Priscilla Agbeo is a junior at Stanford University, where she is focused on African and African American studies. She is also a woman of color—an African immigrant from the South Side of Chicago with a low-income background. She proudly owns all of these identity labels and talks about how poverty, her education at the University of Chicago Charter School, and the teachers who taught her “to love her Blackness” shaped the woman she is today.
We like to ask about caffeinated drinks. Are you into that? Yeah, coffee and cappuccino from time to time during finals week really helps. I am no stranger to sweets like Skittles, Butterfingers and such.
Who is Priscilla Agbeo? What experiences have shaped you? My background is not an educated one. My mother received no formal education. She doesn’t read or write. My father was pursuing an education, but he passed away shortly after my brothers and I came to the United States when I was 9-years-old. My mother and extended family members raised my brothers and me. I’ve experienced a lot of trauma and dysfunction. I claim all of those experiences as a privilege. I learned resilience. I don’t make comparisons anymore academically or based on things like going home for Thanksgiving. I mean, you can’t beat yourself up that you haven’t had the same experiences as others more fortunate. When I find myself doing that, I always think about if that other person was brought up in my same position, would they even have been able to survive?
What are your plans for the future? What drives you? I’m really interested in policy, social justice, and international relations as it relates to Ghana and Africa at large. This past summer, I interned for the Center for Democratic Development in Ghana, and I found myself frustrated with the government. The corruption is so pervasive, and I’d like to help do something about that. I’m also interested in the city experience and Black diaspora. It’s very easy to be singled out at a university like Stanford when the majority of Black people aren’t from where I am from and don’t share my experiences. There is a huge opportunity gap for people in my community. I won’t lie, the first year at Stanford was extremely difficult academically and socially. I was made to feel like a triple minority as a woman, Black, and someone from poverty. I feel like I owe the South and West side of Chicago so much. I feel obligated to return there and invest in the people and the culture. They have contributed greatly to my passion and my drive.
You attended a public charter school operated by the University of Chicago. How did your experience at the UChicago Woodlawn (UCW) Campus influence who you are today? There were teachers who genuinely cared about the well-being of Black students and there was a real emphasis on pride in being Black. I felt myself running away from my Blackness as a young woman. Being told I should love it and how to love it—that played a huge role in my personal development and how I got to Stanford. They instilled confidence and passion. I felt culturally safe in that environment.
What do you feel like K-12 education is getting wrong? This country doesn’t see all of its children. You are told to leave your lived experience behind and come and do school. But students coming from backgrounds like mine, they need to merge our experiences into the learning. I feel like that’s when progress will be made. And schools need to do more why questioning. Like, for example, when you are walking to and from school, why are you afraid? The typical answer would be gangs, jumpings, all of that stuff. But schools don’t ask why the history of gangs and such violence exist. They don’t teach why those things are really happening. Why is it like this? Instead, it’s a lot of “I teach; you regurgitate.” At UCW, I was fortunate because my “whys” were encouraged. Teachers pulled out books about slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation and talked to me about how it was affecting my life and schooling.
Was there a particular teacher who went the extra mile for you? There is no one single person, there are a lot. I used to be very angry. I had a ninth-grade history teacher, RonnVey Price, who had a lot to do with who I am now. I cherish him a lot. He taught me how to love myself. He knew what I needed. He is like the movie about teachers inspiring kids to do more, seriously. But, it wasn’t just him. I felt so much love at UCW that I never felt before. They built my confidence. Assata Moore, the head of school, actually believed in me enough to let me be a teacher’s assistant for an intro to engineering class in my sophomore year. She made me feel like “I got this.” Being empowered to be a teacher’s assistant as a person from the South Side of Chicago from a very low-income background kept me leveled. I wonder if she did it strategically. I had so many different traumas in my life. In a lot of ways, I wasn’t budging. So, I think she created this opportunity for me to trust her. That’s so pertinent to any child’s personal development, you know? Let’s forget about academics. The human side is so important. Self-love is now a part of my language. Shariba Rivers, an instructional counselor at the time, was the epitome of divine Black womanhood for me when I was at UCW. I aspired to be like her. Her grace, intelligence, confidence, and overall energy moved me to carry myself like she did. Her walk was a song of power and her mind a dance deeply rooted in the rhythm of West African drums. Watching her made me want to glow and radiate such an aura.
What advice would you give other students of color from low-income communities like the South Side of Chicago? There’s privilege in your experience. Own it. Be open to possibility. I had an amazing conversation recently with one of my professors and we were talking about the power of the imagination. The human spirit comes from our imagination. If young people can dare imagine themselves in spaces like Stanford, that inspires their spirit and they can make it a reality.
Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago ...