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Nicole Cooper Delivers Inspiring 2018 Reunion Convocation Speech (1014 hits)

Spelman Alumna Nicole CooperDuring her Reunion Convocation keynote speech, Nicole Cooper, DrPH, MPH, C’2008, shared how her upbringing and Spelman experience has shaped her success and fervor. “As Black women, our unique and authentic voices, spirits, and our bodies are desperately needed, yet diminished, in our world, in our country, and in our communities and workplaces.”

Growing up in a low-income, African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Dr. Cooper, who now serves as the senior director of Mission Distinction & Corporate Social Responsibility for United Health Group, said her humble beginnings and education at “this magical place” called Spelman played a role in her being a key player in the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

“Me. Someone with lived experience as a patient inside the Medicaid system…it was an absolute vision come true.” And while there may be pitfalls along the way, Cooper believes Spelman has equipped its graduates to face those pitfalls “especially when God and the universe work in great concert with our boldest ambitions and dreams.”

Nicole Cooper's Reunion Convocation Speech -- May 18, 2018

How do you set your vision for things yet unseen each day?

As I prepared for today, I reflected on the awe-inspiring history of Spelman College, and the many undaunted visionaries who laid the foundation for Spelman’s incredible legacy and for all of us. Some of those women are sitting here in Sister’s Chapel with us this morning.

In reflecting on these fearless forces, I came up with a simple question for the reunioning classes this year –“As a Spelman alumna, how do you set your vision for things yet unseen each day?”

And, when I say vision, I mean it in the sense of a picture that can be imagined in your mind that leads you to bold, fearless action.

I stand before you as someone who knows first-hand the difference that claiming a voice and setting a vision yet unseen can make in your life.

And I most certainly know what it means for your Spelman sisters to help you set and realize that vision in the “life ain’t been no crystal stair,” and “girl, I got you” kind of way.

Frankly Spelman sisters, we are living in dangerous times. As Black women, our unique and authentic voices, spirits, and our very bodies are desperately needed, yet diminished, in our world, in our country, and in our communities and workplaces.

Each day we are reminded that our visions are unique and specific to each of us.

For if not us, who will set the vision that is needed to right so many historic wrongs and to bring about change in so many spheres of our world?

Who Will Pursue the “Unyielding Presumption of Promise?"

2018 Graduates

To quote the words of the most amazing first lady to ever grace the White House, Michelle Obama, in her commencement address to the Spelman class of 2011: Who will relentlessly pursue the “unyielding presumption of promise, that presumption of brilliance, and that presumption that every woman who enrolls at this school has something infinitely valuable to offer this world?”

Every day proves more fervently that WE are the leaders that WE have been waiting for.

And that WE must ensure that our enduring fires within never dwindle, and that WE breathe life into the fearless, visionary forces that we were each molded to be in receiving the gift of Spelman.

My Story

I’d like I’d like to take you on a brief journey and share how my personal vision came to be, and how incredibly influential my four years at Spelman were for me.

My “story” is not unlike those of many young people living in underserved, urban communities of color in our country, yet I had a vision.

I have humble beginnings, having grown up in a low-income African-American neighborhood in a not-so-affluent corner of Northeast Washington, D.C.- located east of the Anacostia River. Sounds like some of you ladies know what I’m talking about.

I am always shocked when I discuss my upbringing with some of my professional and academic colleagues, but not my Spelman sisters, as others wrongly assume that I went to all the “right” schools, and had all the “right” opportunities for enrichment coming from D.C., when in fact I did not. Yet, I had a vision for something else….

I lived in another Washington that many don’t know about—in Deanwood—a nearly all Black segment of the city, or at least at that time it was, before it was “discovered” by urban colonist gentrifiers. Today, many new residents are finding that if they can deal with no local food delivery, very few sit down restaurants, and lacking other amenities of our world class city, Deanwood is a VERY affordable place to live!

But, where was I? Yes, this section of the city was and still is plagued by terribly high high-school drop-out rates, unemployment, poverty, crime, and innumerable health disparities to name a few of the everyday social issues people in my community faced.

I attended D.C. public schools wrought with the urban perils seen throughout my community. My schools were places where high academic achievement and college matriculation were not the norm, nor what were necessarily expected of me and my peers. People were often faced with the harsh reality of just trying to make it, a particularly ironic and sad reality while living in the nation’s capital, and just a few miles from the White House.

