One in Two Thousand: Aunrika Shabazz ’17

Known to many as “Mama Shabazz,” “Auntie” and even “Grandma,” Aunrika is hands down one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I sat down with her to chat about how she juggles school, work and Ritmo, all the while looking effortlessly good on the daily.

Where are you from?

I was born in DeKalb, Ill. and after that I was homeless for 11 years. I don’t have a fixed location as home but there are a bunch of different places that I lived in that I connect to and that I try to relive somehow.

Do you have any siblings?

I have 13 siblings — seven girls and six boys. I’m number eight of 13.

How did you come across the College?

Completely by accident — like complete accident. I was in a shelter my junior year and I pretty much had done the entire college application process on my own knowing that I didn’t want to go to college in Minnesota. I had these random colleges and universities all over my list — I mean it was a hodgepodge. I had schools like MIT, Harvard and Yale but then I had Normandale Community College which is a small, two-year rural community college. So it was like October and this organization that was targeting homeless, highly-mobile, transient teens but was also part of this other college bound program that I had signed up for was launching a new pilot program for high school into college. They sent this old white lady to the shelter that I was in to help with college stuff. And, even though I thought I was set, I let her look over my resume, transcript and list of schools. But then she was like, ‘you know you could go to the top private schools and universities.’ She told me that if I gave her my word that I will try, she would work with me in six weeks to get an application for a list of schools that are only the top private schools. I thought that she was wasting my time and was like ‘no way — this is the white hope that people be having.’ But my mom told me I had nothing to lose, so I worked with this woman and I wrote seven different essays in four weeks. I did a QuestBridge application in those four weeks and was accepted and matched with Williams, Princeton, Amherst and Brown. And I had happened to match with Williams because the lady who was working with me knew a Williams alum and suggested I try it out. So I fly out to Williams to visit and when I get off the plane at Albany I step outside to where the dock is and there’s this person in a cow suit. I was not sure what was going on. [Laughs.] But then it came down to it and I decided to come here, and I don’t regret coming here at all. It’s the best place I could’ve been, hands down. There’s no competition in terms of class size — I was coming from public schools where a science class had 70 kids. I mean there was nothing better than what Williams was selling.

What are you majoring in?

I am a double major in psychology with an emphasis on developmental and social [psychology] and in French with an emphasis on the francophone world, and an Africana studies concentrator.

What was your study abroad experience like?

I studied abroad in Senegal the summer of my sophomore year through the fall of my junior year. I’m going back eventually and am probably going to live there at some point [in] my life because it was the most transformative experience I’ve had in 22 years. There is a completely different cultural memory, different values and principles [and a] completely different structure of gender relationships. Life was so much slower and I didn’t have anxiety — my heart didn’t beat fast and you know everything worked out. There was an amazing interfaith community, an amazing dance tradition. Every day you could learn a new dance. And, of course, it was warm. It was an absolutely amazing experience.

How did you first get involved in Ritmo Latino?

I auditioned for Ritmo Latino [in the] spring [of] my freshman year as a complete joke, like the entire audition was a complete joke. I was talking shade the whole time, talking smack to everyone, and I loudly announced that I was there only because my friend told me to come. All my answers on my application were wild. And then, I remember getting an email two days after auditions saying that I was confirmed into Ritmo and I was convinced that it was literally a joke. So, I joined Ritmo Latino my freshman spring, and this year I’m president of the group.

How has your final semester at the College been?

I don’t know how I made it through this last semester. I’m taking five classes. I’m writing a thesis. I work three jobs on campus, sometimes four. I go to Ritmo practice three times a week and hold three sets of board meetings. And I just have no idea how I’m doing any of it and manage to sleep. This is the most difficult, the most intense semester I’ve had but it came at a good time when I was also going through really difficult personal growth. I knew that you’re supposed to have that moment of transformation in College, but mine didn’t really come until this last year. When I turned 22 in January, I promised myself that I was going to challenge myself every day and do something that made me bigger than I was. I was really used to being confined physically, mentally, verbally, emotionally. I’m used to making myself as small as I can be, used to trying to avoid attention and defer it to everyone else. And these were habits that I discovered this year that are latent in me from being homeless. Making myself small was something I used to do because being homeless and attracting attention was not what you want. So I made a vow every day that I would take every day of being 22 and do something that made me big and made me expand. And, I’ve been really happy. In the four years I’ve been here, I’ve changed more in the last four months than I can imagine.

What do you do to unwind?

I love dancing — it doesn’t matter what the music is. I imagine that in an alternate world if humans can’t speak, we can just dance and communicate with our bodies. Our bodies are very effective mouthpieces. I also really enjoy talking and meeting new people. I really enjoy the process of watching people transform in front of me and knowing that it’s because I asked them to either focus on themselves or talk about what they love to do or tell me about their family. Humans are the most plentiful database of just endless stories, and how can you ever get tired of listening? If I was any good at math, I’m sure that there would be a way to quantify this. Everyday there are people with stories to be told and all you have to do is ask. So, yeah. I like to dance and check in and take the temperature of people I’m around.

What’s you most recent music obsession?

I’ve really been obsessed with Mac Miller and Ty Dolla Sign’s song called “Cinderella.” It’s a definite ear worm for me, but I’ve also been insanely obsessed with this artist called KAYTRANADA. It is sickly sweet how KAYTRANADA makes my body feel — it literally activates and radiates a kind of energy that is insane. I don’t know what KAYTRANADA does in the studio but when it comes out … his stuff is the most terrible parts about being black with the highest of highs. I’ve also kind of been on the weird SoundCloud R&B artist wave for a while. So, you know when it’s a lil’ gray outside, there’s that one artist on SoundCloud that you just let their station play.

What are your plans after graduation?

A few weeks ago I pledged to [the University of Michigan in] Ann Arbor for a six-year sociology Ph.D. program. I start in the fall.

Any advice for first-years?

Endeavor to compartmentalize. Scholarship can be interdisciplinary. Social relationships are interconnected. As an individual expected to achieve some level of success with some level of efficacy without doing too much self-harm, you must compartmentalize yourself. So endeavor over the course of the four years to become efficient at compartmentalizing your life and experience to become a better producer of cultural work for yourself and for those people who mean enough to you that they can spill over into the rest of the parts of your life. Choose those people very carefully.