I had the chance to sit down with Desmond L. Moffitt, studying European History and Dance, as one of Mason’s most accomplished seniors — you probably recognize him from Mason’s career fair marketing materials, as a Resident Advisor at Whitetop, a Gates Millennium Scholar, and a founder of two registered student organization called MasonU and Honors College Black Ambition (HCBA). But his most striking quality is his drive to empower others.
“Bettering my community looks like those of us who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action.”
After sitting down with him for dinner, I learned that Desmond became a History major to analyze and assess how the issues of today relate to those in the past. Looking back, he cites his greatest take away: “rather than putting energy towards complaining, it might be better to put our energy towards productivity and trying to figure out how to resolve social issues. We should be asking people, ‘How do you think we can solve this problem? How would this be helpful to the most people?” Desmond believes that those who have the power and resources to bring those marginalized voices to light have a responsibility to do so. His goal is to be an agent in his community to empower others to achieve their dreams, and to have agency in making their history.
“My parents never told me that I was going to college. Counselors said it, [but I] didn’t really feel anything.”
One of Desmond’s greatest undergraduate projects is perhaps his work with MasonU, an organization he cofounded that provides campus tours and college planning activities to kindergarten through eighth grade students in the greater northern Virginia and Washington D.C. area. Following his own past, MasonU believes that early exposure to higher education is vital in increasing the number of D.C. children that apply for college later in life, and MasonU not only provides this early exposure, but instills a lasting eagerness to attend school at the university level. This eagerness drives these students through their secondary education, stimulates leadership skills, and provides extraordinary role models and mentors. MasonU focuses on helping students construct their futures and teaches them how to form careers out of their dreams. Through MasonU, Desmond has taught 2,000+ young students across 16 public schools to act on their ambitions and goals, to be trailblazers, to be fighters, and to use their voices.
“If we can convince these students that their dreams are important, then we’ve done the most important thing.”
Desmond lives his life in service of others. His dream of becoming a bus driver has morphed into being an education policy analyst who serves community members who feel underprivileged, underappreciated, and underrepresented. Although he may not have a lot to give financially, there’s still so much that he can do, so that is what he gives.
“One other thing that makes me happy is… when you see a kid of low income look at you and realize that they can go to college.”
Many seniors are looking for graduate schools and jobs, while Desmond searches for the next place where he can be a student. And not necessarily in the traditional sense, but rather where he can go to listen and empower others through education policy. Desmond stated that his background in being one of seven kids, an older brother, and coming from low-income has given him the strength to pick people up when they’re down.
“I felt that at Mason I would grow into who I am, not change who I am.”
In his senior year of high school, Desmond rejected multiple high-caliber institutions— including Stanford and Dartmouth— to attend Mason, crediting his acceptance into Mason’s Honors College as the deciding factor. He cited the Mason Honors College as having warmth, acceptance, and community that differed greatly from other schools. He saw that Mason was very humble in its beginnings, yet bold, just as he wanted to be.
Additionally, he stated that the Honors College was similar to a small liberal arts college within a large university, in which you could focus on yourself and school, yet still tap into the resources of a large university. Over his time at Mason he founded two organizations, received three scholarships, and was able to study abroad for a year. Desmond believes the Honors College has given him the support to shape education policy in the U.S.
Desmond has started to reflect on his journey from freshman year to where he is now. He shared that the biggest difference is he is now aware. Growing up in a small-urban center of Louisville, Kentucky then moving to small town in Chesapeake, Virginia, he wasn’t aware of the major role that social policy can play on the lives of individuals, and how some of those social policies disparaged low-income communities, who are primarily minorities. Desmond shared that he didn’t know that he could have a voice on these issues; he didn’t know he could do something about these issues until Mason.
“Freshman me was passionate, ambitious, goal-oriented.”
He has learned that listening to others and being mindful helps to stay in tune to how effective or ineffective American public policies are toward disadvantaged communities. This has allowed him to realize that his future isn’t solely about himself, but rather the people he will affect in his community.
“I was one of the students who benefited from a program like MasonU. It wasn’t until I was in fifth grade, walking on a college campus, that I felt like, ‘this could be for me.’”
From fifth grade onward, he strove toward college. Along the way, he learned that his pursuit was harder without being told particular information that would have set him up for success— financial aid, scholarships, academic rigor, extracurricular activities, work. For him, reaching for college was remarkable, whereas it was normal for his friends. His inspiration to start MasonU was that he knew exactly what those kids felt.
“I encourage everyone, especially aspiring teachers, to travel abroad. If you can fully understand another country and culture, then as a teacher, you can bring that experience into low income classrooms that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to a global perspective.”
As Desmond continues to understand the way education policy works, he wants to take the initiative of pushing future educators of American students to study abroad during their college years. He uses his personal account of why teachers should study abroad: students often spend 12+ years in a classroom. “They count on their teachers for their wealth of knowledge and their experiences. So, if their teacher has never been out of the community and all they know is what’s within their community, then that’s all the teacher is able to offer and that’s all the students will come to know. Then, it is left up to chance that they learn beyond that. By studying abroad, teachers interact with cultures from the ones in the communities where they teach—experiencing different languages, different ways of living, and different food. With those opportunities, their perspectives can inspire students to think beyond their circumstance. Teachers have such an influential role, and we often underestimate the impact they can have,” Desmond said.
“Studying abroad is where I learned that being black is not a problem.”
Remembering his time in Germany, Desmond recalled moments where he felt it was okay to be black. He could wear an afro, walk a certain way that wasn’t like everyone else, talk a way that wasn’t like everyone else. He didn’t have to assimilate to be acknowledged or respected. He thinks this is important to incorporate into the U.S. education system.
“If I didn’t know before, I really know [now] that learning is going to be my lifelong career.”
When we finished our meal, I realized that Desmond is an inspiring figure for us collegiettes. By learning how to better identify the problems within the world today, listening and responding to the needs of his community, inspiring his peers, and empowering young students through Mason U, Desmond leaves behind a legacy of empowerment in his tracks. A mission he hopes others will join him in pursuing. As we depart he awaits no applause, only a warm hug as he jets off to push our world to become a more accepting and inclusive place.
Photos courtesy of Desmond L. Moffitt