Striving to Feel Awake: Achampong and King Prepare to Lead UGBC

Like most people, Akosua Achampong, MCAS ’18, had an awkward experience at dinner the first night of freshman orientation. She was with her mom, her brother, her Orientation Leader, and a couple of other families. Somebody’s dad was asking questions of every student except Achampong, so much so that other people at the table started to get uncomfortable. Her OL made a point of asking her something about her high school career.Achampong said she didn’t mind that the dad been leaving her out, but when she answered quickly and confidently, it got weirder.

“He looked at me like it was crazy that I had responded to her question in the manner that I did,” she said.

When they went up to the buffet for dinner, the dad started talking to Achampong in line. She must be pretty smart, he said, to have gotten into Boston College. It must have been her first choice. It wasn’t, she answered, but she got in and decided to come. Oh, wow, the guy said.

It annoyed Achampong. It’s impossible to prove, but the subtext was that he underestimated her because she’s black. You’ve got to wonder what he’d be thinking now.

***

Achampong hasn’t been checking her email. After a whirlwind week last month, during which she won the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship and was elected next year’s president of the Undergraduate Government of BC, she had to take a step back, overwhelmed by an outpouring of congratulations. She told me this in a very matter-of-fact way, as if avoiding your email for weeks is easy to do.

“I’m a student first,” she said. Most students would be freaking out.

Akosua Achampong isn’t most students, though. It’s clear as soon as she starts talking. Ask her about her family or student activism or her favorite works of academic scholarship and she’ll reply with the same easy, casual erudition that makes people marvel. Her friend Maria Guerra, MCAS ’18, said Achampong is the type of person who goes out of her way for other people. She’s a listener and a leader, and she’s expressive, a natural advocate.

Part of that stems from her upbringing. Achampong was born in New Jersey, with two older brothers, to Ghanaian parents who immigrated to the U.S. in the ’80s. Her name, Akosua, means “born on a Sunday.” They grew up in a community with other Ghanaian families, spending so much time with them that Achampong didn’t really feel American until she started going to school. She learned Twi, a language native to Ghana, as she learned English. Ghanaians value communal spaces—kids often call all adults “auntie” or “uncle”—and Achampong feels a natural tendency to want to spend time with people.

“When people ask me where I’m from, I just assume that they’re asking my ethnic background, so I say Ghana,” she said. “And they say ‘Oh, you were born in Ghana?’ And I’m like no, I was born in New Jersey.”

As the family’s only girl, her brothers would give her a hard time—older, bigger, and just two years apart from each other, they had a bond that she didn’t have. But then Achampong started reading—Dr. Seuss when she was young, then heavier topics like Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun, a story about the transatlantic slave trade—her first exposure to Afro literature. When she didn’t know a word she’d look it up, like every parent encourages their kids to do, despite the fact that they probably won’t. Except she actually did, and it changed that relationship with her brothers.

“You can only cry so many times,” she said. “So I would just talk back. And if I could say something they didn’t fully understand, I’d be like, ‘Okay, I won this.’”

At the same time, she’d watch her brothers. If something didn’t work out for them, she figured it wouldn’t work for her. Watch, listen, and learn. Her parents encouraged her to express herself and articulate her feelings from a young age.

Achampong, a communication major, always wanted to be a doctor, and you weren’t going to tell her otherwise, she said. And she wanted to go to Boston University—but when she visited, she hated it. Someone told her about BC, adding that she probably wouldn’t get in.

“A lot of things that happen in my life end up being because somebody challenged me to do it,” she said, laughing—it goes back to the whole sibling thing. So she applied to BC, in a sense, to prove that naysayer wrong, with no intention of coming. But when she got in, she did some research, and ended up committing without even visiting.  

Achampong arrived at BC at the end of the summer to find her roommate had already moved in, but wasn’t in the room—Tt King, MCAS ’18, was at practice.

***

King, next year’s UGBC executive vice president, grew up where the housewives are from, but you’d never guess it. Orange County, Calif., her home, was white and socioeconomically homogenous. Racism didn’t exist there, if you believed the locals. Her parents, though, were different: Her mom’s family emigrated from Germany toward the end of the 20th century, and her dad grew up in small-town West Texas. They kept an open mind about everything, with a strong matriarchal figure in her mom who never discouraged her from being outspoken.

But the uniformity of the O.C. was still the environment where she grew up. Almost every teacher she had up until college was white. Textbooks were written from a generally white, male perspective. She grew up Catholic, and religious life was the same for most families and generally male-dominated.

“I didn’t start questioning it until I was in high school, just because you grow up and you sort of take in what’s around you and take that as truth,” King said.

