Unsilencing the Silenced: Black Men at Princeton

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May 8, 2014 • Inspiration

Everyone experiences college differently.

Better yet, how do individuals experience college differently?” A few weeks ago I became interested in learning how people of color experience Ivy League Institutions.  In “Black Women in the Ivy League: Everything’s Not So Pretty at the Top”, I explored my own feelings, along with that of  other women, about being a women of color at Princeton and other Ivies like Harvard, Columbia, and University of Pennsylvania. Readers were intrigued, and I was later compelled to post two subsequent pieces inspired by comments I received:  “Black Women in the Ivy League Share Their Experiences (Part 2)” and “What’s Dating and Friendship like for Women in the Ivy League”.

Then I wondered, “How do  current Black men at Ivies feel?” And so this project was born. I decided to start off with Princeton. The place I understood the best. I collected stories from current students and  recent alum (within 3 years) that were willing to give some insight into the mind of the young black male Princetonian. What surprised me the most about what was sent to me was the variety in responses. Some of the men did not seem to think their status as a black had any affect on how they experienced Princeton. On the other hand, some felt that it played a defining aspect of their interactions and thoughts of self.

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Source: I Too Am Princeton

I didn’t realize the importance of sharing these stories until I received one of my first responses via Facebook message. It started pretty normal.

Hey Rana! Thanks for reaching out. While being black and male in the Ivy League is no monolithic experience, I do think there exists commonalities among the experiences of black males at these institutions. For one, there is this presumption that black men have matriculated based off things outside of their own merit…

Then he sent me a short

“hold on.”

A few minutes later, he continued.

As I was writing this in the depths of Fine Hall basement, I was just approached and prompted by an officer asking whether or not I was a student. He proceeded to ask to me to give my identification…wow this is so ironic and crazy that this happened just as I was writing you.”

I was speechless. Imagine being questioned about your status as a student by a staff person that is hired to keep the campus safe. Imagine being perceived as a threat when you’re simply studying. While I am Black, I’m not a Black man. I’ve never wrestled with some of the things that these men shared. Yes, it is true that being a student at Princeton is not a “monolithic experience” and, as many of the men relayed, can be “highly rewarding.” However, as the I Too Am Princeton campaign showed, it’s also true that a lot of students of color at Princeton (including Black men) don’t always feel so welcome or understood.

American institutions have a painful history of racial inequity, discrimination, and prejudice towards people of color. This group’s perspectives, sentiments, and realities are often not shared publicly in a setting where a history of elitism, privilege, and power is deeply-rooted. This becomes complicated when you think about what having the opportunity to attend such a prestigious institution means.

As a Black woman, I felt, as one of  the men you’ll later read, that merely making it to graduation becomes the main focus. Most, as I can sympathize with, loved the academic rigor and intellectual stimulation but learned to deal with the other parts of the University that fell short such as the exclusionary social life and varying levels of racial ignorance expressed by community members.

No story is the same.  Each man shares a  different lens through which he viewed his experience. Some men seemed to have been influenced by their years at predominately white institutions, prior to coming to Princeton. Some had never been in the minority before. Some had been prepped and taught by family members and alum who’d already experienced the peculiarities of being a minority at an Ivy League and were able to expend knowledge and insight. Others were more optimistic, while some often doubted the true intentions and thoughts of classmates. Yet, it is important to note that for the men who were able to  (or eventually learned how to) enjoy Princeton, they felt like they were part of the larger community.

I want you to feel a bit uncomfortable reading this.

I want you to think.

Open yours eyes to  the range of realities and stories that may have been once silenced.

These are just only some of the stories that exist within many high-caliber institutions across America, and as you’ll see, can  be extrapolated to other under-represented communities.

What about the others who were not and never found that place? What do we do with that student- whether they be black, brown, white, red, or any other color under the rainbow… How do we make sure their thoughts and feelings matter and are heard?  Enjoy.

Please note: Some of these responses have been edited (for length’s sake).

