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From Detached to Connected: An inspirational professor redirects Honors student Hannah Ekeh to a more fulfilling future

by Aïda Rogers

For Honors student Hannah Ekeh, college just wasn’t entirely in tune. She was studying public health, and she’d spent a semester in France, but something seemed to be missing. Several professors and advisors helped guide her, but two people in particular sparked a change that has made her college experience much more rewarding. Kim Simmons, her advisor, strongly suggested she register for African American Studies 398, a special Honors course that would fulfill her History of Civilization requirement. Prof. Nikky Finney took it from there.

“It was nothing like any other class I had taken,” Ekeh recalls of Black, Gay, and Sweet on Truth, Finney’s course that examines the writings of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. “As the semester progressed, I realized this was the kind of space I wanted to be in. I googled my professor, and it was like ‘I can’t believe this person’s teaching my class.’ And when I learned more about Baldwin and Lorde, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, of course that’s why this course is so great.’”

Finney, a poet whose Head Off & Split won the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, connects the works of Baldwin and Lorde to 20th century African American life. Her subject and teaching style spurred Ekeh to do something drastic—change her major from public health to English her junior year. Now a senior, she’s taking 21 credit hours this semester and 24 the next to graduate in May. While she’s learning a lot about literature, she’s also learning about herself. Finney’s course came right in time.

“I was going through a lot of changes and beginning to learn about myself as a black woman and a black person in America,” she says. “There were thoughts I had prior to that class I wasn’t able to articulate until I read James Baldwin and Audre Lorde’s poems and short stories and essays. I was feeling detached from the world, and reading someone saying something I myself was thinking made me feel connected to both myself and other people, other black people.”

Ekeh grew up in Columbia, the daughter of Nigerian educators. Thanks to Finney, who recommended Ekeh for a 2016 fellowship at the Schomburg-Mellon Humanities Summer Institute in New York, she was able to learn more about her Nigerian heritage. When a lecturer mentioned the Women’s War, a 1929 event in which thousands of Igbo market women rebelled against taxes their British colonial rulers were imposing, Ekeh knew she’d found her research project. “Birds and the Bees” is the title of her fictional reimagining of how her grandmother and great-grandmother may have responded to the indignities of colonialism. “I never met them or heard many, if any, stories about them, but I do believe they had to have been connected to the Women’s War. I was inspired by the wealth of information a short story could contain.”

Ekeh is the first USC student to receive the fellowship, which is awarded to 10 rising college seniors each summer. Created by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the institute encourages minority students and others interested in African-American, African, and African Diasporan Studies to pursue Ph.D.s in the humanities.   Muddled about what she’d do with a public health degree, Ekeh is much clearer now: After taking a gap year, she plans to pursue graduate studies in English and Africana literature. Those subjects, as they relate to gender and identity, are what she needs to know more about. The fellowship brought her once-fuzzy future into focus.

“I went from being directionless to having a direction I am invested in exploring,” she reflects. “Having no expectations for what I would be doing made me more open to engaging with my cohort, the scholars, and mentors in a way that got me to realize I made the right decision to change my major, and that I don’t need to have everything figured out. But I also learned I need to pay attention to those moments when I am asking a lot of questions, speaking up, or my eyes are wide because those moments will guide me through my career and life.”

Finney, who lectures at the institute, isn’t surprised her student has found her footing. “I recognized some of myself in Hannah,” she wrote in an email. “She was the student I used to be when I was an undergraduate—painfully shy but with a head full of provocative and wise ideas. Hannah is brilliant and dutiful and can achieve anything she puts her mind to as long as she extends her wings to full length. Like all of us she has to get everybody off her shoulders telling her what to be in this life and fly away to her most genuine self. I fiercely believe she will do just that.”