The biggest change came in eighth grade, when King started performing with a group in Los Angeles, an hour and a half away. Not dance, exactly, but—and King prefaced it by saying “this is so bizarre”—professional-level color guard, kind of like acrobatics with flags. She hated it at first, but her older sister, Ashley, wouldn’t let her quit. She’s thankful for that, and the group became her people in high school. The kids were primarily immigrants from Mexico and Central America, exposing her to what it was like being a person of color. It wasn’t until she got to BC, however, where she started taking sociology classes and had Achampong as her roommate, that she began to develop a deeper understanding of race.

For King, color guard was an escape from the alternative reality of Orange County, and it seemed to fit in more with the values her family had instilled in her. It also gave King, who is a lesbian but did not come out until she was a freshman at BC, a glimpse into what she calls the “dark side” of the LGBTQ+ community. People often don’t look past the Pride parades to the statistics on sexual violence faced by trans people, she said. King had a friend who experienced an HIV scare. She knew people who’d been kicked out of their homes. Before she came out, it set a tone for how she could be an ally to the community, and now it informs her identity and what she wants to do with her life—after she finishes her sociology degree, King plans to get a master’s in social work from BC.

Steve Pope, a theology professor, met King at orientation. She came up to him after his lecture, introduced herself, and said she’d like to take his class. No freshman had ever said that to him at orientation before. King took Pope’s Challenge of Justice course her first semester.

“She was one of the most articulate, well-prepared, intelligent students in the class, and it was mostly juniors and seniors,” Pope said.

King has since served as a research assistant for Pope and took his Religion, Justice, and Reconciliation class last summer in South Africa. He said she has a combination of three things: raw intelligence, drive, and compassion. The compassion, according to Pope, is the primary motivator for King’s academic ability. Other students are motivated by their resumé or law school applications. King loves to learn, and she wants to make a difference.

“She’s also intellectually, like, three years ahead of her chronological age,” Pope said. “I mean that intellectually, emotionally, and socially. When she was a freshman, she was operating as if she was almost a senior. And now she’s functioning as a grad student.”

“I have not taught many students as a brilliant as Tt,” he added. “She also is a person with incredibly sensitive social consciousness.”

During a diversity and inclusion-themed debate held the first week of the UGBC campaign, King gave a detailed response to a question about whether BC could reconcile its Catholic identity with support for its LGBTQ+ population. Marriage in the Church is not available to gay couples, but Catholic social teaching, she said, is pretty clear on its support for gay rights. For King, being Catholic and being a lesbian aren’t mutually exclusive. God’s her best friend, King said, but she’d like to be able to take her future family to church without it being an uncomfortable space. So she’s figuring it out.  

“She actually is tuned into where the spirit of Christ is active in the world,” Pope said. “If it were me, and I could change things, I would like to see her ordained as a priest. She would be a great priest.”

***

Achampong and King are the first all-female team to lead UGBC, and Achampong is its first black female president. They have a sense of the history, Achampong said, but she hasn’t really been able to think about it yet. They didn’t run for these positions to be the first, although when they found out that they would make history, it pushed Achampong to do a little bit more.

It took some time for Achampong to understand how her identity fit in at BC, where as a freshman, she had a heightened sense that nobody knew anything about her. Like the dad at her table at orientation, people would project assumptions. She became hyper-aware that she was black. People would express surprise that she did very typical things, as if black people all acted a certain way.

Achampong’s experience with race had always been influenced by her specific background as Ghanaian. Her parents grew up in Africa with the same assumptions about black Americans that white Americans often had. A high school friend once told her that her mother normally didn’t like black people, but because Achampong was African, it was different. And she encountered those tensions more fully when she got to BC.

“It’s kind of being able to see myself in a light that I never knew people would see me in, and if they had I’d been very oblivious to it,” she said. “So I think that just made me feel very uncomfortable in myself and my own capabilities.”

She’d worry, for example, that if she went to a professor for help they might assume she wasn’t prepared for BC’s rigorous academic environment. She didn’t get involved in the same things she’d done in high school. She kept to herself, grappling with what it meant to be Ghanaian, black, and a woman, concerned that when she spoke in class what she said would be taken as the end-all-be-all experience of everybody with those identities. She was, in a word, overwhelmed.

When she started taking classes in the Africa and African Diaspora Studies Program, though, she found the tools to understand what was going on. She read W.E.B. DuBois in an intro class and Stuart Hall and Audre Lourde in another. For the first time, she saw the academic texts behind what she’d been feeling her whole life but had never been able to confidently put words to. Achampong developed a language, she said, an ability to articulate an identity rooted in blackness. She’d always been comfortable with her Africanness, but she now saw that despite the intertwining strands of being black and being African, they were distinct. Exposure to black novelists and scholars legitimately changed Achampong’s life, so much so that she started crying when she talked about them during her interview for the MLK Scholarship.

