Each year one Odyssey Scholar is chosen to deliver a speech at the Scholarship Celebration for students and donors, held during Alumni Weekend. Clarence Okoh, ’14, a political-science major with a minor in human rights, gave this year’s speech. Below is an edited excerpt.
Fifty years ago, in a jail cell in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, a young preacher penned a letter to his fellow clergymen, outlining the principles of his moral philosophy of nonviolent civil resistance. He wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. … I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Martin Luther King’s words are instructive of the spirit that brings us all into this room today. We are more than the sum of our individual ambitions; we are indeed “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” and as such we have commitments to those in our neighborhoods, our communities, this city, this nation, and indeed the world. But I think more than that, King’s example demonstrates how we should understand ourselves as members of the University of Chicago community.
As members of the UChicago community, we all are indebted—well, some of us literally—but all of us are indebted to this institution because we have been afforded opportunities, knowledge, and new ways of thinking that form a portion of our identity. I don’t need to remind you of the astounding work our alumni have done throughout the past century or so. It is because of their legacy that we have inherited this magnificent institution.
Our role is to ensure that we expand the definition and reach of our community. By giving to this institution, students from every race, class, creed, religion, sexual orientation, and ability can participate fully in the UChicago community. I am committed to the idea that intellect, creativity, leadership, ingenuity, and genius have no identity. They are equally shared throughout the human family. The task of this institution is to search for raw potential wherever it may be and to make any and all necessary accommodations to help realize our global vision. The task of each of us is to do our part to ensure this university can meet that mission.
As someone who grew up as an African American male in a single-parent household in a rural county in the South, I am very cognizant and very appreciative of the fact that nothing about my identity and the context in which it was formed privileges me to attend this university. Make no mistake: having a fearless, strong, and loving mother and the aspirations of a community behind me played a central role in why I am a student here. But the financial realities that my family confronts, and the challenges that many of the identities I claim as my own confront, make Clarence Okoh being a UChicago student quite a stretch.
Your unbridled generosity is inspiring and encouraging to me. The fact that people whom I have never met are invested in my success is heartening as well as motivating. It motivates me to continue in that tradition, to ensure that the doors of this University remain open to every young person who is bright enough to be here, not just those who are privileged.
This is what it means to be a part of that inescapable network of mutuality. This is what it means to move toward realizing King’s dream and to further the global mission of our university.