Destiny James, Student at University of Miami
I'm from Denmark, South Carolina, which is a very small town in what we call the low country part of South Carolina. A few grocery stores, a few traffic lights, very, very small schools. My school only had like 240 students. I graduated with a class of 38 and it was predominantly black. My school was one that was kind of looked down upon because Denmark doesn't have a lot of money. The majority of the population in Denmark is below the poverty line, my family included.
I come from a very low income household, with a single parent. I grew up and still live in public housing and I never saw a struggle where it affected me. I never went without. I was raised with my mom and my three siblings. I have two brothers and one sister and my mom was always very hardworking. She pushed me to always do what I have to do in school and that was never an issue for me. I was reading by age 3, spelling really big words, winning writing contests, and things like that. I was always very into my education, before I realized that that would be what would get me out of South Carolina and out of Denmark. When I got to middle school is when I started just researching different colleges and figuring out where I wanted it to go because I knew there had to be something outside of the low country. I just didn't know what it was.I never went without, but I knew I didn't come from money and I didn't have a silver spoon and I wasn't as privileged as some of my friends or people from other schools.
Being low income meant that I was able to go to programs such as Trio Programs and Upward Bound math and science programs where I was able to stay at a college campus every summer for six weeks or eight weeks and take college courses, have a mentor, live in the dorms and get a feel of what it's like to be away from home. So I was doing that from eighth grade all the way up until my senior year of high school going to these different colleges. So if I wasn't low income, I wouldn't be able to do these programs and I would have missed out so many different opportunities. I don't look at it as a bad thing because there are things that come out of it.
People around you didn't have a lot. What do you think that there was inside of you that set you apart, that made you feel like it doesn't matter?
I think the thing that set me apart is that I had been in Denmark for so long and I just got tired of it. Honestly. I had this mindset where the world can't just be predominantly black, the world can't be country, small towns. The world can't be, oh, you can't do this, you can't do that. Like, there has to be an opposite to it. And so it just pushed me. I got on the Internet and I looked at all these different schools out of state and I decided right then I don't want to be in South Carolina because I don't want to restrict myself anymore. So I don't know where it came from, but I just felt like it was special and it was just in me as a child. And it just continued to blossom.
My mom always pushed me in school. And I always thought, if she's putting so much emphasis on education and not me going to get a job, just education, this is what's going to get me out. This is what's going to get my family out. And that's what just continued to push me.
I always had this saying when I was in middle school that you can't tell me the sky is the limit if there are footprints on the moon. I said that in my speech I did from my fifth grade graduation. I said that in the speech at my eighth grade graduation and I just kept carrying it on until people started saying that really makes sense. It's like we put, we limit ourselves and we limit our students and we limit our children where we keep telling them, "The sky is the limit. The sky is the limit". What else? Why can't we go above that? Why can't we go outside of Denmark? Why can't we go outside of South Carolina? Why am I only being limited to apply to these schools that are right in my backyard when there's some of the top schools across the country that I know I can get into?
So when it came to applying to colleges, I applied to almost every school in South Carolina. Just so I had the option to fall back on, to see if I can get in, and see what they will offer me. And like I said, it's a good backup plan, but I knew I didn't want to be at any of those schools. I applied to Harvard and I applied to University of Miami, which were my two top schools and within two weeks of applying to Harvard I received a call in the middle of me cheering for basketball game that they wanted to come to my school to interview me. So this is a big deal. My principal flipped out. My family flipped out because it's like, this has never happened. People don't even apply to schools like this because they don't think they can get in. And the fact that I applied and they are calling me, and they want to interview me. I'm like this may just be their thing, but I don't care because I'm getting an interview with Harvard. And they came to interview me, which was amazing, we had a really good conversation. The interview was actually very relaxed. We got to know each other very well. And before it was over, the guy that interviewed me was telling me that even if I didn't get it and he knew I would do really great things because I had a drive that was unmatched, and that meant a lot to me. Two weeks later I was accepted to University of Miami. And then maybe three weeks after that I was denied by Harvard. When I got accepted to Miami, I forgot that I applied to Harvard. I was like, all right, we're going to Miami in the fall.
Everybody was getting ready. And my mom was like, well what about Harvard? And I was like, no, this feels right. This feels right and this is still one of my dream schools, so it's fine. So when I was denied to Harvard, I thought, you know what, I took that chance. I applied. I wouldn't have known if I didn't try. And now I know I didn't get in, but this admission counselor saw something in me. Harvard saw something in me, so it's okay. Maybe another time in life or maybe never, but I took that chance that a lot of people just don't take.
