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Former NYCHA Youth Now is a Rhodes Scholar (Photo by Pete Mikoleski)
From NYCHA to Oxford

For most of his childhood, Rakim Brooks called Wagner Houses home.  In his journey to realize his potential, he has left not only the Harlem NYCHA development, but also the country. The 23-year old received a scholarship to be a Rhodes Scholar, which allows students to attend Oxford University in England at no cost.  One of the world's leading academic institutions, Oxford exemplifies the phrase “melting pot,” even for someone who grew up in New York City. 

“It’s great.  There is no greater opportunity for interacting with smart people from all over the world,” said Mr. Brooks.  “It’s truly an epicenter. I can have conversations with people from Zimbabwe, South Africa and India.”

Mr. Brooks’ family life growing up in Wagner Houses played a large role in his development.  He was raised by his mother and grandmother and draws inspiration from them, as he learned that bettering oneself comes with sacrifice.  His mother struggled to make a better live for Mr. Brooks and herself.  “She really pulled herself up from having little,” he said.

During middle school, his mother found an apartment for them, but he continued to stay with his grandmother during the week so he would not have to switch schools.  When his grandmother, an avid booklover, started losing her eyesight, he read for her.  “It was tragic, but it was also serendipitous,” Mr. Brooks said.  “She just wanted to keep reading so I assisted her.”

After excelling in his academics at Bronx High School of Science, Mr. Brooks attended Brown University, where he says the academic freedom allowed him to grow.  One of his professors at Brown suggested that he apply for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which involves a rigorous application process; past winners include former President Bill Clinton, Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker and former New Jersey Senator and New York Knicks’ player Bill Bradley.  Of the 32 Rhodes Scholars chosen annually, the selection parameters are “high academic achievement, integrity of character, a spirit of unselfishness, respect for others, potential for leadership and physical vigor.” 

Mr. Brooks had experience as a scholar when he started at Oxford, having spent his junior year in college as a scholar at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (DMI), the New York City non-profit think tank that promotes social and economic fairness.  Representing the 2008 DMI scholars class, Rakim spoke at this year’s scholar ceremony about his experiences.  I learned the importance on continuing to develop progressive positions,” said Mr. Brooks.  “In order to be counted, you need to be very clear about what it is you want and plan to do about it.”

As for Mr. Brooks’ vision for his future, he plans to represent people in need of assistance. “I couldn’t imagine being anything other than an attorney,” he said.  “In my surroundings, people often needed an attorney in some way, shape or form.  People always need some form of advocacy.”

By Brent Grier
September 27, 2010