A Heart for Good Public Health

Looking back with my public health lens, as a child, I noticed that my community in many ways was in crisis. Too many people within the population faced sickness, disability, and lack of access to healthy choices. I later learned that my community experienced pervasive health inequalities that are present throughout the United States. These inequalities are caused by many societal factors that put us at risk for disease, stress, and early death. I started to assess my own health care experience: I had been uninsured at different periods of my childhood, and had received my health care at a local community health center while on Medicaid.

At that point in my life, as a high school student, a career in medicine was the only option I knew of that would allow me to use my talents and straight A’s in math and science. I started to make the connection that my professional goal to one day become a family physician should somehow improve the very apparent health inequalities present in my community and in my family. I had a vision.

And as my awareness of my surroundings grew, a mentor from the National Black MBA Association Leaders of Tomorrow program entered my life. I was fortunate enough to have received critical professional and academic mentorship that many young people I went to school with did not have, but needed very much.

Given my untraditional family background — growing up without my parents and having been raised by several of my maternal family members — I learned early on that I wanted more for my future, more for my family, and more for my own personal exposure and growth.

An Introduction to the Spelman Story

Spelman College Riggio Scholars (web2)So one day, a high school classmate became the very first person to plant the seed that Spelman was indeed a special place for me. A place where I could get “more.” As juniors and sophomores, we were sitting outside of the School Without Walls High School in the middle of the George Washington University campus in D.C., and inevitably colleges of interest came up.

My friend starts going on and on about how Spelman was this magical place where she just knew she’d get the education of her dreams and where she was similarly assured that she’d graduate and become a fierce Black woman leader like we all are today. Honestly, I was awe-struck and so amazed and inspired by her clear vision for her life and educational experience at Spelman. I started doing research of my own, and quickly realized that the Spelman path might change my life…

But, I didn't know any Spelman alumnae at that time, though I was starting to think about the historically Black college and university experience and what it could offer me.

So, I thought back to those A Different World episodes that I had enjoyed watching as a kid. Some of you know what I’m talking about. I know I’m not the only one! The classroom and dorm room experiences seemed truly special for Whitley, Kim, and Dwayne at SpelHouse, I mean Hillman College, and the vision was made clear.

Spelman was it for me if only I could get accepted. The academic standards were oh-so-high, and at that time, I lacked the confidence to believe that I would be a competitive applicant. After all, how could I accomplish such an audacious vision coming from my neighborhood?

So, imagine my surprise when I received a letter in December 2003, stating that I had been accepted to Spelman! And a few months later I received that fateful letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation telling me that I had a full ride scholarship for my undergraduate, masters and doctoral studies.

It was and still is quite surreal. Let me tell you: I was accused of being a liar by a close family member when I shared my news on receiving such an incredible scholarship. I learned a critical lesson at 17— that everybody’s vision for your life is sometimes not as grandiose as that which you’ve laid for yourself.

I also learned then that I would have to block memories like that one out, and instead learn from them and use them as fuel for my vision.

A Vision to Improve the Health of Vulnerable U.S. Communities

As a sophomore in fall 2005, I was asked to submit my application for the Women of Excellence Leadership Series program at Spelman. And, it was then that I first crafted the ambitious vision to improve the health of vulnerable U.S. communities, and to become a U.S. healthcare leader. That goal sounded really good to me, and at the time, I was choosing sociology and public health as my fields of study. I felt this incredibly encouraging push to make my professional and academic vision plain.

And, it was so vividly revealed to me, just as my college vision had been revealed just two years prior….

A Quest to Bring the Affordable Care Act to Fruition

So, let’s fast forward to just five years later, where as a presidential political appointee in both Obama administrations in Washington, D.C, I worked on the front line of federal policy for THE most hard-fought U.S. health reform law ever -- the Affordable Care Act.

Me. Someone with lived experience as a patient inside the Medicaid system, playing a leadership role in US healthcare policy in my mid 20’s. It was an absolute dream, or should I say a vision, come true.

