Skip to content

Transcripts: ‘Kauffman Scholars is always going to be a part of me.’

Read the transcripts of two Uncommon Conversations with Kauffman Scholars alum Vilmer Alvarado and Michaela Brooks, facilitated by AshleyMarie Marie.

Uncommon Conversations: Vilmer Alvarado

Vilmar Alvarado: It’s important to have role models that look like you, that you can use as an example in your mind as this is possible. If they can do it, so can I. I know that was always incredibly important to me to have people within the program that look like me and that went through similar experiences that I went through to show me that regardless of wherever I came from, it’s possible to graduate from college. It’s possible.

Voice-over: Welcome to An Uncommon Conversation. This episode features a conversation between recent college graduate and Kauffman Scholar, Vilmer Alvarado, and Kauffman Scholars’ career and alumni program coordinator, AshleyMarie Marie, who was also a member of the inaugural class of Kauffman Scholar awardees. The Kauffman Scholars program is a multi-year postsecondary access, persistence, completion and scholarship program designed to help students in Kansas City prepare for and earn a postsecondary credential. As the decades long scholarship program prepares to sunset this year, Vilmer and AshleyMarie discuss how the Kauffman Scholars program impacted them personally, and how it’s impacted the community.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yeah. My name is AshleyMarie, of course, and I would love for you to introduce yourself so that we can get started with the conversation.

Vilmer Alvarado: Yeah, my name is Vilmer Alvarado, I’m proudly a Kauffman Scholar. I just graduated from KU and I’m ready to see where life takes me next.

AshleyMarie Marie: It is so interesting thinking about the origin story of where we came from as Kauffman Scholars, because there’s only about 800 of us alumni in the entire world. Do you have any memories of your experience early on as a Kauffman Scholar?

Vilmer Alvarado: It’s so long ago, but I remember every part of this program perfectly. It was seventh grade and my brother was a Kauffman Scholar before me, so it had kind of felt like a family thing. When I first applied, I remember that my mom wrote a very strong, heartfelt letter about who we are and our story as Latino immigrants to the U.S. and just how much it would mean for me to be accepted into this program. And when it happened, when we received the good news, I remember that she was just overwhelmed with happiness, with joy, as was I. Although back then I was still very young and I was excited, I didn’t –

AshleyMarie Marie: Know what you were excited for?

Vilmer Alvarado: Yeah. I didn’t really fully understand how big this was. And looking back, it’s incredible and I just feel truly honored to have been chosen as a Kauffman Scholar.

AshleyMarie Marie: As an alumni myself, I love the word chosen and I try to elevate that whenever I’m talking to incoming alumni, because early on when we’re younger and we receive this opportunity and we’re chosen, I think it can be hard to see what that actually means and the weight that actually holds. I think over time, usually within college and I think more so after college, you really have the opportunity to realize how impactful this is for your life. Now that you’ve grown in your experience and you’ve had over a decade of experience of being a Kauffman Scholar, what does that win look like for you now?

Vilmer Alvarado: I don’t think there’s enough words to describe it.

AshleyMarie Marie: I can relate.

Vilmer Alvarado: Because I 100% wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the support of this program. It’s just meant everything to me. If it wasn’t for Kauffman, my family wouldn’t have been able to put me through college in the way that I have had the honor of doing so. I mean, the support of the people who make up Kauffman Scholars, everything they’ve taught me, everything they’ve done for me, the ways in which they’ve helped me grow as a person, as a professional, it’s just meant the world to me. I know that not just through financial support that Kauffman has provided, I’m able to be where I am today. I’m graduating from college and having a job lined up in New York where I’ve always wanted to be. It’s just meant everything. The mentorship, the support from everyone, it’s almost indescribable. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today, if it wasn’t for everything that this program has done for me. Kauffman Scholars has been everything to me.

AshleyMarie Marie: I love that. I used to say that I always knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know how I was going to get there and Kauffman Scholars was the way that I got there, the way that you got there, the way that a lot of us get there that have had the desire, and so definitely relate to you when you talk about it being this huge privilege. We’ve had years of memories. Can you share one of your fondest memories of being a scholar with us?

Vilmer Alvarado: I would say that my fondest memory was signing my letter of intent and officially getting ready to head off to college. My coach was Miss Smith and she was amazing.

AshleyMarie Marie: She is, she is.

Vilmer Alvarado: She was such a huge support throughout high school for me and I remember the day that I signed my letter of intent. I came into the foundation, I declared that I was going to be going to KU and Miss Smith helped me out through a presentation of what everything was going to look like going forward. And I remember at the end of that session, we took a picture with her and my family. Everything came full circle after so many years of being in the program, hearing about how my status in the program would change once I’m in college and just how everything became a reality. I was just really excited after having graduated high school and getting ready to head off to college. I think that was –

AshleyMarie Marie: I remember those moments of LLCs. I got to help a lot of scholars sign their LLCs. It’s so crazy that you went back to that moment because I can remember the presentation we put together and, I mean, we would stay after hours and we wanted your families to come and celebrate. And I guess I forgot how monumental that time was.

