Jamal Edwards: Overcoming intergenerational instability
Jamal Edwards has produced a short film for MTV, studied abroad in Spain, served as president of Duke University’s Black Student Alliance, and is currently a youth trustee for his alma mater. Based on his experiences, it might be tough to guess what Jamal’s career path will be, put that’s kinda the point: Jamal, a graduate student in Stanford University’s international policy studies program, likes the fact that his past and future plans have been all over the map.
“I don’t get interviewed often because it’s not a linear story…there’s a bunch of twists, turns, loops and things that don’t make sense,” he said. “I don’t really know where to steer the ship because the ship has sort of steered itself.”
Jamal’s journey began in southern California, where he moved thirteen times before graduating from high school. He lived with his mom for most of that time, but also has a host of siblings — ten in total. He has a few half siblings from each parent, but Jamal also counts their half siblings, who he spent time with growing up.
“They all have mixed DNA, which is why I’m different,” he said. “I’m the only one with specific mix of DNA, so I think they got it right once — with me.”
He’s able to joke about it now, but his living situation was challenging growing up. After his junior year of high school, he moved in with a family in San Diego to attend a private school for a better education in his final year. He counts the family’s daughters as his last two siblings — he spent this Thanksgiving at their house and is helping with wedding prep for one of his sisters from that family.
When he moved to San Diego, he saw an instant shift in the way he viewed his future. His senior class went from being around 3,000 students to just 500 at his new school. It made all the difference.
“Before I considered myself just an average kid, I wasn’t a science genius, I wasn’t a math wiz, I wasn’t this supreme English scholar. I was a kid that worked hard, I put a lot of effort into the things I did.”
“That school was interesting in that it had a lot more resources for college preparation; college recruiters would often come to campus,” he said. “ Way smaller setting, a lot more resources, a lot more one-on-one college counseling. So when I was living with this family in San Diego, my prospects for college or things I was interested in…it was like opening the door to new possibilities.”
Some of those possibilities included schools he’d never considered applying to — he went to sessions for Georgetown, UCLA, Berkeley and, most notably, Duke. That recruitment event that made him apply to Duke — it was the only application he submitted.
“The admissions officer was black that came to San Diego; he spent an extra 20 minutes to talk to me at the end [and] it was a week before the early decision deadline.” Jamal originally attended the session because his sister Sydney (part of the family he lived with in San Diego) went to Duke. He scrambled to put together the application and send it in for the early decision deadline. Then he waited.
Because of the school’s relationship with Duke’s admissions officers, his counselor and host family knew the result before he did. Jamal remembers it clearly: Just before 3pm on December 14, 2011, he was called into the counselor’s office to log in and see the results. His host family brought in balloons and a Duke sweatshirt to celebrate. After taking such a big risk in only applying to one school, he felt relief wash over him.
“I bawled for several minutes,” he said. “To be admitted to Duke was one of the greatest blessings that I have ever had.”
‘So…what’s your story?’
When he arrived in North Carolina the following fall, Jamal wasted no time setting himself up for what he calls a “fruitful” college experience. Because his path to Duke had a lot of twists, turns and detours, he started thinking critically about what his story would be.
“I didn’t even consider myself a scholar until the end of my junior year [of high school] because I was like, ‘oh I’m going to a private school now, I need to be about something, what’s my narrative, what’s my story?’” He struggled to figure out where he fit in academically. “Before I considered myself just an average kid, I wasn’t a science genius, I wasn’t a math wiz, I wasn’t this supreme English scholar. I was a kid that worked hard, I put a lot of effort into the things I did and I had a lot of on-campus involvement and I had a lot of statewide leadership initiatives.”
Although leadership is not an academic course of study at Duke, the work ethic and independence Jamal developed throughout high
school helped him create a unique major to fit his wide range of interests.
“I built a journalism major — because journalism is not a major offered at Duke — I built curriculum from what existed at Duke and merged it with the journalism school at UNC to build this major,” he said.