But there were many days where I forced myself to see the broader vision for not only myself and my involvement in this incredible effort, but also the impact for years to come. And, as you all know, we worked tirelessly to meaningfully expand access to Medicaid for tens of millions of underserved people, and to bring healthcare into reach for so many others, including the disproportionately uninsured black and brown people across the U.S.

Sharing Spelman's Awe-inspiring Story

And, as I ponder on the next exciting chapter that followed in my life where I entered the Harvard gates, I was again awe-struck by the power of Spelman because it became very apparent to me that I had been uniquely prepared for this experience…

It was at Harvard that I embraced the tenants of my Spelman education even more by doing three things each day:
1.Embodying excellence
2.Claiming my voice
3.Making my vision plain despite what was happening around me.

On the Harvard campus, there were practically daily discussions of “imposter syndrome” with classmates where I would leave thinking “Yep, I’m supposed to be here. I am assured of the value that I bring to the classroom.”

Which is why we all see more than ever that in the current social and political climate, America may not know it, but America, and the world for that matter, needs Spelman College.

Start of QuoteWe need institutions like this one that recognize and foster the needs and End of Quotethoughts of Black women in ways that other institutions simply cannot.

Some believe that we’re at the peak of Spelman and other HBCU’s renaissances, especially after Beyonce’s Coachella performance last month, but I say, keep watching. A record breaking 9,000 young women applied for admission into the Spelman College class of 2022 this year.

Let that sink in for a moment. And know that it's a good thing that we all applied when we did.

The Success of the Class of 2008

But when I say keep watching, I must mention my phenomenal class of 2008 classmates that are trailblazers in so many sectors including:
1.Kimberly Hogg Massey, and what she has been able to accomplish in the business sector, in getting her start on Wall Street and now leading regional marketing at Pepsi Co.
2.Joy Agee McDaniel, who led breakthrough gene discovery research at the University of Alabama on triple negative breast cancer, a type of breast cancer that disproportionately affects African-American women at younger ages, and our classmate
3.Adrienne Walker, who currently stars in the Lion King on Broadway as Nala, showcasing her Black Girl Magic and incredible musical and acting talents each night for the world.

And, as you all know, the accomplishments of Spelman alumnae are rich and vast….

So, sisters, let us use our reunion convocation today as an awakening to ask ourselves just how much we work to set a vision yet unseen each day.

Given the deep connections that we hold and the many experiences that we’ve shared through receiving the gift of Spelman, we must foster the potential of others. We must certainly be bold examples of black women who are not afraid to create our own futures, while asserting our own agency and our own worth.

A Call to Action: Pursue Those Crazy Dreams

Spelman College Alumnae Affairs

We know there will be hardships, pit falls, and “did they just say that?” and “did they just touch my hair?” moments along the way as we chart our bold paths in true visionary fashion. But what I also know to be true is that we have the intellect and the determination to propel ourselves in ways that can’t be compared.

If only we choose to muster the will to pursue those crazy dreams despite the people and institutions that really don’t believe that we can or should be so effortlessly bold.

I know that all of you fierce alumnae and future alumnae know that we have no time to be disheartened or dismayed. We've got work to do, and visions to make real, and sometimes that work will be back-breaking, thankless, and threatening to others, but so very rewarding in the end.

But, we’ll be alright because we’ve got the gift of Spelman. We are dangerously equipped to succeed, especially when God and the universe work in great concert with our boldest ambitions and dreams. We have the strength, the grace, and the odds-defying tenacity and sisterly spirits that are needed to get it done while taking care of ourselves and each other….

To echo the words of Marian Wright Edelman, class of 1960, former chairman of the Spelman College Board of Trustees, and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, when being interviewed during the 1988 inauguration of our dear 7th Sister President Johnetta B. Cole:

"Academic leadership for what? Academic excellence for what? It is to serve others. We are not interested in educating women just to be like everybody else. Our definitions of success are not the traditional notions of success that too many Black and white young people have."

So Spelman sisters, may we find deep inspiration and success as we encounter resistance each day as liberated and educated Spelman women.

Here’s to strong, visionary Black women who refuse to let their worth and ambitions be stifled.

May we be them, may we know them, may we mentor them, and may we raise them.

Thank you.

Posted By: Elly Moss
Tuesday, June 5th 2018 at 2:49PM
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