HER STORY: Defying the Odds

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), this young black woman promised herself to stop being naïve and continued proving her critics wrong — on and off the basketball court.

By Maya Garland ’14

High school is an undervalued moment in our lives that is pivotal in shaping and defining who we are to become. Fenwick High School has played such a foundational role in my life. There are many lessons I have learned during my time at Fenwick that will resonate with me forever. Some of these lessons are straightforward, one being “everything in moderation.” But some of the other lessons Fenwick has taught me are somewhat more difficult and perceived as not appropriate to bring up.

Maya Garland is a R&D
engineer/project manager for Amazon in Chicago.

I did not realize or understand most of these more challenging teachings as a naïve, sheltered high-schooler. It wasn’t until after graduating from Fenwick that I now can fully understand them. I won’t share the details of them all! But one that stands out to me the most is that not everyone in the halls I walked in saw me as an equal, whether classmates or faculty members who did not perceive me as the other students. To some, my appearance marked me as inadequate or trouble. I can’t count how many times I walked into an advanced class on the first day of school, and other students would ask if I had the right course because they didn’t believe I had the knowledge to be in an honors class.

I am not here to complain or badger this community. More so, I am here to thank you all. My time at Fenwick was the reason that I made one of most significant lifelong promises to myself – that I would never be that naïve again! I cannot neglect the stereotypes that I must defy due to the representation of my skin color. It is a fundamental reason why I walk with my head held high, and I defy all odds of what some might believe a “colored person” should be in everything I do.

For example, I heard that less than 2% of minority women major in engineering in college and less than 1% go on to receive their master’s in engineering. From the first day I stepped on UAB’s college campus, I made sure to let my academic advisor know that I wanted to major in biomedical engineering. Five years later, I not only graduated with my master’s in biomedical engineering, but I was the first student of any race to do so in the shortest amount of time.

Much More than Basketball

STEM Star: In addition to her D1 athletic prowess, Ms. Garland graduated cum laude from UAB, where she earned a master’s degree in materials engineering.

I thank some families at Fenwick because they insinuated that basketball will be my only glorified moment in my life and that I would not amount to anything else outside a basketball court. These comments motivated me even more after I had my third major surgery in college and knew there wouldn’t be any more opportunities to play basketball professionally. Instead of being devastated, I didn’t want to give them any possible claim to their remarks. So, I made sure to always keep a smile on my face and let anyone who approaches me about my misfortunate injuries know that my life is bigger than the game of basketball. Shortly after ending my basketball career, I accepted an offer from Amazon as an engineer in their research and development department.

My time at Fenwick was immaculate – it was the first time I thought I was in love (and the second). It instilled confidence in me that I could do anything. It provides more moments to share with my brother, to witness his transformation from the boy who refused to go to Fenwick to the man he is today. [BONUS BLOG: Read alumnus Aaron Garland ’15‘s journey at Fenwick.] Lastly, it introduced the Bible into my life. I owe so much to this school; however, I have only been back twice to visit Fenwick, and both times were to use the gym amenities to train for the upcoming basketball season.

I am reluctant to go back now because I am somewhat disappointed in myself for not disproving the status quo of how a minority teen should act and be. Although I am proud of my accomplishments after Fenwick, I understand that I proved my critics right on multiple occasions during my time at Fenwick. After school, I lived in JUG. I was part of the group of students who almost didn’t graduate due to the number of tardies I accumulated throughout my senior year. Lastly (most disappointing one of them all), my high school grades did not reflect someone who would graduate cum laude in college.

White-and-Black Lenses

Maya as a Friar
in 2014.

For a very long time, I thought that my upbringing from being raised in River Forest (a predominantly white neighborhood) and attending Trinity High School as a freshman — then transferred to another predominately white school (Fenwick) — affected my connection to other black kids. Most of them didn’t give me the validity of being a young black girl trying to make it because of where I grew up. However, it also negatively instilled an ignorance in me to believe that racism didn’t exist in my life. I honestly thought that the questionable choices I made during high school were seen as youth growing pains by others, and that’s why no one spoke up about my actions. But, now I understand that no one encouraged me to do better because they expected trouble from someone who looked like me. But I also know that some students like me didn’t have the output as myself or my brother.

So, I am writing to several groups today. I am speaking to the minority students at Fenwick to encourage them not to let the stereotypes define them in this world. Use those labels that you are marked with from birth to drive you to do anything you want. I know the struggles many of you face and how you have to fight the assumptions the world labels you with because of your skin color. But you also have to fight the doubt that lies in your head for the simple reason you are a young human being, and we all experience self-criticism or doubt! I know how you fight to concentrate on your school work when there’s too much noise at home; how you keep it together when your family’s having a hard time making ends meet.

But most importantly, I know the strength that is in each one of you. The small incidents that my brother and I both share with you all infuriated us both. We recalled them because they were unfamiliar. These incidents are what the white community doesn’t understand about being a person of color in this nation, that there are daily repulses we face no matter what age we are; wherever it may be, in schools or in workplaces, some people talk over us while others don’t even see us. I encourage you all to never dim your light out of courtesy to anyone. You embody all of the courage and love, all of the hunger and hope that have always defined our reasoning for pushing forward.

I am also speaking to the majority in the Fenwick community. Fenwick is in a unique position to not allow this to continue in its school environment. The potential leaders that can be molded from the influence Fenwick provides haven’t even begun to scratch its surface. Therefore, I am challenging all of you in this community to continue to grow and evolve. There has never been a more epic state of time, with the controversies we face in this country, to revolutionize the future minds to come!

READ THE GUEST BHM BLOG BY MAYA’S BROTHER,
AARON GARLAND ’14:

MORE FRIAR BLACK HISTORY
Also read about:

The Fenwick Journey of Alumnus Michael Black ’09

Fenwick’s First Black Student in 1955

Why Marlon Hall Left Fenwick in the Early 1970s

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