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One alum's dream of 'giving back' to community

James Turner with Yusuf Muhammad

Yusuf Abdullah Muhammad, MPS '03, right, with James Turner, emeritus professor of Africana studies, who also was the first director of Cornell's Africana Studies and Research Center.

"I want my students to go to college and serve their communities. That's my dream," says Yusuf Abdullah Muhammad, MPS '03.

"My experiences at Cornell taught me the value of giving back to my community," he continues. "My leadership style is about service and developing leaders and that's what I want my students to experience: to go to Cornell not just to get an education and move on, but to take it back to their communities and improve them."

Muhammad set his sights on being a teacher in the fifth grade, but after getting his master's degree in education from SUNY Cortland he delayed his career to attend Cornell for a master's degree in Africana studies. "I wanted to learn about myself as a person of African descent and about how I could best serve my community back in Brooklyn," he explains. "Especially for urban populations, it's important to be grounded in a strong sense of self and a strong sense of history. That's a huge lesson I learned in Africana studies that I want to give my students: that despite coming from a community where, historically or presently, students struggle, they can overcome obstacles with a strong sense of self and society."

Ashley Garcia at Cornell 2012 graduation

Ashley Garcia '12, who was a top student at the Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn, hadn't even considered applying to Cornell until she talked to Muhammad, her teacher and mentor, about the Africana Studies and Research Center professors he'd had and how profoundly they had influenced him. She graduated from Cornell in 2012.

After Cornell, Muhammad taught social studies for eight years at the Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a selective public school in Brooklyn, but he wanted to make a wider impact than one classroom could provide. He applied and was accepted to the New Leaders Aspiring Principals Program, a nationwide program that trains teachers as principals with the expectation that they will return to their home communities to turn around troubled schools.

"The idea is that every student can succeed if we have the right leadership," explains Muhammad. "If we have principals who believe that students can achieve, no matter what, we will have really transformational leaders in the school buildings."

He did his New Leaders residency at Bronx Bridges, a high school for English language learners who are new arrivals to the United States. "We had 26 different countries represented," he recalls. "The experience really pushed me and my thinking about leadership skills."

He's now back at Banneker as an assistant principal, and he's set his sights for his students high -- all the way to the Hill. "I really want to start a tradition, a pipeline, where our students attend Cornell," he says.

Ashley Garcia '12 can attest to Muhammad's vigorous advocacy of Cornell. A top student at Banneker, she hadn't even considered Cornell until Muhammad, whom she considers her mentor, talked with her at length about the Africana Studies and Research Center professors he'd had and how profoundly they had influenced him. "So I started thinking about applying," she says.

A few years ago Muhammad began bringing groups from Banneker to visit Ithaca. He cites former Ujamaa Residence Hall Director Ken Glover and Ujamaa's enthusiastic welcome with making the visits successful. Besides having the students meet with Banneker graduates currently at Cornell, he also makes a point of having them meet with Africana faculty.

Sebastian Placide, Yusuf Muhammad and Shenell Bourne at Cornell graduation

Muhammad, center, with Banneker Academy alumni and new Cornell graduates Sebastian Placide, left, and Shenell Bourne, right.

Last spring, Garcia graduated from Cornell with three other Banneker alumni, a large number for a small school in Brooklyn. And of course, Muhammad was there.

"I don't know many people whose high school teacher would drive five hours up to Ithaca to see them graduate," says Garcia, who majored in history and math -- and who is now helping fulfill Muhammad's dream, by serving her community with Teach for America.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.


New Leaders Aspiring Principals Program

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