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Bathroom Lunch: How a hungry African boy is satisfying his American dream

Bathroom Lunch: How a hungry African boy is satisfying his American dream

by Abdoulaye Ba

The bus was late, and I couldn’t risk making the wrong impression on the first day of my internship.

Biking down West Waters Avenue, I wondered if what I heard the night before was the sound of fireworks or gunshots. I now understood why police ritually rode around my neighborhood. When I entered the office suite, the aromatic smell of coffee invaded my nostrils and mixed well with the tsunamic energy. I saw slogans, beanbags, symbols, computers, and there were people rushing in and out of smaller offices to make phone calls. Everyone worked tirelessly inside the Florida campaign headquarters of Hillary Clinton.

Just a few years ago, I was eating lunch in a bathroom.

As a Senegalese teenager who had recently arrived in the U.S., it was difficult to make friends at my high school. Some classmates mocked me because I was from “miserable” Africa – land of poverty and anguish, at least that is what the media show. Plus, I couldn’t pronounce most English words.

I did not want anyone to see me sitting alone in the cafeteria. I wanted to conceal my struggle. So, I packed my pain, embarrassment, vulnerability and food back in my lunchbox and took it inside the bathroom, where toilets, sinks, mirrors and paper towels would not judge me.

Lacking a school social life, I decided that academics was my real friend. Thus, I worked arduously to enroll in numerous advanced placement classes (AP) after only spending a year taking English as a Second Language. My guidance counselor thought this was an “insane” decision since I was a new English learner. He didn’t realize taking AP courses was my only chance to taste higher education because college seemed impossible due to financial obstacles.

Later, as a pre-medicine major at Hillsborough Community College, I recognized that academics should not be my only focus, so I volunteered for community and campus organizations. I later became student body president, and my team led efforts to coordinate school-wide social and educational events.

I was very touched when a student told me: “I did not know community college was this fun.”

Her words made me understand that it doesn’t matter where you come from but the type of impact you will have on others. Some students were not proud to attend our small college, so we made sure to create a sense of collegiality and warmth with enjoyable weekly activities – open mic and movie nights, food festivals and hot-topic discussions.

I remember staying up until 2 a.m. preparing for trips to Tallahassee or Washington where my team and I would advocate on behalf of our student body regarding issues such as college affordability, campus safety and discrimination. We also worked with school administrators to provide solutions to campus concerns while strengthening the relationship between students and faculty. I found myself so in love with this mission that I enjoyed doing it more than attending a calculus or chemistry lecture. My passion for advocacy, leadership and service made me reconsider my former dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon.

So, I switched majors and eventually landed in Clinton’s campaign office. I am now studying political science at Jackson State University because I want to one day serve the world the same way I served my former community college. In Senegal, I was fortunate to live in a relatively peaceful country, though with economic challenges.

I wondered why our neighboring countries suffered from war and political unrest. I posed myself these questions in the same manner that I wondered why, in the U.S., only a few black and brown students were in AP classes. I also knew but did not want to acknowledge the reason why police would stop me and ask if I sold drugs while I was riding my bicycle.

The world suffers from injustice. And I tell myself that, to change it; we must care.

I remember learning about world history, U.S. history, and comparative politics while quietly eating lunch in high school bathrooms. I remember when college seemed impossible. I remember where I come from.

I ponder about my dreams: to fight for justice, to help families, to empower communities, to build global bridges and to break down barriers

And I care.

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