Inspire – Women of Dartmouth Stories

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Cultivating Joy and Peace

Sope Ogunyemi ’01 reflects on her years at Dartmouth where she developed lifelong friend-ships and honed an approach to life challenges that she still employs today in solving problems

I was honored to share my story as part of the Inspire Stories Series. I have been a storyteller for a long time, and fittingly it was at Dartmouth that I was introduced to the concept of feminism and the idea that the personal is political. I loved these ideas and realized that the more we share our stories, the more we are able to show up authentically, the more we can shift culture. Still, since Dartmouth, I have realized how hard it is to continually speak your truth as you grow and navigate life. 

In recent years I have struggled to keep telling my story and I have sought out authors who are courageous in this way, as inspiration.  When I was asked to be a part of this “Inspire” series, it immediately brought to mind words from a Ted Talk I heard a few years ago:

“Defying the culture of silence, defying the tradition of silence which I call an act of civil disobedience is how change happens. It is when we speak up against what hurts us that we can see a societal shift, no matter how small. The tradition of silence demands your full cooperation in erasing your stories. Because it is one thing to know your story, it is another to tell it.” – Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Dismantling the Culture of Silence (TEDx Cooper Union)

To me this quote captures the heart of the “Inspire” initiative. Being a part of this and seeing these videos and essays has inspired, and given me the courage, to continue to share my story. I hope Women of Dartmouth, and people everywhere, keep sharing their stories too. 

Here’s (part) of mine.

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria into a tight-knit extended family with strong cultural bonds. My father, a doctor, came to Los Angeles to pursue his residency in the mid 80s– after already completing it in Nigeria.  My mother, me and my two sisters soon followed him (I have two sisters, one 16 months older and one about 3 years younger, who are still my best friends to this day).  

In Los Angeles, we lived in Ladera Heights, a black, affluent neighborhood that in the late 80s still didn’t recognize Africans, in a city and country that still struggles to recognize Black people. I remember, for example, being called African booty scratcher and my dad recalls being pulled over by the cops, even in his scrubs, being forced to sit on the side of the road, questioned about why he was driving a Mercedes and then, luckily, let go, without explanation or apology; multiple times.

In December 1990, we went back to Nigeria, I remember thinking, for vacation, and then we stayed for four years.  First I went to a small private school. I made friends, had crushes and through a combination of timing and ability, I ended up skipping two grades by going through 4th, 5th and 6th grade in one year. My parents got a divorce and I decided to try and escape my conflicting feelings about what was happening at home by going away to boarding school. Those years passed in a blur, but what stuck with me was the realization that I wasn’t Nigerian enough, I was too “American” to be fully Nigerian. 

Based on the arrangement between my parents, we moved back to the US to live with my father, finish high school and go to college. This time we landed in Tuscaloosa, AL and this is where I learned that I was Black in America. My recollection of Tuscaloosa was of the stereotypically southern town, divided by color – and economic lines – almost literally by railroad tracks. As an upper middle class, African, single father household with three girls, there was definitely no narrative of how we fit in.  We attended one of two schools there, the small private school where, of about 500 or so kids, 6 of us were Black – 3 of them brothers on a football scholarship – and my sisters and I. 

We only stayed in Tuscaloosa for a year then moved to a middle class, primarily Italian town in New Jersey, where I tried to navigate a new label, “rich”. My father, now fully practicing, bought a mansion, that my classmates referred to as “the Batcave”.  I started to write, filled out college applications and did my best to fit in. I would realize it wasn’t really working that well though when for example, my guidance counselor questioned my decision to apply only to Ivy League schools.  Despite my stellar grades – I had straight A’s my entire high school career – and a slew of stellar extra-curricular activities, she encouraged me to apply to more “suitable” schools that might be a better “fit.”  I certainly got the sense that she was telling me that excellence and elite were not supposed to “fit” me, but I persevered. 

In one sense though, she wasn’t wrong about the fit. Coming to Dartmouth was a bit of a shock, apart from the cold, I jokingly say it was where I learned I was “poor.” The atmosphere of privilege was palpable and it certainly took some getting used to. Having moved around so much, and very clearly seen the limits ascribed to how I didn’t fit in, really in any culture, clearly illustrated to me the boundaries of culture, the narratives we tell to enforce this idea of who we are, and how those narratives create (sometimes detrimental) ties that bind us. 

At Dartmouth, I started to study culture, race and the impact they have on interpersonal relationships, but there is so much more I would have liked to say about my personal experience while I was there.   There were many micro reminders that many people would never see past the narrow definitions of who they thought I could be as a Black or African woman, versus seeing the multi-dimensionality of my existence, or seeing me as a unique, fully evolved individual. One example was the English teacher who insisted I write about huts and lions in Africa, or about how other students insisted that I was there because of my athletic skill, when I was a walk-on to the track team with talent that could be described as aspirational at best. 

Because of these microaggressions, and overall youthful angst, I don’t remember my time at Dartmouth particularly fondly, but there are a number of things I took away from the experience that I value greatly, including the lifelong friendships that I mention in the video. One thing that has stuck with me, is the approach to life challenges that I still employ in solving health, relationship, parenting and other challenges; study the problem, research best practices, apply them, learn what works for me and adjust as needed. Even though it can feel like there is always more to do, be and achieve, I’ve learned that for me, sometimes the greatest joy is found in still, quiet, peaceful everyday moments. Sometimes, joy just feels like… peace.

There are also people I remember who I felt did see me authentically, like my creative writing advisor, Ernie Hebert, but I realize now that it was hard to interact fully in those instances because to some extent, I had internalized some of the limiting perceptions.  Perhaps telling these stories can help the community better understand the Black female experience at Dartmouth (I have heard from recent graduates that similar things still happen) and the very real toll they exact from Black women, and of course other marginalized groups. 

I recorded this video while I was pregnant with my second son and life continues to ebb and flow. As I approach my 40th birthday, in the middle of a pandemic, with what seems like the world ending and many people dying and struggling, I find myself returning to gratitude in the midst of the anxiety of life today. I am grateful for my family, my life, my home and moments of blissful peace (like now, as I write this at 6am).  And, I am looking forward to the next 40 years and how my understanding of my story so far changes as new chapters continue to be written. 

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