_________________________________

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Source: I Too Am Princeton

“I WANT TO SHOW PEOPLE THAT BLACK MALES CAN EXCEL IN BOTH ACADEMICS AND ATHLETICS”

As a man of color at Princeton University, it is clear that I am a minority. It is clear that most of my classmates, professors, and coaches do not look like me. I’ve become used to this idea, this idea that top tier institutions—Ivy League institutions—consist predominantly of white people. What does this say about the black population? Should it imply that we are inferior? Would an Ivy League institution where blacks were the majority be viewed as prestigiously as the ones we have today? Unfortunately, I believe not.

The black man’s perspective is all the more important because we happen to be stigmatized a lot more than others. For one, we are obviously minorities at any Ivy League institution, thus some people can view us as out of place, as if we don’t belong. And for some black males on this campus, this is the exact sentiment they feel—out of place. Understanding [our] perspective can provide schools with information that can then allow them to make their communities more all-inclusive or at least a bit more comfortable for those who feel out of place. I know that you can’t do this on a case-by-case basis but being aware of it and taking steps in the right direction in order to correct it is better than nothing.

[For example, at] Princeton,  people generalize most black males to be recruited athletes. Although, I am an athlete myself, I was not recruited. I got in the same way everyone else did—off of my academic merit. Where did the term scholar-athlete go when people begin to generalize black males on this campus? This stereotype is one of the things that push to me to do my best—to disprove the nonbelievers. As a black man at Princeton, I want to show people that black males can excel in both academics and athletics.

There is no quitting for me. I don’t want your pity.

– Kahdeem, Class of 2017

ON RACISM AND THE “N WORD”

​I knew coming in that I would be a minority. I didn’t think that there would be so much ignorance and racism towards people of color. I’ve had five experiences and I’m only a freshman.  Here’s one: There’s this system calling eating clubs. One day I was at one of the parties and I happened to be talking to a friend but I was standing next to two white people and one of them was (I’m guessing) drunk and I overheard him say that he wasn’t going to try to get into that eating club because it’s for niggers. I did respond to him. I reverted back to what I would do if I was in Atlanta and went in. He was like “Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry.” He didn’t even see me. That’s what really irked me. I know that some Caucasian people say the “n word” and some people don’t care. He was genuinely saying the “n word” to talk down on Black people. He didn’t know I was behind him. When he saw me, he was like, “Oh shit.” An argument ensued and that turned into something else and that escalated and escalated so of course it ended with him trying to apologize but I was angry as hell. I do think that people need to come in here prepared. Don’t come in here with this attitude that you will fit right in. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of [diverse] friends, but I do realize there are a lot of people here that think that minorities are only here because of affirmative action. [These things] didn’t even cross my mind [before I came here.]

-Asanni, Class of 2017

ON STRUGGLING TO CALL PRINCETON “A HOME AWAY FROM HOME”

The summer going into my freshmen year, I envisioned that my biggest challenge at Princeton would be doing well academically. However, my biggest challenge turned out to be simply getting to the point where I could call Princeton my “home” (or at least my ‘”home away from home”).

By the end of my freshmen year, I was looking at transfer applications. I just didn’t enjoy Princeton socially, and was not able to find a diverse, tight-knit community of genuine friends. When I brought up the idea of transferring to my parents, we had a conversation that changed the trajectory of my experience at Princeton. Essentially, they said, “Now that you’re getting older, life isn’t always going to be perfect, and you won’t always have to luxury of escaping issues by leaving elsewhere.  Let this be a test and see if you can make the necessary adjustments to fully enjoy Princeton.” 

With that goal in mind, during my sophomore year I joined new clubs, did my best to meet new people, and took more risks like studying abroad. Yes, there were a few instances where I was stereotyped by my peers and profiled by police. But, such instances are not unique to navigating Princeton as a black male, they are the reality of navigating life as a black male. I was ultimately able to find that community of friends that I was lacking my freshmen year and  get to the point where I viewed Princeton as my “home.”
Greg, Class of 2013
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Source: I Too Am Princeton

ON NOT FEELING “GOOD ENOUGH”

Being a man of color at Princeton was probably the most psychologically/mentally challenging experiences I have ever had. From an intellectual standpoint, Princeton is difficult for everyone but being African American and male made it even harder. When I first came to Princeton, I did not feel like I belonged. I did not feel like I was intelligent enough to actually study at such an elite institution. Most of my peers did not help me overcome that self-doubt. While not always explicitly stated, I constantly felt like people thought I was at Princeton for a reason other than my intelligence. I cannot tell you how many times I was asked if I was on the basketball team or told how lucky I was to be black because of the benefits affirmative action gave me in the college admissions process.

