Story 2 of 20: A Message for My High School Self by Dr. Benjamin Straughter

Ben Straughter was your all-around high school student. He describes his then high school self as determined, prepared, popular, involved, and engaged. As a young man with aspirations for college, the path wasn’t always clear. Here, Ben tells the story of how Umoja empowered him to take the necessary steps towards his future…


“My father passed away my first year of high school. With eleven brothers and sisters, this loss to my family completely changed our dynamic in ways that I, at times, did not understand.  When I went to Manley, I knew I would not have a difficult time. I had two sisters who had already attended Manley Career Academy High School, so Umoja was not unfamiliar to me when I arrived for my first year. One of my sisters was a student when Umoja first became an organization. I remember all the trips my sisters went on to expose them to all of the different colleges and opportunities both inside and outside of the city of Chicago.

Because my grades were always high-caliber, I knew that it was not a matter of IF I was going to go to college, but WHERE I would go. My sisters had always been involved with Umoja, and from their testimonials, I knew that Umoja would help me figure things out.

College was not an option; it WAS going to happen. I wanted to go to college.

I began to meet the advisors and counselors at Umoja through the classroom guidance lessons in Division periods. They would come around and talk to each group of students about academic, personal and social, and career choices that we would one-day face as a young adult. I really appreciated that. As those lessons were definitely valuable, they also allowed me to see that the organization was considerate of the student as a whole, and they had much to offer.

Ben_2.jpgWhen I started my senior year, I knew that it was time to review the courses that I had taken to make sure that I was ready for the next step, college. By this time, Umoja had already taken my classmate and me on a Southern College Trip, where we visited the many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) of the south. I knew that I wanted to go to one of those that we visited, but there were many to choose from. I remember Carmen, who was an advisor at Umoja tell me that if there was a school that I was interested in applying, to just do it! Before I knew it, I had applied to 40 schools, and they were all over the country.

I was accepted to roughly 35 schools.

I knew that I wanted to be an English Teacher like my teacher at Manley, Mr. Scott Trinter, and since each school had an English department, it did not matter to me where I went. One school that I did NOT want to go was Tuskegee University. Tuskegee was one of the places that we visited during the Southern College Trip. I did not like the way that the school looked, where it was located, and there was no public transportation. I needed a CTA bus, train, or ANYTHING! So no, I was not going. However, shortly after we started applying to schools, six of my other friends decided that since they had been accepted to this Black Ivy League school, they would commit. I then began to think, should I go? Well, after a year and a half, all of my friends had either decided that they did not want to go to college, they could not afford it, or it was not a fit for them and they changed their minds. Out of the seven of us, I was all by myself.

One day, Lila Leff herself called me into her office and told me that there was a scholarship from some company downtown Chicago that she wanted me to apply. I grew nervous because she said there were multiple interviews and we would have to go to a high-rise downtown to speak to these executives about why we should get the money they raised from the employees that worked for them. I was super nervous, but I kept a smile at all times to hide it. There I met Ms. Sharon Lindstrom, who was over the scholarship committee. She was definitely helpful, and would constantly tell me to be calm and not to worry.

I went through the process, and as soon as I made it back to the school after the interview, my mom was waiting to pick me up. Lila ran out of the building and started ranting to my mom about how great I did in the interview. I felt 30 pounds lighter! I did not know that it was official, but on graduation day when they were announcing recipients for scholarship awards, I was receiving all of the awards for everything. As important as the others were, the Protiviti Scholarship was the last to be called and the most important to me. It was like a suspense film. Lila walked up and announced that I had won the scholarship and that I was the first person to ever win the Protiviti Scholars Program scholarship. I felt like I was the man.

I am a proud alum of Tuskegee University (the school I did not want to attend), where I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. I am a proud alum of Auburn University, where I earned a Master of Education degree in School Counseling and a Doctor of Education degree in Educational Leadership, Policy and Law from Alabama State University. I am a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and I spend free time as an academic mentor and tutor for student-athletes at Auburn University. It was because of God and organizations like Umoja who exposed me to higher education outside of Illinois that helped me get to where I am today. I will never forget the love and care I received by embracing Umoja and using them as the incredible resource they were and continue to be for other students.

Currently, I am a professor in the Rehabilitation Services department in the College of Health Sciences at Alabama State University (my third year now). If there were anything that I could tell my past self, it would be to not worry about anything or anybody else. I would tell myself that I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul. I would tell my past self that even in times when I felt alone and especially broken in my progress to become a better person and a better man, that I am not the only person who experienced the hardships of earning a decent education.Ben_1.jpg

I would tell myself to view myself as a crayon in a box with seven or 23 or 63 other colors. We are all crayons, but we are individuals in the colors that we represent. The purpose behind this analogy is that 'broken crayons still color.' I would tell myself that there are obstacles in life that will try to break you, but that is irrelevant. What is important is not how things happen, but how you react to them that will make the world of a difference. That's what I would say."