Like many things in his life, Jamal’s custom-made course of study developed in a roundabout way: he entered Duke as a pre-med student, was deterred by his first chemistry class, then considered majoring in ballistics before landing in a health communications course. It was taught by the professor who would go on to mentor him throughout his time at Duke.
“I had this incredible professor named Gary Bennett who taught health communications. It was cross-listed in global health, it was cross-listed as psychology, and it was all about the intersection of public health and media.”
Jamal didn’t know it when he signed up for the class, but this would inform many of his decisions going forward. “From there, that really set my path of merging global health and journalism because of this black man who I just wanted to be,” he said. “Gary Bennett has single-handedly been the most influential mentor [and] academic on my sort of scholastic trajectory from Duke.”
Making sense of a nonlinear path
Although the academic piece of his Duke experience took some maneuvering, Jamal found his extracurricular and social identity quite quickly: in his first year he became a coxen on the men’s crew team, president of his class and a recruiter for the Black Student Alliance (BSA) Invitational, which brought black prospective students to campus. The following year, Jamal became a resident assistant, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and started developing his professional narrative, working to put these various experiences into context for potential employers.
“I was all over the place — I was searching for, what is my path, trying to answer this big question that sent me on a huge quest of a range of different experiences.” Jamal’s unique major allowed him to explore a multiple internships and special projects. He was a youth advisor for State Farm’s educational philanthropy board; an United Nations intern working on HIV/AIDS in governments and multilateral affairs; an intern at a global strategy firm working on maternal health communications; and eventually a producer of a short film in partnership with MTV.
His first two internships, while impressive, are similar — both bridge Jamal’s passion for communications with his interest in global health. His stint with MTV, though? Yet another result of gumption and divine intervention. He entered a film competition while studying abroad with a friend from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.
“We took to our pens and said okay, with this new opportunity, what’s a way that we can contribute to this movement,” Jamal said. “This was during a time when Black Lives Matter protests and rallies were popping up in every major city and many college campuses across the country. “Our narratives as black men in a college setting crossed these stories so much of people crossing the lines of people exercising privilege over black lives that they’re not always cognizant that they have.”
There was no going back, there was no plan b. This is your one shot to make something of yourself, and you can’t mess that up.
The plot of their pitch was compelling: a young man goes to a party in blackface, then wakes up the next morning in a black man’s body, and has to navigate the world with an identity he’d initially only donned as a costume. MTV accepted their pitch within a few weeks, after which Jamal and his friend got to work hiring a full production staff, booking locations and shooting their 6-minute film. See Me in My Black Skin aired on MTV this October.
What happens when there’s no plan B?
Having graduated in May and returned to California for graduate school, Jamal feels the pressure to constantly do well — out of fear that he will fall into the same instability he experienced as a child. It’s something he’s felt since he first started at Duke.
“At Duke I felt like there’s just no way I can go back. And so a lot of my energy and stress came from the forever present danger of taking backward steps, which I never wanted to do.” He remembers being in a constant state of fear “because failure wasn’t an option. It just wasn’t an option — I didn’t have a home to go back to. And, you know, in some ways I did because I knew people, I had that host family piece, but at a fundamental level, there was no going back, there was no plan b, it was…this is your one shot to make something of yourself, and you can’t mess that up.”
With all of his involvement, it might seem that Jamal would be incredibly confident, but it’s clear he’s quite the opposite when he identifies his greatest challenge: “Combatting self doubt and having more faith in my own perspective,” he said. “I want to constantly shake the feeling that I’m just staying above water, that I’m constantly…barely not making it. I feel like I walk around with that sort of chip on my shoulder like I’m sort of just one step, one degree removed from poverty.”
Having resolved to listen to his inner self more often, Jamal acknowledges the mental and emotional consequences of not doing so, and is working to focus on taking better care of himself — no matter where his unconventional path leads him next.
“Even if I don’t have it all figured out,” he said, “it doesn’t imply taking backward steps, but just a moment of incubation and a moment of growing for whatever comes next — just being okay with that and sitting with whatever the moment is that I’m in.”
You can catch up with Jamal on LinkedIn.