***

Running UGBC is much more about people management than policy. Russell Simons, UGBC president and MCAS ’17, said that with an organization of about 170 students, being two of the most visible members means building relationships and community. Much has been said about how difficult it can be not only to achieve concrete goals through administrative channels, but also to integrate UGBC with the rest of the student body. This year, UGBC has had a particular focus on improving transparency and marketing in the organization to make sure students know what they’re getting. It’s a constant concern that the leadership is always going to have on its mind.

Achampong is the current chair of UGBC’s AHANA Leadership Council, while King hasn’t been formally involved in UGBC. She spends much of her time on campus working in the Women’s Center. It’s interesting to think about how Achampong’s understanding of community would help her in coalition building as UGBC president, or how King’s work with programs like Bystander Intervention would guide her leadership of the Student Assembly. In addition to transparency and day-to-day logistics, they could also be extremely vocal advocates for issues that have, in the past, been sources of conflict or controversy.

Achampong and King were both involved with organizing the “Silence is Violence” march that took place late last September, and their campaign platform openly aligns itself with the goals of groups like Climate Justice at BC—which calls for the University to divest its financial holdings from fossil fuels—and calls for a revised free speech policy that would allow students to hold demonstrations without prior notice to the University. King is also a member of Eradicate BC Racism, which has a history of confrontation with administrators. A natural assumption would be that King and Achampong could have difficulty maintaining relationships if they find themselves at odds with the administration, but they don’t think so.

King said she learned a lot about Eradicate while organizing the solidarity march, and she started attending its potlucks and meetings, interested in seeing community organizing in action. She calls it a journey from a non-political person to a very political person. She developed relationships with administrators through her work in the Women’s Center, and then used those contacts while working on the march. And she thinks her membership in Eradicate won’t create a conflict. She hopes to bridge the gap between the school and students who feel like they aren’t being heard.

“When I walk into a room and I’m representing the Women’s Center … or I’m representing UGBC, or whatever, I’m not there as Tt, I’m there as a representative of whoever I’m supposed to be the voice for,” she said.

Achampong sees it the same way, as an almost religious calling to be an advocate—after all, she said, UGBC is an advocacy board. It doesn’t set policies by itself.

“To me, you can’t separate the Jesuit tradition from being an activist, like that’s just how I feel about itreading St. Ignatius or doing PULSE or whatever that is, every single one of those classes was ‘think about people other than yourself,’” she said. “And that’s what I see BC as a place for. Obviously not everyone sees BC as that, but,”—and here she paused for a few seconds—“Jesus didn’t say, ‘Let them suffer,’ so here we are.”

“[UGBC is] an advocacy board for students, and if they raise their voices for something and it just so happens to align with Climate Justice or it just so happens to align with non-debatable human rights, well—,” she said, trailing off.  

Afua Laast, BC ’16, SSW ’17, served as UGBC’s vice president for diversity and inclusion last year. She’s also Achampong’s RA, in addition to being a leadership mentor for her. Laast said that because she and James Kale, last year’s ALC chair and BC ’16, were both seniors on the way out, much of the leadership in ALC fell to Achampong. She said Achampong’s leadership style is building a team that allows people’s strengths to come through, and filling in the gaps herself. Achampong is also very direct, which Laast said is helpful in hitting deadlines and sticking to an agenda. Through her roles in UGBC, she got close to some administrators despite the fact that she wasn’t afraid to tell them when she disagreed.  

“Will it be tough to be more vocal and more in-your-face? Definitely,” Laast said. “But I also think that the administration is very much aware that this is the role of UGBC … If you’re not an activist, then you’re not doing your job.”

***

Achampong doesn’t feel pressure to excel as UGBC president. She doesn’t like to “half-ass” things, anyway, she said—feeling that pressure isn’t her style. But it’s also human nature to want to find acceptance with what you do, and please as many people as possible. At the end of the day, she’ll have to answer to administrators, her fellow UGBC members, and the students she represents. It’ll be in the back of her mind whether she’s doing something because she thinks it’s important or because she’s trying to please people. And at the end of next year, she hopes to feel like she’s been true to herself and her values, and maybe a little relieved—awake, as she put it.
“Do you ever do something, and you feel like it’s taking your energy? It’s draining you? It’s taking over everything, and when it’s done, you’re relieved?” she said. “I want to feel like ‘Yes, we’ve done this.’ Awake in the sense of feeling proud of what we’ve been able to do as an administration, happy, feeling authentic to myself in what we’ve said and done. … I don’t want to feel like UGBC has taken from me. I just wanna feel awake.”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

 

About Connor Murphy 116 Articles
Connor is the news editor for The Heights, and was the copy editor for 2016. He spends a lot of time thinking about hyphens. You can follow him on Twitter @murphheights.