"We limit ourselves and we limit our students and we limit our children where we keep telling them, "The sky is the limit. The sky is the limit". What else? Why can't we go above that?"
What’s the message you would like to convey to people who may be in the same situation you were in?
Just go for it. I always say "you don't know, if you don't try." I see a common thing where people where I'm from have these dream schools and will wear the gear, cheer for the teams, go crazy about this school, but never apply to it. Never take the chance to go tour it. Never actually try to get into that school. And I think it's fear and it's become common to just look at it on TV and feel like it's unattainable. I don't think anything is unattainable unless I try it and I can't get it. Even then I don't see it as impossible. It just wasn't for me.
How’s it going at University of Miami?
I'm currently studying public health. When I came to Miami I was actually studying biology on the pre-dental track. I always thought I wanted to do dentistry, don't know where it came from, it was there for years, and the common misconception is that if you want to go into the healthcare field, you have to major in biology or chemistry. I hated science but it was like this is what I have to do because I want to do dentistry. I was miserable. I could not understand it. I didn't have the foundation. So when I came here and I'm in this big lecture hall with 250 students and the professor, he's saying things like, you should've learned this in high school. I was like, okay, hold up, something is wrong because I've never heard of any of this and I was lagging. I was failing exams. I was failing the class. I just could not get it. And I'm like, how did I just go from being a straight A student with a 4.6 GPA, one of the top of my class in high school and now I'm failing in my first semester of college. So that was very miserable. I stayed in the major, however, just suffering for two years.
Once my father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer freshman year, is when I started getting into cancer awareness. And the following February I started getting involved with the Miami Dolphins Cancer Challenge, which is a 5K they do every year. Each participant raises $250. You go to the stadium and you walk, you run, you ride bikes, you raise money and celebrate cancer awareness. I made that my thing. After I did that I was like, okay, I'm going into this every year.
That was my commitment and I still didn't know I wanted it to be in public health. I was still struggling in biology, struggling in chemistry and I didn't want to change my major because I didn't know what I was changing to. I explored business, I thought about doing math. I was like, my life is in shambles. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm just going to stay in this major and suffer until I can figure it out. That did hurt me because I had to kind of play catch up, but it gave life a chance to just run its course because I wouldn't have known until certain things happened.
Two weeks after my freshman year, my father passed away and a month after that is when I started my own cancer awareness initiative called 'Live to Win.' And I decided to do a 3K walk in my hometown and we had like 70 participants. The mayor of the city was there, the police department was there. So many people came out. I had friends from Atlanta that came and friends from North Carolina that came. And I was like, okay, this is it. I want to do cancer awareness for a career for the rest of my life because people are affected by it. And this is me dealing with my hurt. This is me grieving in like a very healthy way while helping myself and helping others. So it was very successful. I came back here my sophomore year and I was still officially a biology major, but I started just dipping into the public health pool. I took my first couple of public health classes and it was set in stone.
I literally watched everything change. My classes no longer felt like work. I was writing essays easily, killing new projects, and making straight A's. I went from being on academic probation for multiple semesters over and over, to being on the Dean's list and the provost list because now I'm in a new major and now I have a passion for it and I can see where it's going. So I'm loving public health. I'm still working on cancer awareness. My wristband says, "All Cancers Matter," and "Live to Win Fighters." It's my baby. I look at it every day. Even when I'm not doing events, it's like people are still wearing these wristbands.
"Live to Win" is my passion and "Live to Win" is something that I plan to expand on. Once I get my degree, I want to go back to college and get my Masters in Public Health or like a specialization in disease prevention. That way that I can go back to underserved communities such as the one that I'm from and implement different projects and interventions and pop up testing and seminars, things like that that we don't have. Like all you see is a billboard that says our county is ranked number two for HIV/AIDS in the state, but where's the testing? And where's the information, what are we doing to prevent it? All we're doing is showing the stats and there's not enough prevention, there's not enough awareness and I just really want to serve the community I'm from, and cities like that.
So what would you say your life's mission is?
I definitely think my life's mission and my ultimate goal came from my father's situation. I was luckily able to channel my grief and hurt in a positive way, instead of just being sad about it, instead of just being depressed about it. Even though I did go through that moment in that place in my life, I still knew that someone else could benefit from the knowledge I've acquired through watching my dad go through cancer. I could benefit from learning more about cancer and how to prevent it. How it can make people more aware of what it does to the body. I just think that it's very important that when we go through so much bad, you have to find that a little bit of good and mine came through starting my own cancer awareness organization. I was luckily able to channel my grief and my hurt in a positive way.
