Duke graduate shares advice about college life



Levi Brice Edouna Obama, a 2017 graduate of Duke University, at Duke Chapel. Photos by: Mahnoor Nazeer.

Four years ago, Levi Brice Edouna Obama was a newly-minted graduate of Osborne High School in suburban Atlanta.  One of my church members, Danice Wilson-Bates, suggested I write about Levi in this space because he was such a dynamic and driven young man.  While at Osborne, Levi led recycling drives and encouraged his classmates to be good stewards of the environment. He was class valedictorian and made his parents — who moved here from Cameroon in West Africa — very proud.

A few weeks ago, Levi graduated from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina with a degree in biology. He’s taken the Medical College Entrance Test (MCAT) and plans to attend medical school after completing a year of clinical research.

Duke presented its share of challenges,  but Levi loved his experiences there and has some clear ideas on how to be successfully at an academically rigorous university.

One of his biggest adjustments involved the intensity of the coursework.  “You have three classes a day but they are jam-packed with so much information,” he said.  “Students shouldn’t wait to ask their professors for help, they should seek it immediately if they don’t understand something.

Learning to ask for help when you’ve never had to in the past is a huge change. But your success at a school like Duke depends in part on checking your ego at the door.

“Do not wait until a week before an exam,” he said. “Seek out people to help. Form a study group. You gain so much more through learning from others than you do by yourself. It took me about eight weeks in chemistry class to find the courage to raise my hand.”

Levi made an easier transition to the social and intellectual community at Duke.  “I loved to sit and talk to everyone and hear about their experiences because it was so far removed from what I had experienced. Duke’s student body is largely white and upper class. I didn’t realize how much wealth played a role in education so that was a huge thing to wrap my mind around.”

He worked as a resident assistant, served as a volunteer at Duke University Hospital and studied tropical biology in Costa Rica during the summer before his senior year.

His experience studying abroad was, “the first time i went anywhere by myself to a place outside of the United States.  I got to study with Duke students and students from other universities. Learning together and getting to know each other was amazing.”

Levi marched with others on campus when a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo. decided not to indict the officer responsible Michael Brown’s death.  During his sophomore year, he was stunned to learn that an international student had hung a yellow noose from a tree on campus as a joke.

“For every black student, there will be a race incident,” he said of life on a predominantly white campus. “And you will have to come to terms with the fact that some people in your college community do not care about the issues you have to deal with.”

In his last semester at Duke, Levi’s father died of prostate cancer after a four year battle with the disease.  His father didn’t want his son to worry about his illness.  “He just told me to focus on what I had to do and that’s what I did. I did what I could for him when I was home. I tried to do right by him.”

Reflecting on his time at Duke, Levi says: “I honestly don’t know if i could have gone to any other place. It is so integral  to who I am now.”

For students heading to college in the near future, Levi offers this advice:  “Pick an institution based off the faculty and the opportunities provided to you.  You may have a faculty member who is a Nobel Laureate in literature or engineering. Or pick a college that has the major you like or that has a really great theater department.”




Our hearts beat on


Cleaning out closets and drawers is a necessary evil. Especially when you are preparing to move. I make notes on scraps of paper and stick them in drawers and forget about them. Some are mundane: an address or phone number; a note about work or a household chore.

These notes stopped me cold. Seeing them again nearly two years later made the tears flow. I had jotted them down in a  tiny notebook I carry in my purse, a habit from many years as a journalist.  They were made in May of 2015 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lexington, Ky. while talking to a very honest and somber doctor who tended to my father when he came into the ER for shortness of breath.   Fluid. Infection. Cancer cells. An oncologist. Neurologist. MRI.  

“I can’t tell you it’s cancer, but all signs point to it,” he told us.  

At that moment, all our lives shifted to focus on our patriarch.  When the official diagnosis came a few days later it confirmed the early suspicions: stage 4 lung cancer. The kind that strikes non smokers. Non-small-cell lung cancer that had spread to the bone.