This really ate at me during my first years at Princeton, as I always felt like I had to defend my right to attend the University, which served as a distraction from focusing on my school work. Something that happened to me a little too often took place in small group settings. When working on an assignment or a project, my opinion and contributions were frequently ignored by the rest of the group when I said them, only to be acknowledged or accepted when someone else brought up the same point a few minutes later in the discussion. This really drove me crazy because the mind game (intentional or not) made me feel insane, as the lines between what I thought occurred and what I could have imagined were blurred. I do not think that I every really learned to deal with the constant subtle attacks. Instead, I just brushed them off and focused on my ultimate goal – graduating.

-Jason, Class of 2013

“I NEVER FELT MY BLACKNESS WAS AN ISSUE UNTIL COLLEGE”

On one hand Princeton was this incredible place where I was able to meet a really diverse group of people from all walks of life but on the other hand Princeton was a place where I often questioned my worth, my intellect and my abilities.   Never before had I been so keenly aware of my blackness.  This was weird to me because as a person who has gone to a majority white prep school since the sixth grade, I have never felt that my blackness was an issue until college. From having people say they thought I was intimidating prior to meeting me, to being ignored at a party, to seeing girls sprint away from me upon seeing me at night when I was walking to my dorm because they thought I was some kind of threat, all of these things happened and affected how I viewed myself and my experience at Princeton. What made it worse was that people, sometimes even other black people, didn’t want to hear about the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, racial issues that I experienced.  It was frustrating to me that a place that’s supposed to be this bastion of intellectual thought and enlightenment had so many people who were surprisingly narrow-minded. Luckily my college experience wasn’t defined by these negative experiences as the last two and a half years of my college experience were a lot more enjoyable.  

– Anonymous, Class of 2013

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Source: I Too Am Princeton

ON FEELING LIKE A FOREIGNER AS A BLACK SOUTHERNER

My freshman and sophomore year roommate was from Bulgaria, and I would always joke with him about how I felt like an international student at Princeton. With roots in Alabama, I was never so naive as to think that his experiences and mine were the same, but I believe that we could identify in many ways that a number of people could not. The “native” language, the adjustment to “mainstream Princeton”, the distinct class differences, and the differing ideas of “fun” and “chilling” were really constant reminders that he was, as I was, coming from a very different place.

For many of the black people that I met from the North, during and since Princeton, Caribbean or African legacy was prominent. It was a shift for me, because most of the people I knew from home and high school were simply Black Americans or African Americans.  By the end of college, I knew my position was very rare. I had learned early that Southern black men without a claim to any particular country beyond the United States are rare in places like Princeton. It was honestly my first time being in such a small and unique minority.In order to build relationships, I felt the need to explain myself during years I didn’t really understand myself.

But I honestly wouldn’t have made it without the outlets at the end of it all. I had those in the form of other black men from the South and of other black men in general. I had those outlets in the form of a number of amazing black women. I had those outlets in the form of my fellow international students, like my roommate. So while I truly valued those bonds, I also needed them. They did bless a young black man in a foreign land.

-Jonathan, Class of 2012

The following four students seemed to possess a different, more positive, outlook on their reflections on race and gender  as a student. While reading these, I wondered what made the experiences of the men so much more different than others who seemed to be more affected by race and gender. 

 “I STILL ENDED UP DOING EVERYTHING I WANTED TO DO”

My experience at Princeton has been nothing short of incredible, and though there have of course been challenges and incidents, they have been just as important in this amazing journey. I personally don’t believe that my race has too greatly impacted my time at Princeton; I say that because I still ended up doing everything I wanted to do, making the friends that I wanted, and being very content with my college life. I will say that after coming to Princeton I found an increased interest in analyzing race problems in America, but I believe this was more of a mental development than anything else; I have more interest in trying to solve problems. Even before I came to Princeton, I understood pretty well what it means to be a black man in the 21st century, so while I did not have many personally shocking revelations, I ultimately learned the most from the people around me here at the school, each one amazing in their own way, be they black or otherwise.