I think that's something that he would be proud of and I think it's something that was kind of in the plan. God always has a plan. What he takes from us, he also gives us. And he closed a door. Me losing my father, but so many more have opened. I wouldn't have been this happy with my education if I didn't change my major to public health and I'm almost 100 percent sure of that. I would have still probably been making C's, D's, F's, struggling, losing scholarships, and losing my grants as opposed to now. Class is a breeze. Education is a breeze and I'm happy with it. I'm succeeding, I'm getting more scholarships from it, and I'm getting more awards from it and I know it all goes back to my father having cancer.
So you’re ‘Drake’s girl’ now :) It sounds like God really does have a plan for you…
So it was super bowl weekend and I received a phone call. I knew it was from the school. I'm like, who's calling me on a Saturday is super weekend, like what is going on? And her name is Darlene Rebello Rao and she was so excited and just hollering. Just like, I know I sound crazy but I really need to talk to you. We pulled your story with think you're perfect for this video that we want to shoot. And so I'm like, okay, great. What is it? And she said that he wants to shoot a video for a scholarship donor luncheon that we're having later this month and we want you to tell your story.
So I'm like, okay, great. You know, I get to tell my story and I joked, I was like, somebody made see this video and they might want to donate to me right then and give me a scholarship or a grant right on the spot. So this is great. I'm here for it. Let's do it. We had plans to do it that Monday and she was so adamant about doing it that Monday. I had to make sure I had room in my schedule to take off from work. She's like Monday, 4:00, I need you. And so we meet up and 30 minutes before she gets there and my phone starts going crazy, buzzing. My friends are like, everybody should be by the student center at 5:00 and we're like, what's going on with the students in at 5:00? And they're like Drake is going to be a recording the video, everybody should be there so you could be in the video. And I was like, oh my God. Okay great. And then I'm like, wait. I'm waiting on someone to come and do a video. I have a prior commitment guys. I can't do it. Sorry, take pictures.
So I'm bummed. I'm talking to her when she gets there. I'm like, do you know Drake is here? And she was like, oh for what? And I'm saying like, apparently he's shooting the video for God's Plan. You know, it is going on right now. I'm trying not to act sad about it because I'm excited for what I'm doing, but it's Drake. I'm about to miss Drake. I'm missing it.
"And Drake walks out and if you saw the video, I'm crying and running in circles and was just standing there and he's like, so you're not going to shake my hand. And I literally lost my mind."
And so the director... she actually turned out to be the director of Drake's video. I didn't know, she's like, you know, just tell your story. Look into the camera. I know it's a lot going on, but don't look away from the camera. Whatever you do, don't look away from the camera. So I'm awkwardly sitting there smiling to the camera. She was like, great, can you gave me these shots? And I'm like, okay, great. And Drake walks out and if you saw the video, I'm crying and running in circles and was just standing there and he's like, so you're not going to shake my hand. And I literally lost my mind. Even in that moment it felt unreal and I was like, okay, I'm blowing my spot. We're supposed to be doing this other video. Drake is here and I'm being a fan girl. Did I just mess up the video? And so I look behind at the cameras and they're all like, no, it's great. This is right, this is great.
And I realized that this is a setup. Even then I thought he was just coming to say hi, you know, stopping by. And when he started talking to me, he's telling me that I've heard your story. I've read so much about you. You've done so many great things. You've worked so hard and because of that I want to give you $50,000 for your tuition and I lose my mind all over again. I'm crying. I'm screaming. And I'm like, this is a setup. This is the best surprise ever. I'm mad, but I'm not mad because this is amazing and he just kept talking to me. He was so humble and he was thanking me while I was thanking him. I was like, you know, you don't understand what you just did for me. You just changed my life in the most amazing way. And he was saying, no, thank you for being great and thank you for working hard and thank you for not giving up.