My father did not want to know the prognosis in terms of time. The doctors respected his wishes.  They ran tests, treated a mass on his spine with radiation and developed a treatment plan that included Tarceva, an oral medication taken by some patients if they are fortunate enough to be a genetic match. Thankfully, my father was a match. As a result, he was spared the suffering and side effects that often accompany chemo.

Watching my father died was like witnessing faith in action. For decades, he’d been a Sunday School teacher, a deacon in his church and an attentive husband and father.  He prayed daily and studied the Bible often. He openly shared his faith with anyone who would listen, including a chaplain who came to his hospital bedside to offer words of comfort  the day before he died.

As he dealt with cancer, he continued to be the leader of our family — constantly calling or texting to check on how we were doing. After he and my mother settled into their routine of doctor visits and monthly treatments and tests, they slowly resumed their normal activities: dinner at Red Lobster; church; visiting family and friends, and tending to their grandchildren.

Daddy was not interested in all the internet research my siblings and I were doing about innovative therapies and alternative medicine. He agreed to come to Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta for a second opinion but was opposed to any experimental treatments or trials. In his case, none were offered because he was responding well to the Tarceva.

Fred Duerson simply wanted to live the remaining days of his life as fully as possible. He took great joy in seeing his youngest granddaughter become a pharmacist, the first doctor in our immediate family.  He relished being able to attend my retirement party and one last family reunion in July of last year.

Then one August eveing a few weeks after his 80th birthday —  in the same hospital where we received that initial news — he died peacefully with his family by his side.

Not a day goes by that we don’t think about him, talk about him, miss him deeply. Grief is funny that way. Many days you feel fine. On other days  it’s all you can do to get through. Faith-based grief counseling  helped put my father’s life and death in perspective. Our loved ones are not our own.  I like to picture Daddy in heaven, reunited with his parents and siblings. Free of all pain.

The notes I found in the drawer the other day reminded me of the short, sweet text messages he sent to me during the year after his diagnosis.  Hello Angela, how are you doing today?   On some days, the message was a passage of scripture meant to encourage me. His favorite was Psalm 27.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?”

This Psalm of comfort is a great reminder of God’s love for us. We can rest on his promise that no matter what happens, his presence is a blessed assurance.

For more information on grieving and for a list of classes in your area, go to www.griefshare.org


A ram in the bush


Lap three. We are sweating, talking and laughing. I’m thinking it’s time for a rest, my legs are sore. Then a stranger, a beautiful brown woman with headphones and an i phone in hand, casually breaks into our conversation.

“I like your jacket,” she says cheerily.  This is the third time since we’ve been walking that someone compliments my jacket.

Several months ago my daughter gave me a bunch of cancer gear: T-shirts, jackets, a shawl, a head wrap, a tote bag — about 15 pieces in all. She picked up these items in the course of her work and gave them to me.  My plan is to donate them to an organization that is promoting cancer awareness or research.  I decide to keep the purple jacket  I’m wearing on the track this morning. It is adorned with colorful ribbons and the words “Hope for a Cure For All Cancers.”

The beautiful stranger tells my friend and I that she has just been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. We stop our walk and turn to embrace her as she melts into tears. She is afraid. Because her mother is a breast cancer survivor, she has taken a test to see if she carries the gene that causes the disease. The test was negative, making her recent diagnosis all the more confusing. Her doctor has given her medicine to shrink the tumor, her hair has fallen out. She is in her 30s and is the mother of four young children.  Her brother tells her that her diet may be the cause.  She is working out in hopes of losing weight and improving her health. She tells us she suffers from bi-polar disorder and eats to ease her pain.  Sonya and I listen, then do the only thing we know  to do. We stand on the track and pray with her. We touch and agree that while cancer may be the diagnosis, God has the final say.

Then we tell her our cancer stories. Sonya’s husband has been battling cancer for six years. Last year, he received a bone marrow transplant. There are dark days to be sure, but they are survivors, she tells her. I tell her about my father, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last May.  He survived and thrived for more than a year relying on his faith and aggressively seeking treatment.

