How do institutions change people’s souls? That’s the question that has dogged sociology major Semassa Boko ’18 through his intellectual journey at Pomona College.
When Boko was in high school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he and a group of friends started “Philosophy Sundays” – informal get-togethers dubbed after rapper Lupe Fiasco’s #PhilosophySundays Twitter hashtag where the artist would engage his followers in philosophical discussions. “We’d get together, eat, kick it, to talk about everything from the nature of reality to sports,” Boko says. “Deep was our middle name,” he adds with a smile.
Boko’s curiosity and his AP economics teacher in high school led him to teachings of spirituality and New Age thinking. Boko was intrigued by the contradictions that his economics teacher represented – an economics teacher who also had a master’s degree in eastern philosophy – and the philosophical questions that forced Boko to think about different economic systems and how those systems change people’s lives.
When it came to choosing colleges, Boko was torn between Pomona and Duke University, but in the end, the small liberal arts college lured Boko to Claremont.
His decision didn’t disappoint. Boko points to the freedom that Pomona and his sociology major afforded him to be able to study subjects as diverse as affirmative action programs at the College, alternative medicine, yoga, the history of funk music, Black barber culture, indigenous healers in Cameroon and political violence after the Civil War.
Mentors Meld Music, Arts, Race
When asked how Pomona has changed his soul, Boko answers: “Much for the better.” He has learned much from his mentors, including Professor of Music Joti Rockwell, who has worked with Boko on at least three research projects.
Rockwell has seen Boko develop as a scholar in countless ways, calling him “academically fearless.”
“He’ll dive into any discipline that piques his interest, and he has an inexhaustible capacity for learning new things,” Rockwell says. “When I think of everything that’s good about the liberal arts, I think of him. I’m already in mourning at the thought of him graduating, but I’m glad the rest of the world is about to experience the joys of working with him.”
Last fall semester, Boko took the course Representing Blackness in Music and Masculinity with Professor of Art History Phyllis Jackson, a class that had a tremendous impact on him.
“That class tricked me, we darn near didn’t talk about music until two-thirds of the way in the class,” Boko says with a laugh. Yet he notes that Jackson demanded nothing but the best from him, no filler words when writing his essays. Every sentence had to have meaning, and he says she exacted her students to "Be intellectual, to get straight to your theory, to get straight to your arguments.’ And those things have definitely pushed me further than even I thought I could be pushed.”
A Global Perspective
Last spring, Boko had the opportunity to study abroad in Cameroon and learn French through the School for International Training (SIT). Not only did he gain a new language, but Boko also came back to campus with a deeper sense of appreciation. “In the village, the children of my host family had to have their water rationed. All of this did not make me feel guilty, rather it made me feel the responsibility I have to be fighting to change the world which creates these global realities.”
Boko, whose father is from Benin, saw connections between Benin and Cameroon throughout his trip – including in the small village where he met with a king to do his research on indigenous healing. For Boko, seeing displays of artwork and clothing from Benin in the village felt a bit eerie and prophetic, he says. “From the places I went to, to the people I met. I was meant to be there.”
As his last semester winds down, Boko is getting ready to soon start at UC Irvine’s Ph.D. program in sociology. He is also busy finalizing his senior thesis which is centered on Black critiques of sociology as a discipline: “I have looked into the history of Black sociologists, the notion of Black sociology and who’s talked about it.”
“A lot of the ideas that I’ve put into practice this semester are from Professor Phyllis Jackson: thinking about Blackness, not just Black people, but Blackness from a theoretical perspective. What is Blackness in the world, society and the psyche? And that brought me to look at different Black intellectuals and how they theorize Blackness and theory from a Black perspective and I’m bringing that to sociology.”
Boko also takes his critical thinking out of the classroom and injects it into mentoring Black and Latino high school boys at Pomona and Ganesha high schools. The mentoring is the focus of the Young Men’s Circle (YMC), a program out of Building Leaders on Campus (BLOC), a student group for men of color of The Claremont Colleges.
The YMC is not a college-access program, he says. Instead, the BLOC members show up first and foremost to “be there” for the high schoolers.
“This is a support and relationship program. We ask, ‘What do you want to do? How can we help you do it?’ It’s a relationship-based program. I’ve seen some of these kids grow up. It’s about being consistent to someone who may not have consistency in a lot of their life.”
As he nears Commencement, Boko has some advice for younger students: He urges them to take control of their education. He also asks them to just listen.
“No matter who you are, there’s someone who has experiences who you can learn from and you can learn from anybody… When anyone takes the time to talk to me, I listen.”