned that same June to give the valedictory address, not because my parents paid for me to have special tutors and teachers, but because (since birth) they instilled in me the earnest desire to learn, and taught me that one of the best gifts I could receive was a book, and to this day I still think that.
For right now, I’m working on finishing college, and if things go according to plan, I’ll have my bachelor’s by the time I’m 19. And I’m considering going to graduate school afterwards. I intend to continue in my studies of Chinese, as someday I think I’d like to be able to serve as an interpreter because the Black nation could use some good diplomats and I feel like (with my experiences traveling and interests in cultures) I could be of help in bridging the mutual understanding between people. Because I don’t believe in limits, and because every new part of the world has something beautiful to offer, I’d like to eventually learn 16 languages; right now, I can only hold whole conversations in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, while my exposure to Arabic, Portuguese, Swahili, French and Japanese have been minimal.
I like to plan for my future years in advance because my father taught me that the greats write their history first, and then they walk into it, rather than the other way around. Of course, I remain open to unexpected opportunities that come my way, but it’s always good to have some sense of direction in what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Then we can ask ourselves, “Is what I’m doing with my life today going to help me get closer to what I want for myself?” I’m really passionate about helping people live out their purposes, about learning, about education, languages, international relations, travel, books, museums, education and life in general.
I look at news stories about other young people doing really cool things (like the girls who get their bachelor’s and Ph.D.’s at 14 years old, like the young people who own businesses and help their communities, etc.), and I think to myself, “I really wish that other people knew they themselves were capable of doing the same”. I wish they knew they had the innate ability to accomplish anything they desired, when they’re willing to put in the work to make manifest in the world, that which lies dormant in their minds. To that effect, one of my main goals is to someday create an educational system where the people of the world can go to achieve and live out their passions and purposes while IN school, rather than waiting until retirement to do what they truly love to do. I believe the systems around the world now fail students: In America alone, more than 50% of college graduates are under-employed or unemployed, and many people graduate from school having not only not discovered their purposes, but they also graduate having learned hardly any applicable life skills. I’m out to change that with the hope that someday schools really will be places where the genius inside everyone is set free. To sum “me” up, I’m out to abolish the word “can’t” from the minds of the world, and the world I’m working toward is one where everyone can work freely toward the realizations of their passions and ambitions, for the benefit of themselves and for the world around them.
(to be continued.)