Our new friend has four children. She pulls up a family photo on her phone. She has much to live for.  She tells us that God put us in her path. Often when we are at the end of our rope, God places a ram in the bush — something or someone to remind us all is not lost.  As the three of us parted ways on the track, we felt God’s love and presence in our exchange. It’s important to remember that he never leaves us, especially in our darkest times.


In the midst of a storm God is in control

This has been a difficult week on several fronts. A few friends are dealing with serious illnesses and surgeries and others are dealing with substance abuse issues.  Atlanta teachers who cheated on standardized tests were sentenced to up to 7 years in jail. What disturbs me about that news is the fact that so many people seem to take joy in other people’s misery.

The swirl of activity this week has created an anxiety in me that I must manage carefully.  For two days, I tried to attend revival at my church, but the traffic had other plans. On Wednesday, my prayer partner and I finally made it for the last night.

I have always loved revivals. They remind me of a time when life was simple and church activities were front and center. There is nothing like a revival to strengthen your spirit and let you know that you can keep on running. Earlier that day we learned that our pastor had undergone surgery. There was an air of uncertainty in our midst.

When Pastor Joseph Hall took the mic, he reminded us that God is in control. Yes God is in control. Pastor Hall, who hails from Louisiana, went on to say that we are in a unique season of manifestation. God is preparing us to do great things in his name, he said. In this season, we must be bold in our prayers and our praise. God will bring forth a fresh anointing. We will make it through.

Exodus 3:7-8 says God sees our afflictions and he has come to deliver us from them. Pastor Hall said we need a pre-praise, a right now praise and a post praise. In other words, praise God before, during and after the storm. But when storms sweep through our lives, it’s often hard to see the forest for the trees.  That’s where a laser faith and focus is needed.

By the time we left the church, I felt equipped to finish the week on a better note.  I refuse to succumb to the fear and negativity that is lurking around every corner. I need that laser focus.

Today we remember; today we pray for peace

For those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001 no day will ever be the same. Fathers, mothers, sons and daughters perished that day. Friends, co-workers, aunts, uncles and cousins were lost when cowards hijacked planes and rammed them into the World Trade Center in New York; the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and a field in rural Pennsylvania.

We wept for American that day. We wept for children who would never know their parents; for husbands and wives who wouldn’t get a chance to grow old together. After 9-11, each day was a gift.

The images were horrific and inspirational. We saw people leaning out of windows high above the ground. Some would jump to their death. Others would made last-minute telephone calls to those they loved. As thousands of people ran from the towers, brave men and women rushed in to rescue people trapped inside. Co-workers calmly helped those needing assistance. Hundreds of people survived; some narrowly escaping death when the towers melted into thick clouds of smoke and debris.

In the aftermath, we united as a country like never before. Even today, it is hard to fathom such an act on U.S. soil. Yet it happened here, and our nation will never be the same.

Today we remember. Today we pray for peace that surpasses all understanding. We know God has a master plan. We know we must trust in his word and believe in his plan for our lives. And we must always, always remember.


Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:
And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
— James 5: 13-16

“Love Is Too Big To Fail”


Of all the messages scrawled or printed on signs at Saturday’s March on Washington, this yellow, homemade sign struck a major chord with me. “Love is too big to fail” perfectly embodies the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic message 50 years ago.

Hearing the speeches and feeling the unity and love at Saturday’s march left me motivated to be better and do better.

Watching snippets of today’s news reports as several U.S. presidents and King family members stood in the spot where Dr. King and others stood on Aug. 28, 1963 made we want to be better and do better.

Sharing the experience of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with my 23-year-old daughter made me want to be better and do better.

Imani and I decided more than a month ago to attend the march together. She was still reeling from the not guilty verdict handed down by a Florida jury in the death of Trayvon Martin. For Imani and others in her generation, this verdict served as a wake-up call that even in 2013, black men are often marginalized and criminalized.

For me, the march was about reconnecting with the spirit of our ancestors, who were willing to die for their convictions. People like Congressman John Lewis, who told his mother that he was acting according to the dictates of his conscience when he decided to join the Freedom Rides in 1961 as a young college student.

The day of the march, I got up at the crack of dawn, too excited to sleep. People were already gathering outside our hotel to march to the National Mall. By the time we arrived around 8 a.m., the mall was already jammed with people. And what a sight to behold: people of all ages and races coming together, talking to one another and smiling broadly. The pride was evident. We came together in peace and harmony. There were people on walkers, children in strollers and people carrying gigantic signs promoting labor unions; decrying racial profiling and calling for an end to discrimination. Images of Trayvon Martin were everywhere — on shirts, caps and signs.

As the march was winding down, we ran into Sheri Morgan, who was carrying the “Love is Too Big to Fail” sign. Her son Thomas made it three years ago for the Occupy Movement. Thomas, now a college student in Los Angeles, got into social justice when he was middle school. He memorized Dr. King’s speeches and often quoted them in their Greencastle, Pa. home.

Dr. King’s message of non violence was rooted in the biblical principle of loving your enemies. His models were Jesus Christ and Mahatma Ghandi. On more than one occasion, the students and adults trained in non-violent social resistance shocked their tormentors.

The late Pauline Knight-Ofosu was a student at Tennessee State when she decided to join the Nashville Student Movement in 1960. She believed God called her and other students for that purpose. When a young man spat on her during one of the protests, she wiped it off and smiled back at him.

Her action so disarmed him he felt true shame at his act. Now if that’s not love too big to fail, I don’t know what is.

This column is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Pauline Knight-Ofosu, who died in March. We miss you terribly Miss Pauline. Rest in Peace!


“Today We March”

My friend Rosemary posted this on her Facebook page yesterday. The three words reminded me of something the Rev. Dr. Bernice King said her mother, Coretta Scott King, was fond of saying.  Freedom has to be won anew by every generation.

It’s a powerful thought to ponder in a year where we’ve seen a nagging truth on display in a Florida courtroom in the trial of George Zimmerman. In the end, a jury decided Zimmerman’s right to use his gun in self-defense outweighed Trayvon Martin’s right to walk home from a store in his father’s gated community.  In the same month, a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The parallels of 1963 and 2013 are uncanny. Perhaps its why  I can’t sleep this morning. I am in Washington, waiting for the march to commence.  In 1963, leaders called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In 2013, the March on Washington is still about jobs and equality. It is also about education.

To be sure, personal responsibility plays a huge role in the outcome of one’s life.  Every man, woman and child must assume that responsibility for their own future.   But when drugs and violence continue to flood our communities, that can’t happen for everyone. When young black men in prison outnumber those in college, that absolutely cannot happen for all people. When efforts to level a playing field that has been woefully lopsided for generations are repealed or marginalized, all people will not realize freedom.

In 2013,  Jim Crow exists in the form of mandatory sentencing laws that result in longer sentences for black men. Jim Crow plays out in attitudes that say a child can’t learn because of the circumstances he or she is born into.

Today, the National Mall will once again be filled with black and white people who believe Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech may one day be reality.  In it, Dr. King envisioned a world where his four children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Imagine a day when the George Zimmermans of the world would stop and offer the Trayvon Martins of the world an act of good will.  “Hey young man,” George might say. “Can I give you a ride home so you can get out of this rain?”  “Yes Sir,” Trayvon might say in return.  “My father lives right down the block. I appreciate your kindness.”

And since we are dreaming, let’s imagine George getting to know Trayvon and realizing they have more in common than either of them realizes.  Perhaps George will see Trayvon as a human being with loving parents and dreams for his future. A college degree. A wife and children. Grandchildren. A long and happy life.

That’s what Dr. King meant when he said his dream was deeply rooted in the American dream.

So today, 50 years later, we march. For jobs. For freedom. For judgement based on character rather than skin color.