So it was this great exchange of energy and he told me that, you know, I'm about to go shoot my video at the student center, come up there with me, you know, come over, come watch. So I'm like, okay. I walk over there. It is a whole crowd of students swarming the student center. I go stand in the crowd and his crew comes to get me and they're like, no, you come to the third floor. So I get to go on the balcony and I'm watching him shoot. And he's right there. And I'm on snapchat recorded videos, exclusive access. So everyone's, mad and was like, how did you get up there? I'm like, I don't know, I'm Drake's girl now. He comes and he talks to me again. He gives me a hug and he just reminds me that he did this because he saw something in me and that he believes I'm going to continue to do great. He told me to keep him in the loop. So I was like, okay, does this mean I could stalk you on instagram until you follow me now? And later that night he followed me. He sent me a direct message telling me that he was happy to meet me and he knew I deserved it. And that put the icing on the cake like you've already done so much and you still took the time to reach out to me hours later, directly. Not just a general instagram posts like you sent me a direct message telling me that you were happy to meet me. And that just shows like how generous he was and how humble he was.
It sounds like you noticed people that noticed you. Like you said, Harvard told you that you're going to do great things, and Drake said, he knew you're going to do big things.
I think it's so easy to forget that people are watching and to forget all of the good things you've done once you feel like life is beating up on you. And that was a point that I kind of reached. I was very depressed. I was stressed out. I was having anxiety issues. I almost transferred from this school this past summer actually. I applied to three different schools in South Carolina because it was too much to keep paying out of pocket tuition, like $40,000 a year. That was a lot of money for me. That's a lot of money for my family. My mom is paying all the bills at home by herself. She's making sure I'm traveling. So she's paying for travel, she's paying for groceries, medicine, everything under the sun, books, and then paying tuition after that. I felt like I was being selfish, being here and putting such a burden on my family and I was only making my life harder because it's just too much stress.
I applied to these three different schools. I got in and right after they accepted me, UM increased my financial aid packet and someone at financial aid actually called me and she's like, you know, we're giving you this grant, we're increasing it because we don't want to see you leave. And I'm like, she doesn't even know me. What makes her want me to stay here? It worked out somehow. I only ended up having to pay a little amount of money out of pocket as opposed to thousands of dollars. And I'm like, okay, I'm staying here. It worked out.
And that was a pattern I kept seeing. Right when I'm about to give up and I feel like this is just not working out. I have to do something else. Something comes through and it gets me through just a little bit more. Even if it's only one extra month before it starts falling apart again, little things kept happening to just keep me going, keep me going, keep me going. And I had to learn to stop being so caught up in... yes, I'm depressed. I don't want to go outside today. I'm crying 90 percent of the time, but I got to suck it up. I had to keep going to class because God keeps making these things happen for me. He keeps making a way from me and making money come through and I don't have any and helping me pass this test when I thought I wasn't ready. All these little things he keeps doing. I would be very ungrateful to not appreciate it and just let him do what he's doing.
So once I got out of that mindset of woe is me, have pity on me. Things started to change and things started to fall into place even when they weren't in place. I was just smiling like, life sucks, but it's okay. It's okay, you know. I'm here. I'm still at my dream school. I am still at University of Miami. People back home still look at me, and look up to me because I'm in my junior year and I have yet to quit. I have yet to drop out. I have yet to be back home doing nothing. And that was enough. That was a lot already and I had to stop putting that pressure on myself to try to do so much, not realizing what I had already done.
Speak to that child, that girl who's in a bad situation right now, in a small town in America, who thinks “nothing's going to happen for me”.
I'm still the girl in the small town that feels like this is all I have. Like the world is too big for someone as small as me. And I think it's very important to remember that we all start somewhere, all these big names that we see, all these people we see on tv who looked like they have it all together. Their life is probably in shambles. They probably come from nothing. They probably come from the same situation that you come from. We are still human and there's so much out there and there's so much out there for us. Us as in people who don't have a stable home. Us as in people who don't come from money. Us as in people who come from these little small towns that people would never ever, ever look at unless something really, really tragic happens and then all the news outlets, they're filming it and broadcasting it everywhere. That's the type of town I come from. And to all the young girls, young boys who feel like they can't make it out, there's so much out there for us, but you have to be hungry and you have to go and get it because no one's going to come into these little towns and say, okay, I'm looking for someone special.