-Kovey, Class of 2015

(*Note: Kovey helped found The Stripes Blog, an online campus blog dedicated to discussing social and culture problems in college communities and American society.)

ON PRINCETON BEING “OVERWHELMINGLY POSITIVE”

Looking back, I find my experience at Princeton to be an overwhelmingly positive. I made incredible friends, and was intellectually challenged at every turn to be my very best.  I fully understand that my experience is not shared amongst all of my black classmates. I, personally, look to my experiences pre-Princeton for an explanation to these differences. My upbringing and my earlier educational environment before college prepared me well for what I would face at Princeton. Black students have always been in the vast minority in my surroundings, and I have had experience dealing with most of the effects of this racial imbalance. Princeton offers an incredible opportunity to learn from those with vastly different backgrounds from my own. Be it in class, extracurriculars, or hanging around my eating club, Princeton represented a largely welcoming environment. The many concerns of Princeton’s persisting elitism and isolationist social culture are wholly valid and deserve to be treated as such. My personal Ivy League experience, however, cannot accurately speak to such sentiments.

-Nicholas, Class of 2014

“IT’S AN IVY LEAGUE SCHOOL, NOT AN HBCU. WHAT DO PEOPLE EXPECT?”

I’m going to sound like an outlier, but I felt thoroughly fulfilled socially at Princeton. My Blackness was never a problem. Most black folk I’ve talked with always have something negative to say about the Princeton experience—in fact, everything they say is negative. They often claim to have been depressed by the environment, and in particular, by the social scene, including the “nonexistent” dating scene.

I feel for them, but I choose to see things a bit more optimistically. I grew up in a relatively privileged environment, in a very diverse area where so-called “underrepresented” minorities were in high abundance in number but rare in upper-level courses. I’d already found my place, by necessity, as a “smart” black male in a white mainstream world. I’d always expected to attend an Ivy, so getting into Princeton was a dream come true. I intended to go in order to be surrounded by some of the greatest minds in the nation, the world; I wanted to be challenged intellectually, and of course get my taste of the prestige. The social life was a secondary, minor concern.

When it came to the racial and ethnic makeup, I felt the numbers weren’t so bad. I’d done my research, and there seemed to be plenty enough blacks. It’s an Ivy League school, not an HBCU. What do people expect? Regardless, most of my friends ended up being black, as they had been before in high school. Still, I didn’t particularly identify with the so-called “Black community” of students who were often seen together and had their own culture on campus, but then again, I didn’t particularly identify with any community.

I was “incognegro,” but more by default than by choice. It always seemed black folk had their own social scene, modest as it was, separate from the dominant (white) mainstream culture that partied at the eating clubs on the weekends. If [black folk] hooked up, I sure didn’t hear about it. Sometimes, it was better to be blissfully unaware of things.

– Jared, Class of 2013

ON LEARNING THE IVY LEAGUE’S RACIAL HISTORY

I didn’t know much about the history of blacks at Ivy League schools. I expected it to be much less diverse than Princeton turned out to be. I anticipated being one of a few black students in the majority of my classes and activities outside of athletics. While this was in fact the case, it happened less often than I expected. Over the course of my four years I also learned that Ivy League schools have a much richer black history tradition than I expected. Princeton is no exception. My senior year I happened to take a course audited by Jim Floyd ’69. Over the course of the semester,  I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with him about his experience as a black man on Princeton’s campus. He shared stories about the first female black undergraduate students on Princeton’s campus in 1969 and his family’s first participant status in Carl Field’s “Family Sponsor Program,” which paired black students and local black families to create a home away from home. Meeting someone capable of shedding some light on the Ivy League experience from the perspective of a black student in the past, and furthermore to help bridge a gap between past and present, was another one of the many rewarding experiences born out of my time at Princeton.

