Golden Daka was loading his suitcase into the trunk of an Uber bound for the MegaBus Station in Washington, D.C., when his Zambian mother leaned into him and said in her native tongue before scurrying back into their tiny home: I’m sorry that I couldn’t afford to make your Morehouse dream come true.
It was up to him to take his future in his own hands. Daka had a one-way ticket to Atlanta and no way to pay for his full tuition. But he knew that classes were starting soon. And he was determined to graduate as a Morehouse Man.
On Sunday, Dec. 13, Daka did just that—graduating as class valedictorian with a degree in psychology.
"I was taught to hit the world hard," he said.
You see, Daka had come into the world with resilience. From the womb, he had had to fight to survive as a miracle baby born prematurely. It’s how he earned his name as a “golden” child. And the name would serve him well through tough times after his family left Lusaka, Zambia, to come to live in a home in Maryland with seven people, and sometimes no electricity for two months.
Daka was 4 at the time. And his mother’s salary as a nurse was stretched thin with two families in the house.
Daka remembers how his grandmother would buy candles to illuminate the darkness. He and his twin brother did their homework, brushed their teeth, and ate their meals by candlelight. Those days helped Daka to develop a relentless will to survive, to focus on his lessons amid chaos, to work harder than the rest, and to be thankful for the roof over his head even if it leaked. And to count his blessings when the lights came back on.
“What kept me going was my grandmother,” Daka said. “I had an absent father. She was really pivotal in molding me and helping me. She was like, man up and just do it.” Succeed.
That will pushed him to walk miles to work and Community College after graduating from high school because he was saving money for Morehouse, not a car. Two years later, he took the $500 he had made at Baskin-Robbins, his college credits, and a one-way bus ticket that a mentor had purchased for him and headed to Morehouse.
He shipped two big boxes of belongings to the room of the Morehouse SGA president who happened to be from his hometown. Golden didn’t know exactly what he needed to pack for college, but he stuffed them with what he could afford to buy—sheets, towels, books to read, and the limited selection of clothes in his closet. It would be a Morehouse brother who would buy him his first business suit and tie.
Soon after Daka arrived, he walked into the Office of Alumni Engagement to see Henry Goodgame, who was the executive director at that time. The room was abuzz with students, frantic for financial aid. Goodgame was busy on the phone trying to make magic happen for them.
Daka sat and waited and waited and wouldn’t leave. You see, he had met Goodgame in Washington, D.C., during a swanky Morehouse fundraiser a few years before, when Daka was working as a volunteer. And the alumni who passed by that day were impressive—doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, engineers, and more.
Daka collected their business cards. Goodgame had given him one, too, and invited him to visit the campus. So, Daka came, hoping Goodgame would remember the invitation.
Daka stayed until Goodgame got off the phone and focused his attention on him, he just kept talking until he made the administrator believe in him. The only money that Daka had brought with him was a small transfer scholarship for a few thousand dollars. Tuition was $30,000 a year.
“Goodgame asked me ‘Where are your parents?’,” Daka recalled. “I told him that my dad is in Zambia somewhere, I don’t know where. My mom is in Maryland right now completing an 11-hour shift. He told me if I am going to help you out, I need to see A’s. I said to myself, A’s that is all I have to do to stay in college? I can do that. I took it to heart. I think he got the shorter end of the stick.”
It just so happened that more scholarship money had recently become available that day. Daka promised Goodgame, Morehouse, and the himself, that if the College invested in him, he would get straight A’s. Goodgame made some calls, and Daka got the money that he needed for his entire education, Daka said.
After that, Daka became a regular in the Office of Alumni Engagement. In fact, he was there so often that some people mistook him for staff. He would check in with Goodgame and the other employees in the room to talk about his grades, his internship offers, and his plans after college.
During Daka’s entire Morehouse journey, he maintained straight A’s. He developed his leadership skills in classes, watching Goodgame and his staff, and serving as a member of the Student Government Association. Daka also joined the social activism outreach LYTEHouse that fed the homeless, organized marches, and held community forums.
He was junior captain of the Moot Court Team and won a regional first-place award for his oratory skills at the Atchafalaya Swamp Classic, and the recognition of being the 16th best orator out of 950 entrants to qualify for the American Moot Court Association National Championship. Daka had the gift of gab, and Morehouse helped him to develop an impressive vocabulary to go with it.
Daka figured that talent would serve him well as a lawyer or businessman someday. He plans to go to law school in the future.
“Morehouse gave a really good space to express who I was and who I wanted to be,” he said. “I could be vulnerable and not have to be scared of what someone thought about me or my circumstances. The College had encourage me to become the best version of myself as possible.”
By senior year, Daka had a resume filled with accolades. He had been inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. He was one of 20 participants selected in 2019 to participate in the Harvard/New York University Law Trials Program, where he learned about law under the tutelage of Harvard professors. And from the summer of his freshman year through his junior year, he worked in the law office of William C. McCaskill. Another Washington D.C. alum, Durand Ford, the Morehouse Man paid for his bus ticket to come to Morehouse.
"He told me to get down there and in three years you will have a great story about how you got to Morehouse,” Daka recalled “He was right. I was either going to be homeless or a Morehouse Man.
Then, on top of that, Daka got more honors as a Morehouse graduate, including the Top Ranking Senior in Psychology Major Award, the Harry and Sophie Rosenman Award in Psychology, and departmental honors. During senior year, after he spoke about his life at Morehouse's annual scholarship benefit, A "Candle in the Dark" Gala, a $1 million donation was made from a philantrhopist who was moved by his story. And finally, Daka received the James Dunn Memorial Scholarship, which enabled him to work for the Illinois Governor’s Office for a year. After he finishes his fellowship in February, he will begin a job as a business analyst with McKinsey & Company in New Jersey.
Daka says his mother, who is still in Maryland, is proud of him, and he is certain his grandmother is, too. She moved back to Zambia when he graduated from high school.
And on the day he was named as the valedictorian of Morehouse with a 4.0 GPA after graduating from high school with a 2.9, she passed away. But Daka is sure that she is celebrating the accomplishment with him in heaven.
“I think my grandmother would say job well done, but not to let the wins get to my head,” he said. “She would tell me to give back by paying it forward to people in Zambia and Africa who need my help the most.”
Daka says he will return to his native land in Zambia, a place that he hasn’t seen since he was a toddler, to help build the infrastructure there for technology, and to support schools, and provide jobs. He will do it for her—and himself.
“We have an AIDS and HIV problem in Zambia; girls are dropping out in middle school. Only 18 percent have access to internet in a digital age,” he said. “I want to help.”
Morehouse gave a really good space to express who I was and who I wanted to be. I could be vulnerable and not have to be scared of what someone thought about me or my circumstances. The College had encourage me to become the best version of myself as possible.Golden Daka, Valedictorian, Class of 2020