You have to make yourself stand out. Whatever it is that you like. Education is all I have, so if I'm really, really smart and I give school my all, someone's going to pay me to be at their college one day and that's what happened. If I go to this college and I keep doing good, they're gonna want me to stay here. They're going to keep giving me money. People are going to want me to come to their Grad school and come work for their companies. So if I keep being my best self, people are going to want to be around me. People are going to want me in their presence because they see something in me. And so I think it's just important that you take all of your negatives and turn them into positives. I could easily sit here and say, you know, oh, I feel embarrassed, or I feel ashamed because I come from a single parent home, both of my parents weren't in the same home, and I didn't live in a big house. I've lived in public housing all my life. That's what I used to drive me. I really say, y'all don't know me. I come from public housing and I did this, I did that. And I made it. I use all of that and I say I made it. I use all that and I say, but I'm at University of Miami. I'm from Denmark, South Carolina, but I'm at University of Miami. And people from that area, South Carolina, they know what that statement means and it holds so much weight. I'm from Denmark, South Carolina, and I go to University of Miami. That takes the negativity out of it. So if you just continue to take that negative connotation off of everything that you think could tear your life down, everything that can make you embarrassed, and be proud of it. You will watch things turn around.
You're awesome. You are a like a light too. I feel like whatever you did to spin that negativity in your life, you are shining. What does it mean to you to be powerful?
To be powerful is to be able to impact someone else's life positively, not negatively, not abusing your power, and not using it to tear someone else down, or make someone else feel smaller. I feel like you're only truly powerful when your power helps someone else not make them feel little or demean them. If I had some crazy CEO position and I'm only delegating powers and bossing people around, making them feel as if they're less than. I'm not really powerful. I'm probably insecure. But this platform I have now when people are flooding my inbox, and coming to campus, and wanting to meet me is a power that I won't even admit to because it's me staying humble. It's me realizing that this platform I have is helping so many people. People that don't even have to talk to me personally, they just scroll my instagram page or pull up a news article. That's power because it's positively helping someone and it's uplifting them as opposed to making them feel like they can't do something or I'm better than them. They feel like they're my equal or they can reach the point that I'm at.
I saw you started something: Dreamers to Dreamers. Talk about that.
So dreamers to dreamers mentoring from Morehouse to Miami is a mentoring program that me and one of my high school classmates started. He's actually my uncle. We graduated high school together and we were the only two students to go out of the state and go to our biggest dream school. He and I were student government president and vice president together. We've been king and queen of our grades together. We've done so much together as far as high school and positive movement. And so when it came up that I wanted to do a mentoring program, I'm like, why don't we join together? You're at Morehouse, you’re a Gates Scholar, and I'm here at University of Miami. I now had this Drake scholarship. I'm doing all these other great things. People look up to us. Let's join forces and let's help students that come from these schools in South Carolina that don't have the resources or they don't learn these things in school. They don't get enough time to learn how to write an essay for college and how to sell yourself, how to apply for these jobs. All these build your resume and so we started this program. People started applying really quick. We got like 20 applications and we accepted 15 and split the two. It actually had a success story that came very, very quickly. There's one girl, she goes to Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, and before we officially announced the program, she and I already started working on an essay that she was trying to write for a scholarship. A week later she texts me and said, I got the scholarship and that's when I knew. This program is going to be great and people need it and I'm doing the right thing because it's just that quick, a week of back and forth editing.
Destiny is your name. There's something in that like from the day you were born, obviously somebody knew that this was going to be your destiny and that's your name. Do you ever think about that?
Sometimes. A lot of people tell me that they really like my name. I'm always like it's Destiny. You know, I love my name, but I've never dug too deep into it. I do feel that everyone's name has a meaning. You can go look it up like, oh, this name means this, but this one is right in your face. It means what it means when you hear it. You know what it is.
So, you're also in slam poetry club.
I started writing poetry when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. And it started off just being me expressing myself. It would be cute little love poems or things about life and nature. And I would pass this notebook around my class to all my classmates. They loved it, but that was the furthest I would go as far as sharing it. When I came to UM, I was still writing poetry but I hadn't gotten into slam until my sophomore year when I joined speak what you feel poetry club, which is the only poetry club on campus. And we do open mics. We do slams. I'm the vice president of the club and I'm also on the slam team which is ‘sunshine state of mind’. And the thing with slam poetry is so different than just writing in a notebook and expressing yourself because slam poetry, you're going for the punch lines and you want things to hit. You want it to be deep and you're able to just vent in the ugliest ways and have people appreciate it. So a little stanza from a poem. One of my teammates and I wrote recently. We initially wrote it for victims of sexual assault, but I think this one stanza can empower anybody, that's feeling like they can't do it or anybody who feels that they aren't good enough. Especially to young girls.
You are still beauty when your hair is undid and your battle scars poke from your flesh. You are art even when you aren't hung up to be shown off. You are the strength of a million man army, your spirit marching on through brokenness and trauma. The Universe is thankful for you.
I'm Destiny James and this is The Fem Word.