–  Andrew, Class of 2013  

“ONE OF THE MOST VALUABLE AND HUMBLING EXPERIENCES OF MY LIFE”

My experience at Princeton was one of the most valuable and humbling experiences of my life. Coming from an urban area as a man of color and going to an Ivy League school I was conditioned by my community to be told that my shit didn’t stink. Princeton proved this to be VERY wrong. Not only was my intelligence a non-factor, my skin color and socioeconomic background both served as factors that made me feel inadequate.

Yes, at times there were situations that could be deemed “racist” but for the most part these were made up in my head, stemmed from ignorance or I completely avoided them all together. The challenges that I faced at Princeton due to the color of my skin and my background forced me out of my comfort zone and made me stay there. For this I am forever grateful as I find myself working with and mingling with people of all backgrounds just fine. While it is true that the Ivy League experience was not catered to people who look like me, I do believe that it molded me into a more understanding and overall better person who understands and knows how to deal with such discrepancies and properly lead the way for those behind me.

–  Anonymous, Class of 2013

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Source: I Too Am Princeton

ON BEING A BLACK LEGACY & PRINCETON BEING A MICROCOSM OF THE “REAL WORLD”

My story is a lot simpler. My time at Princeton was probably the best experience of my life thus far. I think that it was a time of great self-discovery, cultural enlightenment, and personal growth. I think Princeton for me was different than it was for most Black males for two reasons. First, I was a legacy to Princeton with my father (class of ’85) and my uncle (class of ’72) attending the University. I was able to set realistic expectations for my experience based on what they had seen during Princeton’s transition period of having Black students on campus. Second, I feel like being a member of the Track and Field team allowed me to always feel connected to the campus in a way that others might not have.

I will admit though that at times it was hard to see how few Blacks of American slavery ancestry there were at the university but I think that is really a failure of the larger America system of education and not the fault of Princeton. I would not have changed anything about Princeton. It is up to each student to find a genuine connection with the larger community in order to make the experience uniquely their own. Just like in the rest of life, we have to own our experiences and make the most of them otherwise we will constantly regret them. Princeton is really just a microcosm of the “real” world for the majority and the reality is that we are all better off for having seen it during our 4-year in the “orange bubble” rather than being shocked by it upon our graduation.

– Eric, Class of 2010

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Source: I Too Am Princeton

But the conversation shifts from gratefulness for all the University offered to a pervading feeling of disunity, social awkwardness , self- doubt, and dealing with expectations. Some like Alex below felt that the Black community itself was fragmented, which prompted him, as a Freshman, to work on building unification.

ON THE LACK OF UNITY AMONG BLACKS

It is definitely interesting being a black man in the Ivy League. It is not like home at all. I lived in Los Angeles, where most of the people I regularly hung out with were black, so coming to Princeton was a change since there are not all that many black people here that I can relate to on a lot of levels. I have found a solid group of people, though, who I can definitely vibe with. As a black man on Princeton’s campus, my biggest issue has been the lack of unity among the black people on campus. There are so many separations within the black community that I would not even call it a black community, but I would say that Princeton possesses numerous black groups that are separated to a certain extent.

I have been trying to solve some of these issues by promoting unification in the black community. This was most directly addressed in the discussions I hosted during Black History Month. I reached out to black people I had never seen or talked to before and spoke with them in efforts to convince them to come to my discussion, and fortunately the discussions had good turnouts. I saw the discussions as somewhat a resurgence of Princeton’s black community

-Alex, Class of 2016

ONE OF THE “MOST DRASTIC SOCIAL CHANGES I’VE EVER EXPERIENCED”

I made the transition to a graduate program at Princeton from Morehouse College, an HBCU. Needless to say it was one of the most drastic social changes I’ve ever experienced. I expected that Princeton would have a different social environment, but I didn’t realize the extent of alienation and isolation I would experience. At Morehouse I was a part of a supportive community with culturally and socially similar individuals, but I found that these factors were not present in Princeton. These challenges extend across my graduate discipline. I feel responsible for proving that minorities deserve opportunities at elite research institutions. I feel constant pressure to justify my existence with every research talk, seminar, or one on one interaction.

As one of the only black men in my program my opinions and interactions can often be perceived as the thoughts, skills, and abilities of other minorities. Even with success, I find it hard to change people’s preconceived notions. Graduate school is already a challenging process, however I have no regrets. I feel fortunate to attend and learn from some of the best scholars in the world. Once I learned how to navigate the social dynamics of this campus, the experience became very rewarding.

