Story 11 of 20: Robert's Dream by Robert Ferguson

For the 11th of our series of 20 stories in celebration of 20 Years of Umoja, we sat down with former Umoja student, now Umoja Associates Board Member, Robert Ferguson, to hear about what being in Umoja meant to him in high school and what it still means to him today. Please consider helping more students like Robert achieve their dreams with an end-of-year gift to Umoja.

In high school, I was surely an introvert and shy kid that was afraid to open up and connect with others outside of close friends or family. During the first half of my high school career, I was aiming to be cool and did not want to be labeled as a “nerd” for being smart. I recall being in class and knowing the answer, but being so afraid to speak up to avoid being ridiculed. Before getting involved with Umoja, my goal was to complete high school, immediately get a job and help support my mom who was a single parent raising six kids. College was a fairytale place, far away that people from my community did not talk about or think about attending. My dreams were extremely limited out of fear that if I left my mom and siblings behind and attended college, I would be turning my back on them and leaving them to drown. 

Hearing Lila (Umoja’s founder) speak for the first time in my English class as a junior, I was blown away by the possibilities of what this organization can do for my life and most importantly my family. Umoja opened my eyes to a world outside of my neighborhood.

Understanding the preparation and process that goes along with attending college was overwhelming, but thanks to the guidance of Umoja taking me by the hand, I crossed the finish line turning that fairytale into reality. Filling out college applications, applying for FAFSA, scholarships, grants, writing essays, etc. were activities that gave me hope that this ‘College’ thing is possible.

What is so special about Umoja is that they did not cater or accept ONLY the smart, top students, but accepted everyone as equal if they were willing to put in the work. It set the tone and narrative that EVERYONE can achieve success with the willingness to work and guidance along the way. It gives students hope, a voice, and an outlet to communicate their thoughts. Most importantly, they genuinely care and jointly create a roadmap for the student. There’s a consistent level of repeatable success of students who came from similar backgrounds and achieved a level of success. The Umoja staff is welcoming and provides a “second home” to nurture, develop, and provide guidance.

Today, I would describe myself as self-motivated and driven to succeed.  I have the confidence to conquer any task to fulfill my ambition. I am married and pursuing my entrepreneurial & philanthropic dreams.

If I was to give advice to my high school self, I would say that being uncomfortable forces you to improve your quality of life. Take accountability and ownership of your life. The hand you’re dealt is temporary but will change by your actions. Your past does not dictate your future. Stand out like a sore thumb. Be yourself. Do not let fear immobilize you. Your environment is a component of future success.

*Photo: Robert (at far right) with the rest of the Umoja Associates Board