An Interview with Ewurama Okai, B.A. Yale College ’17

In our alumni spotlight series, we interviewed Ewurama Okai who is in her second year of a J.D.–Ph.D. program at Northwestern University. Ewurama received her undergraduate degree from Yale University and her Master’s in Education from Harvard University. She reflects on her time at Yale, her current research, her experiences being a black woman in academia, and her hopes and plans for the future. 

1.     Could you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?

I was born in Ghana and lived there until the age of 10, then my family moved to Hong Kong for my dad’s job, then we moved to South Africa when I was about 13. It was then that I decided I wanted to go to boarding school for a consistent education, since future moves were possible. I attended high school in the UK, and thought I’d stay in the UK for college, but with my father’s encouragement I attended college in the US. 

2.     Could you tell us more about your time at Yale? 

There are three things that come to mind when I think about Yale. The first is laughter. I laughed a lot as a student, laughing with all kinds of people, at all kinds of things and for all kinds of reasons. I’ve had a great deal of joy in my life and think joy can be underestimated as a powerful source of energy. It’s rarely the big things, but rather the small moments of joy that are most important and memorable. I’m happy to be around people I’m able to learn and grow from.  

Secondly, my time at Yale led me to becoming an educator. My first year, I was a political science major and thought I was going to be a politician.  Having incredible professors like Christopher LeBron and David Simon and others made such an impression on me – inspiring me to want to become an educator.  I taught courses for the Yale Young Global Scholars (YYGS) and SPLASH programs where I was able to create my own class content and had the opportunity to teach students what I thought was important. Those moments introduced me to the joy of helping others work through how they want to see the world, and the impact that can have on the paths they choose moving forward. 

Lastly, Yale introduced me to the importance of educational opportunities – not just for self-empowerment, but for understanding who you are and where your place in the world is. Yale help me imagine what future possibilities were available to you. I had opportunities at Yale that defined my path. Yale gave me the ability to use my voice to engage in social justice matters and to learn new things in new ways, while still remaining joyful. 

3.     Is there anyone who significantly shaped your career and life? 

I don’t have a single mentor, but rather what I consider to be my group of trusted mentors. 

I would be remiss not to start with my parents, to whom I am eternally and daily grateful. I deeply admire them for the ways in which they choose to maneuver institutions; the ways in which they choose to believe in the good in people; and the kinds of values they’ve chosen to instill around hard work. I don’t mean  a cliched notion of hard work that doesn’t see systems, but hard work driven by  and committed to reflexivity. 

While attending college, I also met people who provided powerful institutional support. Amongst administrators, Ann Kuhlman, the director of Yale’s Office of International Students and Scholars, was – and continues to be – a powerful guide since my early days on campus. Her mentoring helped me to achieve successes while centering my well-being. She has always believed that I had a story worth telling, a capacity for giving to others worth developing, and a potential worth investing in. My relationship with Ann is one of my greatest college career achievements, because she continues to push me through doors I am at times too scared to walk through myself.

Lastly, Professor Christopher Lebron sticks out as a powerful representation of how I want to exist as a teacher and scholar in higher education. Professor Christopher Lebron taught the first philosophy class I ever took. Before then, I had never seen a teacher center their students with such intention in the classroom. He never saw academic work to be divorced from everyday experiences, and never saw a student’s subjectivity to be incompatible with the classroom. Every week, I watched him bring his fullness of self to class – his loves, joys, anxieties, etc. In doing so, he offered an alternative representation of teaching in which humanity, imagination and growth were the principal aspects of success.  

4.     Have you noticed anything that you want to highlight that has made you extremely hopeful for the continent?

I’m hopeful of the fact that more and more Africans are choosing to tell their own stories on their own terms. We are taking back our right to tell our own stories – we are doing that for ourselves and no one else. It’s such a powerful shift to be watching what’s happening on the continent, not because we’ve not always done that in the past, but because there’s a new boldness to that action. We are doing it to capture stories that weren’t always comfortably told, such as films that represent nuanced LGBTQ life on the continent or imagine new futures and old histories in novels. It is a powerful thing: refusing to wait for others to get your story right. It is even more powerful to remake those representations for the internal elevation of your community, not for the external gaze of others.  