– Colin, PhD Candidate 2016

ON SOFT RACISM, DATING & BEING “PRIVILEGED”

What I find most troubling is the tendency to ignore race issues or the passive acceptance of “soft racism” on campus especially when we are supposed to be the most educated and tolerant kids in the world. I have only experienced two racist incidents while on campus. The first was when someone wrote the N-word on my board (I shared a quad with two other black students and one Pakistani-American). The other was when I was told to get on my hands and knees and bark like a dog by three white students during the bicker process for Eating Clubs.

I’m frustratingly shy when it comes to girls, I don’t drink and casual hookups personally aren’t for me so I actually haven’t had any relationships or hookups at Princeton. However I think my status as a black man also holds me back from being more social around girls. I tend to think compared to the athletes, I’m “not black enough” or impressive enough for black women to find me attractive. I have also heard non-black girls expressing how their parents wouldn’t want them to get involved with a black man so that makes me more hesitant to approach them as well. While every guy has a fear of being rejected, I’m jealous that my white friends will rarely ever wonder “I wonder if she likes white guys” when talking to a girl. Also I feel the quiet pressure from my parents to date a black woman while I know my sisters are under no such expectation. While I know they will happily accept a relationship with a non-black person if that woman loved me, I’m also well aware of the stereotype of academically accomplished black men marrying white women.

The most striking aspect of being a black man in Princeton, for me, is how often I’m told by older black people how much of a big deal it is I go here. It serves as a daily reminder that I am extremely privileged to be attending a school like this.

–  Anonymous, Class of 2015

ON THE EXPECTATION TO ENDURE IT ALL IN SILENCE

[When you’re among the first in your family (let alone immediate neighborhood/community) to be attending an institution such as Princeton and getting a Bachelor’s degree, failure simply isn’t even an option with so many eyes looking to you. …[and then] there’s the battle against the mythos of the strong black man which means that expressing emotion beyond anger or happiness, seeking help when needed, when worn out, when feeling overwhelmed by the pressure, is frowned upon or seen as “quitting’” or “admitting defeat.” When challenges, struggles, or failures occurred, there’s an expectation to endure it all in silence and simply persevere.

Beneath the calm surface of Princeton’s still waters lies a simmering climate of racial tensions. [Two instances involve] parties thrown by organizations that are predominantly minority-run that ended up being broken up due to fights breaking out. Both instances were covered by the Daily Princetonian. The comment responses to such articles were very disturbing and revealed the depths of ignorance and racist thoughts some of our peers hold. When you see anonymous commentators reducing your classmates and your identity to ‘prone to violence,’ ‘moves in packs,’ ‘undeserving candidate,’ or other such unflattering terms, it’s no wonder feelings of being the ‘other’ among black Princetonians. The anonymity means that you begin to question whether your peers in precept, passing acquaintances, friends, or even the very campus community you find yourself in actually harbor those thoughts towards you and those like you or even just view you as some freakish puzzle to be figured out or put in a box.

However, despite these sets of circumstances, I have no regrets about attending Princeton [because of] the people and communities I was fortunate to find and be a part of while there. They helped me to discover myself, stoked passions I didn’t even know I had, sparked interest in things outside my comfort zone, and helped me grow in unforeseen ways. [These] sub communities within the larger campus community became both friends and family. They bore my burdens with me, shared the frustrations of exam periods, thesisized with me, endearingly ribbed my eccentricities, and made my experience the overall positive one that it was. It’s these folks/groups, welcoming even with the culture shocks caused by bringing together a melting pot of differing backgrounds, classes, cultures, and races, that are an important reason why I continue to be a proud Princeton Tiger.

 -Leslie, Class of 2011

Thank you to all the men who contributed their stories and allowed me to create this online portfolio of their thoughts, experiences, and feelings.

Let’s start this discussion now. What voices do you think often go silenced at institutions such as Princeton?

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Rana Campbell is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Ranacampbell.com, a site dedicated to personal branding and helping people learn how to SHINE in their personal and professional lives.