For those who wonder why, it is not Nikita A. Pope’s responsibility to explain. It is not because her mother died at a pivotal time in her life and she had to move more than 200 miles away to live with her dad, regroup, and finish high school in West Virginia. It is not because she is a perfectionist who is never quite satisfied, not even with straight A’s; nor is it because, on occasion, she suffers from low self-esteem when deep down inside she knows she is amazing.
It just is.
And for Pope, whose personal journey is history-making, it took enrolling as a man at Morehouse College—an institution with a mission to develop men to be leaders who are academically excellent and committed to service—for the Class of 2020 graduate to find the courage to soar as a Morehouse graduate.
Now, Pope, of Columbus, Ohio, is the leader she feels she was meant to be.
On Dec. 13, Pope, who transitioned after a period of self-actualization while she was an honor student at Morehouse, will graduate cum laude with a degree in sociology. And this spring, the 29-year-old will begin a graduate program in journalism at Marshall University.
“People always say, ‘Don’t just go to Morehouse, let it go through you.’ I know what that means now,” Pope explained. “You don’t just want to check the boxes.”
You need to soak in everything to find yourself: the academic lessons, the social justice perspectives, the confidence-building, the leadership coaching, the connection with the history, struggle, and triumphs of Black people, Pope said. “When you let Morehouse go through you, you are able to evolve. You can find your own truth, even if it is not popular.”
This month, Pope is releasing her autobiography, “Resurgens: Becoming a Phoenix,” to motivate others, regardless of gender identity, to live life without shame and to find the strength within to emerge as a powerhouse. She is also planning a book tour after it launches on Amazon.
“I would like to thank Dr. Felicia Stewart (division chair) and Dr. Levar Smith (political science professor) for their support—they are amazing,” Pope said. “And I would like to thank myself for not giving up on me.”
Pope transferred into Morehouse with a 4.0 GPA from West Virginia State University. She says she felt spirit-led to apply during sophomore year even though she didn’t understand why. The Morehouse College campus and its confident students had made a big impression during a campus visit.
And while she has always been smart, she says there was something missing. “Most of my life I dealt with very low self-esteem. I would apply myself, work hard, and still feel that I wasn’t good enough; it was like I wasn’t legit even though I was accomplished.”
At Morehouse, Pope took the time to understand herself and gain the courage to evolve. She had a support network that included professors, a small but loyal group of Morehouse brothers who offered unconditional support even as she transitioned, and some family back home. “My step-mom, younger sister, and cousins were supportive,” Pope said. “Unfortunately, other family members were not. That comes with the territory.”
When Pope needed to talk, her instructors pulled up a chair. “Dr. Stewart and Dr. Smith constantly believed in me. Anytime I had a problem, or just wanted to talk casually, they always opened up their doors and treated me like family.”
Fueled by lessons in social justice, Pope felt inspired to fight for the rights of others. She interned at the Dinsmore & Shohl LLP law firm in West Virginia for two years.
Then, she worked on finding her voice. Pope joined Adodi Morehouse, a safe space group for students in the LGBQTIA+ community and their supporters at Morehouse. In no time, she was challenging administrative policies in op-eds for The Maroon Tiger.
Pope’s ultimate platform was offered to her during her senior year. On March 5, 2020, before the campus was evacuated amid the global pandemic, she gave a speech in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel—in the same spot where world leaders, politicians, civil rights icons, and celebrities had stood in the decades before her—to address audiences. Morehouse was holding its weekly Crown Forum community conversation on current events for the student body. Only this time, the talk was being sponsored by Adodi in celebration of the work of Bayard Rustin, a gay civil rights leader credited for organizing the March on Washington.
Pope was introduced as the “first trans graduate of Morehouse College.” She says there were others, nonbinary and transgender, who later made the transition after graduation, but she was the first transsexual to be “institutionally documented.” Pope mentioned some of them by name before her speech in a recognition of the “ancestors,” she said.
“I am here for the ones who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The beloved poetess Maya Angelou once said there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you,” she told the crowd. “I understand that agony.”
Pope’s inner voice still pushes her to keep growing. It’s what accelerated her plan to get her master’s degree in journalism. She wants to work as a radio personality. And after living a lifetime in two years, she graduated from Morehouse with a 3.5 GPA, and says she feels blessed considering everything she went through in her rediscovery.
Pope says Morehouse played a crucial role in her life that she will not forget. It developed her as a leader, and she hopes that there will be room for her voice as an advocate for transgender students at Morehouse in the future. “The Black trans community is very vulnerable; we’re subject to a lot of negativity. I feel a responsibility to help,” Pope said.
“If there is a place for me to be more effective and influential at Morehouse as a woman, I will be there. I will not show up as anything else.”
I would like to thank Dr. Felicia Stewart (division chair) and Dr. Levar Smith (political science assistant professor) for their support—they are amazing. And I would like to thank myself for not giving up on me ... Dr. Stewart and Dr. Smith constantly believed in me. Anytime I had a problem, or just wanted to talk casually, they always opened up their doors and treated me like family.Nikita A. Pope, Class of 2020