5.     Can you give us a brief of your current research? What are your plans after your J.D.–Ph.D. program? 

I’m passionate about representations and cultures, which most of my research centers around. I believe these two things are powerful and necessary for equity and social justice. My research is at the intersection of culture, collective memory and trans nationalism. As a scholar, I’ve invested time in learning different methods, reading widely, and connecting to a variety of sub-fields. One sub-group of my work thinks about how people who cross transnational borders think about themselves in relation to where they are, where they used to be, their identity and who they want to identify with as they change their identities. 

Another branch of my work involves diaspora. I’m passionate about pursuing an agenda that thinks about what it means in the 21st century to be part of an African diaspora. Not only that, but how does class, mobility, and race play into access to and the creation of a diasporic experience. I’m interested not just in the individual experience, but the role of diasporic entrepreneurships, cultural organizations like festival planners and museum curators in creating that collective process.

Post-graduation, I’d love to get a job in academia, where I’m a teacher, a researcher, and an administrator – using my experiences to shape broader international policy. I don’t know how that’s going to play out, but this is what I would like to do.  Ultimately, my goal is to work towards building a higher education on the continent centered around the academic study of the arts, humanities, and culture.                                                                                             

6.     What is it like to be a black African woman in Academia? 

I’m someone who prides herself on being a black African woman and I make it known to others. But to be black, African and a woman in academia is complicated. In many ways those three identities can be both interpersonally and institutionally erased, so being a black woman means contending with that erasure. It also means taking on the difficult and beautiful task of finding ways to write myself and my communities back in. 

Academia is also an institution that ultimately can only publish some people and not others according to its rules at the moment. It’s a long-standing set of gates that one has to walk through to prove oneself, so that’s also something I’m always having to contend with – which doors do I want to walk through and which doors I don’t want to walk through. I understand that my movement through academia is something I don’t always have control over but will fight very hard to exert control as I possibly can. Doing it on my terms allows me to identify gates and engage in the imaginative task of understanding how to dismantle those gates in my own practice in the future. 

7.     Do you have any life philosophy you live by?

My life philosophy is that there are three pillars of life – honesty, questioning, and compassion – and they are all connected in important ways. Honesty is complicated, sometimes I’m being as honest as I can be in the moment, but I can’t guarantee what I say is honest today will be honest in my future. My dreams, beliefs, and expectations – are honest to me today. I try to stay true to that by constantly evaluating who I am, including my successes and flaws. I’ve found though that in order to be honest, you have to be willing to question and be questioned. Questioning constantly may sometimes give others the perception of indecision, but too me, it’s a powerful source of confidence. It’s the way I ensure I respect the opportunities I’ve been given, and the relationships that I cherish. Most importantly, I rely on being honest and questioning to be empathetic. Though the ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes feels absent or flattened in public conversations today, change can begin with empathy. Our ability to change the systems that hurt people is by see how some people’s pain is our collective loss. These three things help me live as fully as I can at all times: being honest, questioning and being empathetic. 

8.     What advice do you have for young Africans?

What I want most for young Africans, myself included, is for us to be brave. I don’t mean bravery in the superhero, superhuman sense, but a bravery that comes from telling your truth and asking for help. I want us to never take assumptions for granted; we never know what the person next to us is going through. I want us to continue to wonder about our neighbors, even if we’re not really sure if they wonder about us. I want us to be open to the unfamiliar – to be open to being in and around the unfamiliar, so that we can see that discomfort is where learning begins, not where it ends. Like others, I wonder whether these ideals are too naïve, whether they are divorced from reality. But then I remind myself: these ideals are there to keeping me moving in the direction of what I want, even I may fall short in the end.