John Okhiulu, ’21, grew up in the Oak Cliff neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. In his honors thesis, an album of original poetry, music, and essays titled Tributary, Okhiulu reflected on the legacy of creative expression as a tool for African American resistance and as a means for understanding, interpreting, and making sense of their lives.
He decided to create the album, which also explores the shared legacies of art-making and spiritual practice within the African diaspora, after writing “Ain’t Nobody,” a 2020 tribute to the Black folks killed by police in the United States. The poem concludes:
Dance in your blackness
Shake, shout, cry
You are the miracle of life
Mama rock me, slow
Let the fear in my heart know
They persisted, I persist
They resisted, I resist
They existed. I exist.
They kneeled and stood and marched
And that march continues.
Okhiulu developed the album while pursuing a bachelor’s degree with honors in African and African American studies, the field that reflects his primary personal and academic interests. At Stanford, he also explored the health and psychosocial development within marginalized communities as a human biology major.
He also found joy and community as a member—and eventually, director—of the a cappella group Stanford Talisman. In 2020, Okhiulu, a bass singer, helped organize an Instagram campaign with other a cappella groups on campus to raise money for civil rights groups.
Donor support, through endowed scholarships and The Stanford Fund, helped make possible Okhiulu’s journey. “Getting admitted and learning about my scholarships told me ‘not only do I get to go to college, but I get to go to one of the best colleges in the world for free.’ That meant the world. It meant that I’d be secure and taken care of for all four years.”
Gifts through The Stanford Fund also sustain more than 125 student groups and various undergraduate programs from research to public service.
After graduating, Okhiulu will begin an 11-month fellowship at a philanthropic organization as a Tom Ford Fellow, a program of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford. Okhiulu said his public-service mindset was inspired by his parents, a nursing assistant mother and a minister father who have been taking in and caring for people in their Oak Cliff neighborhood in Dallas since he was a child.
“I want to work with youth from marginalized communities—like the one I came from—and help them find the best ways to thrive within the tensions that exist in our world,” Okhiulu said. “That’s what I want to do with my art. That’s what I want to do with my community engagement—work with youth to be able to uplift us to our highest selves.”