Vilmer Alvarado: Yeah, yeah. It was just an incredible day and I would say that was my fondest memory of being a Kauffman Scholar. But the other memory I wanted to share was not one memory in particular but just those years in seventh and eighth grade where I would stay after school every day to head off to the after school activities –

AshleyMarie Marie: Academy. After school academy.

Vilmer Alvarado: Yeah. Yeah. At Donnelley College and the snacks that we would get and then all the classes that we would go to. Back then, I saw it as like, “Wow, I’m very…” I was very tired at the end of the day every day. I learned so much in those sessions and looking back, they were incredibly beneficial to me.

AshleyMarie Marie: Kauffman Scholars, the staff, they spent a lot of time with us. And I think that’s one of the special things about our program is that it really does feel like family. And when I think about scholars and my journey, your journey, we really had somebody with us the entire time. We had a coach of some sort. The titles of the coach has changed, but we had a coach all throughout. And so what do you think your life is going to look like now that you’re an alumni? You don’t necessarily have the coach. Have you thought about how that might influence your life?

Vilmer Alvarado: Well, I know that Kauffman Scholars is always going to be a part of me. I’ll be heading off to New York City in a few months to start a PR job. It was always sort of my big dream to end up there.

AshleyMarie Marie: Wow.

Vilmer Alvarado: And I want to thank Kauffman Scholars for getting me there. I’m not going to be in Kansas City in the immediate future, but Kauffman Scholars is always going to be a part of me. I know that I’ll always be there if and when the program needs me. I’ll always be involved in anything that I can be. It’s a program that’s always going to be a part of me because I can’t say this too many times. I wouldn’t be where I am without Kauffman Scholars.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yeah. Now working on the teams, that’s a huge privilege for me to be able to be on the opposite side of the table from being a scholar, to being a staff. And I really think about what that journey looks like in terms of dreams. Not a lot of students that get out of college get to go straight into their field of choice. And so kind of tell us a little bit about the dream that you had. That includes New York and PR and kind of the impact you want to make and how you see that coming true in your life right now.

Vilmer Alvarado: I feel incredibly privileged to come out of college and go straight into my desired field and in a job that I’ll really enjoy doing.

AshleyMarie Marie: What’s your title?

Vilmer Alvarado: I’ll be an account executive at a PR agency that is working with clients in the tech industry. I really wanted to get into the PR industry because I believe that it’s incredibly important to communicate ideas or services that matter. At first, I wanted to get into the company that I’m going to be starting with to sort of expand my experience within the PR world, but ultimately I see myself going into the sector of PR that focuses on, in simple terms, political issues.

AshleyMarie Marie: Thank you. Simple terms.

Vilmer Alvarado: Ultimately I want to work for a PR agency that focuses on spreading messages that matter, that make people’s lives better, that communicate important causes. And with my degree in strategic communications and political science, that would be sort of the perfect intersection for me. But I accepted this offer at this current PR agency because I wanted to expand my experience and know as much as I could about the field before ultimately branching out into something else. But I was also just excited to work with companies that would be developing technology that’s going to make people’s lives a little easier.

AshleyMarie Marie: It sounds like you’re in the business of giving as well, just in a different capacity.

Vilmer Alvarado: Yeah. Yeah.

AshleyMarie Marie: That really speaks to legacy. As a scholar, I think we heard the word legacy all the time and more so when it comes to Mr. K and kind of how we are part of his legacy. What comes to mind when you think about what you want your legacy to be? And what it is at this moment, because I think we’re living that now.

Vilmer Alvarado: In the future, I think I want to be remembered as someone that always aspired to make people’s lives better in one way or another. That’s, I think, the driver that has motivated me most. I care about my community, the people who have always been there to support me. And I feel most motivated when I’m doing something that makes people’s lives better because the world can be just such an incredibly unfair place full of injustices. And I care about improving people’s lives. That’s what I ultimately want to be remembered for.

AshleyMarie Marie: Do you think that you’ve had the opportunity to do that now already?

Vilmer Alvarado: I think I do. I do. In one way or another, through my elevated status, as a professional, as an aspiring professional, I hope to help people that want to pursue a similar path that right now, maybe they don’t see themselves heading to college or they’re not exactly sure about the direction in which they want to take their lives. I want to be someone that gives back to his community, especially in a place like Wyandotte county where an incredible number of underprivileged people that just don’t have the same amount of resources or support as other communities do. And I just see that as essential, as a person who has graduated college to give back to his community, to help people achieve their dreams in a similar way.

AshleyMarie Marie: You mentioned Wyandotte County. I actually graduated from Schlagle. Where did you end up going to high school?

Vilmer Alvarado: I went to Harmon.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yeah.

Vilmer Alvarado: [inaudible] Harmon.

AshleyMarie Marie: Nice, nice. They were purple and gold, right?

Vilmer Alvarado: Yeah.

AshleyMarie Marie: Those colors, right? I remember that growing up.

Vilmer Alvarado: Yeah.

AshleyMarie Marie: I remember that growing up. When you said Wyandotte County, you brought a flood of memories for me. You talked about being a person that gives back. When I think about giving, because I’m a person who gives a lot, I think about sacrifice. And so when you hear that word, sacrifice, tell me a little bit about what you think you or your family or the people that have been in your support system have had to sacrifice to kind of see you be where you are in this moment.

Vilmer Alvarado: Yeah. Apart from Kauffman Scholars, my parents have also always been there for me. And, again, without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They’ve been my support system through everything that life has thrown at me. They’ve always been there for me and I think that they’ve given so much to me. They’ve put themselves through so many sacrifices to help me achieve my dreams. They immigrated from Mexico and left behind their family and the lives that they had there to give us a better life, to secure a better future for us and –

AshleyMarie Marie: How old were you?

Vilmer Alvarado: I was five years old when my parents immigrated to the United States with me and my brother. And back there, life was just a lot more difficult for them and they understood that they wouldn’t have been able to give us a good future there. And they decided to sacrifice everything for us. My dad has always worked incredibly, incredibly hard throughout his entire life to give us everything. They’ve always been there for us in any capacity that we need them to be. And I couldn’t be more appreciative of having two people like that in my life because they’ve given everything for me and my brother.

AshleyMarie Marie: I love that. One of the things that is top of mind for the program right now is definitely us sun setting and really closing the scholarship portion of our program. What does that mean to you? And, I guess, if you had any insight for future scholarship programs and how they could serve and be in partnership with the people that they’re serving, what would you want to highlight as something that’s like, “You absolutely need to have this as part of your program?”

Vilmer Alvarado: I think any future scholarship program needs to continue to highlight the person who Mr. K was, because I think he was just such an, again, inspirational person, his mindset, his motivations, his drive to give back and to make his community better. It’s something amazing that in one way or another drives your mentality and makes you a better person, or at least that’s how I always felt. I think it’s also important to have that support system that is always there, because regardless of where you end up and how much success you have, there’s always going to be difficult moments. And it’s important to have people there to guide you, to support you, to tell you that it’s okay to be feeling how you’re feeling.

And I think that’s just something that really, really helped me because of course there was points in which I was like, “I don’t know what to do next. I don’t if I should be feeling this way, if I should do something about this or whatnot.” It’s always important to have that there. And I know just apart from my academic success, in which Kauffman Scholars was vital, I feel like being a part of this program also drove me to pursue extracurricular activities that were also very essential in ultimately helping me land a job after college. And I think that’s always going to be important because not only do you need to be a good student, but you also need to be involved if you want to have a good future post-graduation.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yeah. It sounds like, if I’m hearing you correctly, it’s important to have an example of what is possible. And I think that it sounds like that’s what Mr. K was for you and us highlighting that throughout the scholarship journey. And then it sounds like another piece, which I also think was extremely vital for my own experience as a scholar, was having somebody to talk through all the stuff that’s in the background. I would definitely have to agree with you on that front.

Vilmer Alvarado: And then just also being around coaches or people that also look like you that you can really –

AshleyMarie Marie: What did you say? Say that again for the people in the back [inaudible].

Vilmer Alvarado: People that look like you. It’s important to have role models that look like you, that you –

AshleyMarie Marie: I used to tell scholars, “Hold on. It’s definitely not for the weak.” And I felt like the college experience is a really safe place to fail, to discover, to explore. And so I definitely think us being essentially gifted the opportunity to go on that journey is beautiful. And also, as much as we give sentiment to the Kauffman Scholars program, I also like to remind myself and any scholar that I encounter, you did this.

Kauffman Scholars, we were in a position to provide the finances and support, but you ultimately were the one that decided to get up every day and take the next step. And so also just huge shout out to you and to all the recent graduates and those that’ll come after. And then all of those, of course, that had come before, but really just giving a huge shout out to us as well, because we made the choice to continue in the program. And I think that says something about just taking advantage of opportunity that’s provided. I want to ask you one of my favorite questions. It’s something that I like to ask everybody when we’re having deep intellectual conversation. What do you think life is teaching you right now?

Vilmer Alvarado: Oh, that’s a very good question.

AshleyMarie Marie: [inaudible]

Vilmer Alvarado: I think that right now life is teaching me patience.

AshleyMarie Marie: That hurts. That hurts me. You okay?

Vilmer Alvarado: After graduating college, I just see all these next steps for me that I would like to come into my life, but that before I came to college and before I graduated college, it’s one step at a time. I have achieved this goal. I’ve finally achieved this goal of graduating college. And just thinking of next steps, I want this to happen and I want it to happen ASAP, but that’s not how life works. You have to just take it once step at a time, one day at a time, and I think that’s an important part of success as well. You have to understand that not everything that you want to happen is going to happen immediately. You have to work for it and it’s going to come, but it’s going to come very slowly. And if you are careful about how you work and how you go about achieving your goals, everything’s going to come in due time.

AshleyMarie Marie: I love that. I think I want to wrap up with going back to our core of our shared experience. Tell me, what does it mean to be a Kauffman Scholar?

Vilmer Alvarado: To be a Kauffman Scholar means to be a role model to your community. As you were saying, there’s only 800 of us. That’s an incredible privilege.

AshleyMarie Marie: Huge, huge.

Vilmer Alvarado: Huge. Huge privilege.

AshleyMarie Marie: I don’t think people understand. I try to highlight that. I try to highlight that. There’s only a couple hundred of us that can ever say that we were Kauffman Scholars, period.

Vilmer Alvarado: Exactly, exactly. And it’s an incredible privilege. And as someone that was chosen to be a part of this program, you have to be a role model to your community to show that it’s possible to make it through life as a person of color, as an underprivileged individual, and that you can do with your life whatever you want, that you can achieve your goals and that no matter what the statistics say and fight against anything that steps in your way of achieving your dreams. Everything is possible.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yeah. It’s not predetermined, even though it appears to be a fixed fight sometimes. It’s not. Vilmer, first of all, I’m looking forward to seeing you at graduation celebration, and I’m really looking forward to seeing you live out your dream in New York. Honestly, I really just admire your heart in this conversation and you just seem like such a upstanding grown up now. I’m so excited to see you live out your dream.

Vilmer Alvarado: Thank you so much for all your good wishes and likewise. I really enjoyed this conversation.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yay. My pleasure.

Voice-over: Thank you for listening to this Kauffman Foundation podcast. For more stories on growing an inclusive economy, please visit us at The Uncommon Conversation series brings two people together to discuss personal perspectives and fresh opinions on topics related to the Kauffman Foundation’s work. The perspectives of our guests do not necessarily reflective views of the Kauffman Foundation, but are presented here to celebrate uncommon voices and civil discourse to move conversations forward.

Uncommon Conversations: Michaela Brooks

Voice-over: Welcome to An Uncommon Conversation. This episode features a conversation between recent college graduate and Kauffman Scholar, Michaela Brooks and Kauffman Scholars career and alumni program coordinator, AshleyMarie Marie, who is also an alumnus of the Kauffman Scholars Program. The Kauffman Scholars Program is a multi-year, post-secondary access, persistence, completion, and scholarship program designed to help students in Kansas City prepare for and earn a postsecondary credential.

As the decades long scholarship program prepares to sunset this year, Michaela and AshleyMarie discussed the impact of a program that alleviated the burden of student debt, but also provided support and guidance, especially as Michaela experienced being one of only a few Black students in her college courses.

AshleyMarie Marie: I’m actually a class one scholar alumni of Kauffman Scholars. So I am one of the OGs, originals, which is interesting, and we’ll get into that later. And now I work with the alumni side, which is why as a future alumni you’ve been hearing from me. So tell me a little bit about you.

Michaela Brooks: I am Michaela Brooks, a recent graduate, class seven scholar in the program. So one of the last classes, but still a lot of weight being held. You know? I recently graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in interior design, one of few.

AshleyMarie Marie: You want to come over and decorate?

Michaela Brooks: I am looking so, you know. But I’m just so excited for the next phase in life to see where this road goes.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yeah. It’s not that long ago, a little bit of ways ago that I was graduating and trying to figure out what life looks like ahead. So kind of describe the time right now for me, like your perspective on how you’re feeling about the world being your oyster, or maybe you’re feeling opposite. I don’t know. Tell me about that.

Michaela Brooks: It’s some of both. It’s a bit overwhelming, because there’s so much. Especially with interior design, there’s so many different avenues that I could take. So really just trying to figure out what it is that I want to do. How I want to impact the world around me? What do I want my contribution to be? What do I want to focus on? Figuring all that out. And then I know for sure that I definitely want to go back and get my master’s. So.

AshleyMarie Marie: Already decided.

Michaela Brooks: Where do I want to do that is the question.

AshleyMarie Marie: Okay.

Michaela Brooks: But I did decide that it’ll be like a year or two from now, so I can get some work experience, get out, see what the actual work life for me looks like. And I think that’ll actually help me guide where I want my focus to be.

AshleyMarie Marie: You said two of my favorite words, impact and kind of like what you’re wanting to do in the world. And I think about when we first got to college, I don’t know about your experience, but I wasn’t thinking about what impact I want to make or what mark I wanted to leave on the world. I didn’t start thinking about that until senior year. I was one of the students where they would be like, “Oh, what are you doing after college?” You know, like that’s probably a common question you’ve been asked a lot.

And I wanted to take a break. And people were like, “What?” I was like, “I think I’m just going to see what feels right for me.” And that was such an uncommon response because everybody had stuff set up and I just was like, “That’s really not the vibe that I’m trying to do.” And actually I did an internship right out of college here at the foundation. And that was I needed to do at that time in my life.

So when you think about impact, kind of what do you think you want that to look like? I know you said you’re still figuring it out, but if you have an idea right now, what do you want it to look like? Or how do you want it to feel for you, for others?

Michaela Brooks: For me? Well, I can say how I want it to feel for sure. So Kauffman again, very foundational, very impactful. So having kind of that influence on the youth, because from my experience at an architecture school, design isn’t something really talked about in Black communities. So bringing that education like, “Hey, this is an opportunity for us, an untapped market basically, to get into at an earlier age.” I feel like we can begin to develop more conversations about it. So that’s definitely something that I’m excited to get into.

AshleyMarie Marie: I like that, because art, I mean, I remember when I was younger, I really enjoyed art. That felt like one of the only things I was really good at was like stuff that was in the arts. And it always was kind of met with you can’t really make a living that way.

Michaela Brooks: There’s no money in that.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yeah

Michaela Brooks: And what are you going to do with that?

AshleyMarie Marie: It’s like, but some people know how to make money there. So you’re saying you are trying. You’re like, there’s an untapped market that a lot of us are privy to.

Michaela Brooks: They want our opinions, but there’s just not enough of us at the table to have the conversations.

AshleyMarie Marie: Do you feel like that’s a new thing that’s developed or do you think that’s kind of always been?

Michaela Brooks: I feel like it’s kind of always been. I feel like more Black households are looking at degrees in business and things that are more prominent everywhere that you know more about, or like computer sciences, or like engineering.

AshleyMarie Marie: The kind of trending.

Michaela Brooks: Right. We don’t really focus on the more creative aspects of the world that we live in today.

AshleyMarie Marie: Mm.

Michaela Brooks: Because product design is something else that’s like major.

AshleyMarie Marie: And when you say design as opposed to art, I think people don’t think that they’re interchangeable. And I think they kind of ebb and flow together. They can.

Michaela Brooks: They do.

AshleyMarie Marie: I love that. Okay. So tell me how kind of your passion developed for art and design, and like when did that kind of start for you?

Michaela Brooks: I feel like it’s always been present. I remember elementary school. I was always into drawing and creating things. I remember getting a drawing table for Christmas one year and this thing was like huge.

AshleyMarie Marie: You loved. You loved.

Michaela Brooks: And then just always getting different kinds of art kits and just loving to create. I danced from like five to 17. But yeah, I’ve just always been into design. And then I have the aunt who sews pillow. She’s works at Children’s Mercy, so she’s always making pillows and blankets for the kids and stuff like that. So helping her with stuff like that. She’s always doing stuff around her house. So I was like, huh? Originally I was like, okay, architecture, because at the time that’s all I knew. You know?

AshleyMarie Marie: That’s where you could make a living. That kind of was acceptable.

Michaela Brooks: Right. [inaudible] into school and trying to understand what all I need to know to pursue that. I like math, not that much though. Physics is another thing. Yeah. I don’t know if that’s for me. So doing research and finding out, oh, interior design is an actual field that I can study. And then doing more research into that, talking to the right people, I think really helped guided me to make that decision.

AshleyMarie Marie: So it sounds like design and being able to do design full time is like one of your dreams. I wonder if your sentiment is the same. I think about where I would be if I wasn’t chosen to be a Kauffman Scholar, and kind of how I would’ve made my dreams come true of going to college, finishing college and the life that I’ve been able to build for myself.

Michaela Brooks: Right.

AshleyMarie Marie: And just the stuff that extends to my family, which I really consider, like my mom. How do you think the Kauffman Scholars Program and being part of the program has helped you to kind of build your dream and live out your dream so far?

Michaela Brooks: I definitely feel like it gave my life some sort of like foundational structure, because I know I need to do these things on these days. I know every semester I have these deadlines that I need to meet, and I have these meetings to go to, and this thing to attend. So just keeping me on track with keeping a schedule and doing what I need to do to get things done was so foundational for me, especially coming to college.

Because yeah, you go through high school and you think, you know, oh, how to keep your schedule and time management and everything. But then you go to school and then you have all this freedom, but you still have these important things that have to get done. So just knowing how to juggle it all definitely. Because for me, I’d say in middle school it was so hard for me because I wanted to be so involved in school and do all the after-school activities. But no, you have Kauffman on Tuesday and Thursday and that’s practice days. So you have to figure out what do you really want to do? So having to do that at an early age kind of helped me better make decisions now.

AshleyMarie Marie: I love that. You know, you make me think I was a little bit selfish because I always thought I kind of was responsible and that was like a natural trait for me. Like maybe it is. But I think what you’re saying is that the structure that we had through the program probably did elevate my [inaudible] responsible.

Michaela Brooks: You just want to be better.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yeah. And I felt like Kauffman was business. Like when I would come to Kauffman Scholars.

Michaela Brooks: No nonsense.

AshleyMarie Marie: You know, when I was early alumni, one of the first alumni, they’re like, “Oh, who do you know?” I’m like, “I came to handle my business.” I was not really friendly as a youngster in the program. I was trying to get to college and it was serious. So I liked that you elevated that structural piece because I never even thought it was like that.

Michaela Brooks: And me now, because at the time I wasn’t thinking about it like that either.

AshleyMarie Marie: Well, no.

Michaela Brooks: I have to go do this thing. Like I have to do so much more work than my regular friends. But then thinking about senior year of high school, getting ready to go to school, they’re like, oh, I have to get all these scholarships and do all this extra stuff. I mean, which we still had to do at the same time, but it wasn’t as much pressure on us.

AshleyMarie Marie: No.

Michaela Brooks: Because we knew we were taken care of.

AshleyMarie Marie: Mm-hmm.

Michaela Brooks: And then meeting my friends that I’ve met in college, talking about student debt and whatnot. I’m like, can’t relate. “Oh, my books are so expensive.” I mean, yeah, they are, but I don’t have to come out of pocket for it.

AshleyMarie Marie: Just go to the bookstore and pick them up.

Michaela Brooks: So Kauffman is really a blessing in that aspect.

AshleyMarie Marie: Have you considered an entrepreneurial journey since you are more of a creative?

Michaela Brooks: I have. It’s like I’m at a battle with myself because I would like to take the entrepreneurial route and kind of pave my own path, figure it out for myself, kind of work with who I want to work with, and be more selective in that way since I know my worth. So not having to go with a company.

AshleyMarie Marie: Not everybody know their worth, girlfriend. I’m about to sound old, but not at your age.

Michaela Brooks: But at the same time, I think it would be nice at least starting out to have that company structure in a way that’s already set, so I can kind of see how it works first and then go the entrepreneurial route.

AshleyMarie Marie: I know we talked about that question. Like what are you doing after college that you get asked every day. I want to ask a different question, one that kind of helped me to formulate. When people ask me that I wanted to do, I’d be like, “I want to work in an environment that fuels me and I can make an impact that I can see. And that is a healthy amount of challenge.” Explain to me what an ideal work environment looks like for you within what you would want to step into next.

Michaela Brooks: For me the biggest thing now, even like when I’m researching firms and like looking at their company culture, diversity is like top tier for me. Because being here, yes, it’s a PWI, but at the same time I got to meet so many people from so many different places, learn about so many different cultures, or even people that look like me that have different experiences. And just being able to take that all in and kind of incorporate that into my life. So diversity is like one of the biggest factors for me.

AshleyMarie Marie: Do you know why? Because I think we say that a lot. Not we. I think I’ve heard that a lot, that diversity and [inaudible] and all that stuff has been kind of very popular terminology around here. So.

Michaela: For me, I can honestly say it’s mostly due to being here, and being in a classroom and being the only person of color. Or there’s other people of color, but they’re international students, not anyone really from America. So they have a similar experience, but not really similar. So I think that –

AshleyMarie Marie: Would you say you felt like, correct me if I’m wrong. Was that experience of being in the classroom and being the only person of color, like lonely or did you feel like you had a spotlight on you? How did that make you feel to where like now diversity is very important to me?

Michaela Brooks: In the beginning, my first day of design class, I made a friend, her name was also Michaela. She was another Black student. So I was like, “Yay, I have someone.” And then later into the semester she figured out I love art. This is not my route. So I was like, “Okay, where do we go from here?”

AshleyMarie Marie: She like, “I’m going with you. Where are we going? We need to be together.”

Michaela Brooks: But I was like, “Dang,” because even for me coming in, it was a lot more than what I was expecting out of interior design. It’s so much more detail than what is explained when you look up, what is interior design? Like it doesn’t even begin to cover. So it was very overwhelming. So there were points where I was like, “Is this what I want to do? Like, this is very stressful for me right now. Do I want to do that?” But then stop and think, what else do you want to do? Nothing else really sounds good that you’re going to want to get up and go to work every day. Work isn’t going to feel like a bother to you. So stick it out, make it work.

But I do feel like the classroom setting could be lonely for me. But having those networks and things outside of class kind of helped keep that balance. So yeah, I might feel isolated in the classroom, but outside of class, I’d go to this activity and this activity and I’m meeting different people.

AshleyMarie Marie: So what I’m hearing you say is that like showing up in a classroom environment where there’s not a lot of people that look like you, or you’re the only person that looks like you, it’s like another layer of work. But when you saw your friend, Michaela, it was just that sense of camaraderie. It fueled you. Right?

Michaela Brooks: Mm-hmm. So then having to kind of filter, not really filter, but think about how I say things to where everyone understands.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yes. How do I show up in a space where there’s less of me and more of them.

Michaela Brooks: Because a big thing that I ran into in my early years that I had to force myself to grow out of, is the professor asked a question. We’re having dialogue. And that’s one thing I did like about design school. It was more conversation based and not really a lesson here, write this down, regurgitate it later.

AshleyMarie Marie: Lecture.

Michaela Brooks: Right. So I’m giving information and whatnot, or answering a question. And I feel like it’s in one ear and out the other, and then a classmate across the room says the exact same thing. “Oh my gosh. Yes. Brilliant.” So after a few times of that, I’m just going to sit here because what’s the point of even interacting?

AshleyMarie Marie: Because you don’t see me. You don’t see me. You don’t hear me.

Michaela Brooks: You’re not trying to.

AshleyMarie Marie: And I can’t even speak to if you’re trying to or not, you just don’t. Like at the end of the day, you just don’t and you aren’t, and that’s impacting my experience.

Michaela Brooks: So dealing with that, I said, you know what? You are here. You can make a difference. So let your voice be heard. On the positive side of that, toward my junior senior semesters.

AshleyMarie Marie: Of college?

Michaela Brooks: Yes. The interior design professor really kind of took me under his wing. So we did a piece last semester. I worked for him as a research assistant. He wrote a piece on basically why there isn’t more diversity and specifically Black people in design professions, and specifically interior design. So we did research, talked to different professors around different schools, talked to people at HBCUs, talked to some of the actual architecture programs at HBCUs. And there are even fewer of them, there’s maybe like eight if that many. But interior design, Howard is like your only option.

AshleyMarie Marie: Huh.

Michaela Brooks: So talking to schools and seeing what would it take to have this program at your school? Why aren’t people choosing this as a profession? What can we do to help, type questions. So looking into that and being able to go through that process with him, and serve as a voice was very impactful for me and meaningful.

And it started as we got to do a presentation for a educational conference, which is huge as a student, an undergrad student. And then from that, we got invited to write a magazine article for one of the big interior design magazines and that will be –

AshleyMarie Marie: Published.

Michaela Brooks: … this year.

AshleyMarie Marie: [inaudible]

Michaela Brooks: Thank you. So opened me up to his network, and making me see I’m not alone. And people care. We just have to start having those conversations more.

AshleyMarie Marie: Was there a theme in those conversations in your research? Did you find a theme of like why people weren’t showing up for those programs or those programs weren’t offered?

Michaela Brooks: The biggest thing is money always. And there’s a couple branches to that. So one, architecture school is not cheap at all even. So me coming in out of state, even with Kauffman, it was a lot per semester. It was a lot. So then on top of that Black people don’t… Well, we’re going more now, but generally don’t go to college. And then when they do go, they’re pursuing the jobs that they, going in, know they’re going to make money from. “Oh, I can run a business.” Stuff like that. So they’re not really thinking about architecture, whatever.

AshleyMarie Marie: Do you feel like we received messaging that was supportive of us to like go to college for whatever. What kind of messaging do you think your class got when it came to choosing a major or direction for your career, future career, at the time?

Michaela Brooks: I feel like it was very… And now I can’t think of it because I’m not, but the maths and sciences.

AshleyMarie Marie: STEM?

Michaela Brooks: STEM. Yes. We were very STEM, not really driven, but very pushed towards STEM careers in my opinion. But me, I was like, “None of that appeals to me.” So.

AshleyMarie Marie: Right. I’m not going to [inaudible]. I think for me it was like, “I can’t do that stuff.” Even if it appeals to me, I just wasn’t good at.

Michaela Brooks: I’m not interested enough to want to do this every day from nine to five.

AshleyMarie Marie: And I think you’re probably one of the people that thought about just how vast it is. I’m going to be doing this for a lot of my life. I don’t think at that age, a lot of us have foresight of the nine to five, or like really what that looks like in our entire day. What do you think being a Kauffman Scholar means to you now as a blossoming adult?

Michaela Brooks: Now, because I feel like once you’re a Scholar, you’re never not a Scholar.

AshleyMarie Marie: True. True. True.

Michaela Brooks: So thinking about impact, again. So you know, impact the world and your community. But what could I give back to the program now? Even if it’s like giving a workshop and talking to people, talking to other people in middle school and high school trying to figure out what they want to do.

AshleyMarie Marie: So that’s top of mind for you, is I’ve been given so much, how can I give back?

Michaela Brooks: Right.

AshleyMarie Marie: I love that. I don’t think that’s kind of how we go into the journey. When would you say you kind of made it to the impact part in like wanting to give back? When do you think that kind of showed up?

Michaela Brooks: Probably going into my junior, senior year college because in the beginning it’s just like, okay, we did all this work to get here. Just make it to the end, please.

AshleyMarie Marie: Right.

Michaela Brooks: Just get through the tough part, stick it out.

AshleyMarie Marie: I was skeptical. Are y’all really paying for college? Y’all got the money? Y’all going to spend that for little ole me?

Michaela Brooks: Mm. Wow. Please don’t waste it.

AshleyMarie Marie: There’s just some things you’re not prepared for. And I think I just wasn’t prepared for the life that would happen in college even though I was fine academically.

Michaela Brooks: Coaching, at least for us.

AshleyMarie Marie: I’m so glad we had coaches because that’s who helped me. I needed a lot of life support. Like not academics. My academics usually reflected when I had something going on in my life.

Michaela Brooks: Right.

AshleyMarie Marie: So yeah.

Michaela Brooks: And then for me constantly feeling like my professors weren’t really there for me. So I’m like, “Coach, please. How do I talk to this person? Because I am going to snap and I don’t want to do that.”

AshleyMarie Marie: Right.

Michaela Brooks: Like guidance was everything.

AshleyMarie Marie: Okay. So as we end, kind of describe your experience as a Kauffman Scholar in one word or one phrase.

Michaela Brooks: Long.

AshleyMarie Marie: Enduring.

Michaela Brooks: Okay. I would say long, but worth the journey. Because it’s definitely a journey. The journey has not ended. It’s still ongoing. But through the journey you meet a lot of people, make a lot of connections. You make friends. What more can you get out of life? You know?

AshleyMarie Marie: You make a lot. I mean, I think we’re Kauffman Scholars, and just being a scholar and now being an alumni for the both of us, it’s ingrained. And there’s not very many of us, like there’s a select couple hundred of us that are Kauffman Scholars and that’s a privilege, and something that’s huge. So.

Michaela Brooks: And people love to hear about it. Like even here. Of course at home, everybody, “Oh, Kauffman Scholar.” You know?

AshleyMarie Marie: It’s a different kind of vibe when you hear it out, “Oh, you’re a Kauffman Scholar?” For me, you’re the chosen one.

Michaela Brooks: Right. Even here, people were wanting to know more about the program. Like, “Oh how can I get it?” It’s only a [inaudible] thing. Sorry, you’re not in the club. But it feels like being a part of an exclusive club because there’s only so many members only, only so many students get selected for a class. So being able to be a part of that is huge.

AshleyMarie Marie: And they’ve taken such good care of us, I think.

Michaela Brooks: They do.

AshleyMarie Marie: We have that common thread. I mean, it’s here today. Like me and you know, not really knowing each other and meeting today. And we have this commonality because of this experience, because of us being chosen. So I am so looking forward to seeing what you do next, because it’s kind of like, since you a designer, you really get to design your life at this point. You get to design the way forward. I look forward to, one, celebrating you officially in person, I think, graduation celebration.

Michaela Brooks: The speech girl.

AshleyMarie Marie: It’s okay. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I’ve glanced at it. I’m going to edit it today, but it looks good so far. Don’t you worry.

Michaela Brooks: And we’re going to go get it done.

AshleyMarie Marie: We going to get done.

Michaela Brooks: Yeah.

AshleyMarie Marie: It’s going to be a good time, but I look forward to just seeing how you design your way forward, because your energy is so vibrant and beautiful. So I’m glad we got to connect today.

Michaela Brooks: No, this was fun.

AshleyMarie Marie: Yeah, I agree. So thank you.

Michaela Brooks: Thank you for having me.

Voice-over: Thank you for listening to this Kauffman Foundation Podcast. For more stories on growing an inclusive economy, please visit us at The Uncommon Conversation series brings two people together to discuss personal perspectives and fresh opinions on topics related to the Kauffman Foundation’s work. The perspectives of our guests do not necessarily reflective views of the Kauffman Foundation, but are presented here to celebrate uncommon voices and civil discourse to move conversations forward.