Abram and Najla Muhammad will make Jackson State University history as the first father and daughter to graduate from the W.E.B. DuBois-Maria Luisa Alvarez Harvey Honors College at the HBCUs 2018 commencement exercises on Saturday, April 28, at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.“I’m excited to share this accomplishment with my father,” says Najla, a communicative disorder major. “It’s an honor to make history at JSU.”
A man of many talents, Muhammad, 49, a Florida native, has a doctorate in divinity and is a certified pilot. He also spent eight years as a police officer in Virginia. But, Muhammed, who served in the Marines, has longed to finish his four-year degree since having to drop out of Saint Leo University in Tampa after being deployed to fight in Gulf Wars – Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
“Of course, I couldn’t go to my commanding officer and tell him that I couldn’t fight because I was in school,” says Muhammad, who moved with his family to Mississippi to serve as the state representative for the Nation of Islam in 2012.
While pursuing his pilot license and paralegal certification at Hinds Community College, Muhammad caught a presentation by JSU recruiters. He learned that as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, he could attend the HBCU on a full-ride scholarship. He then transferred to the institution in fall of ’16.
Employed as the deputy director of parks and recreation for the city of Jackson, Muhammad says he would eventually like to teach criminal justice.
“Jackson State has helped me realize what type of person I really am. I’ve come to accept who I am. I like the next challenge. I like doing what is considered difficult or can’t be done,” he declares.
It’s an honor
Coincidentally, Najla met with JSU recruiters while a student in the International Baccalaureate Program at Jim Hill High School and, as a result of her academic achievements and ACT score, received a presidential scholarship enrolling at the HBCU in fall of ’14.At JSU, Muhammad and Najla both have a cumulative 3.8 GPA. They are both members of the national and golden key honor societies among other academic organizations.
Acknowledging the rarity of the situation, Najla says she doesn’t mind attending school with her father. “I thought it would be cool for us to be on campus together and graduate together,” she says. And despite their busy schedules, the two would find time to occasionally have lunch together.
Dr. Loria C. Brown Gordon, associate dean of the honors college, recalls the family’s initial visit to the school when Najla was an incoming freshman.
“Abram was so impressed, he forgot about Najla and said, ‘When I finish at Hinds, I am going to be in this honors college,’” Gordon explains, then admits “who knew” that the father and daughter would go on to be the first of their kind to graduate from the program.
It’s most certainly a family affair. The father of four has another daughter, Qu’Tashia Muhammad, who joined the university in fall ’17. She is also a member of several honor societies, including the honors college and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
According to the dean, honors college graduates must complete the curriculum, which exceeds the standard degree requirements. “I am so proud of the entire family as they set the example that education is a path created and is accessible to all, no matter their status in the family,” she adds.
The enthusiasm is palpable as the father and daughter discuss college life and their impending commencement, which takes place on Muhammad’s birthday.
“I enjoyed myself more in school this time around than I did years ago,” he says, before professing his life-long desire to attend an HBCU. “To be a part of that history, to matriculate and be conferred from an HBCU, I just can’t tell you what it does for me.”
Breaking out of the shell
What he appreciates most about JSU, Muhammad says is the profound impact that the college experience has had on his daughter’s personality. Describing Najla as “extremely introverted,” he shares that the university has allowed her to discover herself and come out of her shell.
Since enrolling, the aspiring speech pathologist has gone on several out-of-state, school-based trips including a visit to Japan as part of the TOMODACHI Inouye Scholars Program.
“I learned that if I want things I have to speak up for myself more,” says Najla. “It’s the opportunities that I’ve received here that made me realize that.”
The once bashful senior will head to Los Angeles after graduation to spend the summer in UCLA’s Public Health Scholars Training Program. Out of 1,200 applicants from throughout the country, Najla was one of 3 percent accepted. She is also the only student from Mississippi.
Muhammad gushes about how his daughter has been an inspiration to their family. “Her mother has gone back to school and received her degree in agribusiness. All of that is because she saw how Najla was accelerating and enjoying school,” he says.
Hailing the pair as great examples of determination and commitment, Muhammad’s wife, Tracy expresses that as a full-time father, student and despite working two full-time jobs, her husband never became weary in his responsibilities.
She goes on to say that Najla has gained the courage to challenge her fears and venture out into the world knowing she can make a difference due to being at the HBCU.“Their graduation day will be something they will share and cherish for years to come. I am so proud of them both and love them very much,” says Tracy.
Muhammad reveals his desire to see more families with parents that have degrees in higher-education making first-generation students a thing of the past. He also defines his wish to see more professors push the history and significance of HBCUs.
“I think it would give not only students but faculty and staff a greater appreciation for the blood, sweat, tears and even lives that have been given for us to be able to stand on the grounds of an HBCU,” he says with gusto.
The soon-to-be graduates wish to thank their departments, JSU recruiters, family and friends for helping them along their journey. But their time at the institution does not end with graduation, they have respectively been accepted into the JSU graduate school program.
Although Najla has not quite figured out her celebration plans, she states how relieved, excited and fulfilled she will be walking across the commencement stage.
Muhammad, however, is a man who knows what he wants. “I’m going to get the bone-in, parmesan garlic wings; a 20-piece from BW3 (Buffalo Wild Wings) with the cheddar fries, all I can get,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Man, I’m thinking about it right now. I might not make it until graduation.”