Brandon Terry ’05 never wanted to come to Harvard. Ivy League schools were for students who are wealthy and white. Terry is neither.
So when Harvard sent recruitment letters to the Randallstown, Md., student, Terry “thought it was a big joke.” After all, his high school had only recently become a magnet school of technology and still retained its roots as a technical high school, with studies in cosmetology, construction, and plumbing. No one from Western School of Technology and Environmental Science had ever attended an Ivy League school.
He applied to Harvard only because his uncle bet him the $60 application fee. To his shock, Harvard accepted him. But the University of Maryland provided a full scholarship, pitting Harvard’s prestige against a powerful economic incentive. “Money doesn’t exactly grow on trees in our family,” he says.
Terry tried to keep his Harvard acceptance quiet as he and his family made their decisions. But one day at school, a classmate found out, and in the following period, the principal announced his achievement over the school intercom. “You could hear a collective gasp go across the whole school,” Terry recalls.
That experience helped Terry understand that a Harvard education was bigger than Brandon Terry. “It says more to a whole lot of people in my family and my neighborhood and my school about what they can do,” he says. So Terry chose Harvard.
‘You have something special to offer Harvard’
Terry’s first few months in Cambridge had him reeling from culture shock: His fears and misconceptions about Harvard, it seemed, were reality. Listening to hip-hop, dressed in the “uniform” of a black Baltimore County teenager, Terry often ate alone in Annenberg Hall. “People acted as if I was going to rob them after French class,” he wrote in the Baltimore Sun earlier this spring.
It was the leaders of Harvard’s Black Men’s Forum (BMF) who helped Terry find his footing – and his voice – in the Ivy League. “They let me know that this place is not going to kill you. You have something special to offer Harvard in your experience with your culture, with your style, with your intellect,” says Terry. “A lot of people lose that. They get so wrapped up in what Harvard’s supposed to do to you, they don’t realize that every time you come to an institution, you should change it in your own way.”
Through his involvement with the Black Men’s Forum (he served as the group’s president in 2003-04), Terry has worked as hard to influence Harvard as Harvard has to influence him. Terry points with pride to Black Men’s Forum achievements in which he had a hand: black faculty-student lunches, a hip-hop politics initiative that targeted reaching young voters, the high-profile Unite Against AIDS Summit, and BMF’s involvement in Take Back the Night week.
“I see the Black Men’s Forum as my home base. It gives me the courage to go do anything and I know that if it doesn’t work out it’s OK,” says Terry.
That courage spilled into Terry’s many public service activities. Working with Phillips Brooks House Association’s Mission Hill After School Program and Mission Hill Summer Program, for instance, Terry developed a curriculum that taught literary devices through hip-hop. “There should be no black kid or Hispanic kid in America who listens to hip-hop and fails English,” he says. “They listen to more poetry than anyone else in the world.”
Throwing out misconceptions
For all his initial reluctance, Terry has embraced his Harvard education and become a serious academic. The joint government and African and African American studies concentrator received a Michael von Clemm Fellowship to Oxford University, where he’ll pursue a master’s degree in political theory in the fall. He plans to continue his education with a Ph.D. in political theory, “definitely with a focus in African-American studies,” he says.
He credits Harvard’s African and African American Studies Department – singling out Assistant Professor Kim DaCosta, Loeb Associate Professor Tommie Shelby, and W.E.B. DuBois Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (“He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met”) – with influencing his ideas of race and blackness. “They’re the whole reason I’ve tried to become an intellectual of sorts,” says Terry.
More than four years later, Terry is grateful for his uncle’s bet, his principal’s announcement, and his family’s pressure. “[Harvard] is a place where … you can come and really affect people. You have the resources at your disposal to really change things, to really reach out to people and to really make a difference. Even at age 18,” he says. “You’re here with 6,000 of the brightest and most innovative students on the planet. Get to know some of them. Talk about your ideas. You’d be surprised how much you have in common, and how easily certain prejudices and misconceptions get thrown out.”