Duke graduate shares advice about college life

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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.”