Turning toward acceptance: Cedric Jennings’ “A Hope in the Unseen”

(Trapanick talks with Jennings at the Common Reading forum. By Oscairy Tavarez)

Navigating multiple worlds can be challenging, but for Cedric Jennings, balancing these worlds ultimately derives from his faith and support. 

 On Oct. 3, in DPAC, Jennings discussed his biography, “A Hope in the Unseen” written by Ron Suskind.

 Jennings grew up in southeast Washington, in a city plagued with crime. According to Jennings, he faced many challenges while attending high school, but through faith, perseverance and motherly love, Jennings managed to escape unscathed, with a ticket to Brown University in hand.

After receiving an acceptance letter from Brown, Jennings met Suskind, journalist for The Wall Street Journal, who turned his story into a book. In 1998, “A Hope in the Unseen” was published, attracting positive reviews from The New York Times.

Jennings said it was hard trusting Suskind in the beginning since Jennings grew up in an apprehensive environment where locals would “side-eye anybody that came into the community who was an outsider.”

He recalled the time when Suskind joined Jennings at Ballou High School and told him to “stay a certain distance away” from him so that Jennings would not be made into a target.

Eventually, Jennings started to trust Suskind. “He told me and my mom, ‘You all are the experts of your own lives and I trust you to be the storyteller.’ I think empowering us to do that was what sold me,” he said.

The process was challenging.

According to Jennings, Suskind made him “go back a lot and relive some things that were very painful.

“Looking back, I realized it was a good thing because it was a part of the healing I needed to go through,” he said.

Jennings graduated from Brown in 1999, with a bachelor’s degree in education. He received his master’s degree in human development and psychology education at Harvard University in 2002, and his second master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan in 2003.

While attending Brown, Jennings said he was “at a crossroads,” hesitant to settle on a specific field or career before he graduated. He consulted alumni about their experiences in the workforce and possible career options. He advised FSU seniors to also start connecting with people to get a broader idea of life after college. 

Jennings has worked in child welfare, enrichment programing for work around D.C. and most recently at Northern Virginia Community College, where he teaches student development.

“What was most critical to my success at Brown was that I had to learn how to reach out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I often tell my students that I work with now that, ‘Yes, the academic component of your college education is very important, but I think what’s even more important is the social aspect of it.’”

He recommends college students should start developing healthy relationships and seek assistance because “a lot of the learning you would experience comes from the people you interact with.”

Freshman Alexis Keys said Jennings is “like a superhero.” His story is inspiring others to accept and overcome life’s many challenges, she added.

Jennings said, “A lot of times, people are looking for a quick fix to challenges, and sometimes with challenges, there is no quick fix. You just have to weather the storm. It’s just helpful to be connected with the right people who can encourage you.”

He described how Zayd and Chiniqua, two of his friends from Brown who are mentioned in his biography, were instrumental to him being comfortable with his identity and getting out of his shell.

Ben Trapanick, director of first-year programs, said, “Not a lot of first-year students think about acceptance. It kind of happens. It takes time, but it definitely starts by having someone say that you can be yourself.”

Jennings also had help from Donald Korb, a doctor who became Jennings’ benefactor, sending him checks in the mail after hearing about his journey in the newspaper.

“Wherever you find yourself in life, there’s always somebody that God will provide to be there, to help you,” Jennings said. “When I look back on it, sometimes I would cry because my mom used to always tell me that she would pray a prayer of faith that I would be able to go to college and that there would be people there to help me, and that’s essentially what happened.”

Although Jennings did not have the same resources or educated parents like some of his peers did at Brown, his mother would always tell him that he could be anything he wanted. Barbara Jennings passed away in 2013, but the morals she taught are still deeply rooted in Jennings to this day.

“What was so powerful for me was the faith that she instilled in me,” he said.

Jennings’ faith was strengthened through life’s challenges. “It’s much broader. It’s much deeper,” he said. “Deeper than it was even from when the book leaves off.”

Freshman Julia Rivard said, “When he was talking about how his faith sort of helped him go through all the struggles in his life, I know personally that has helped me as well. So knowing that there are people who have turned to their faith like he has, it’s sort of inspiring in a way … to see life through a different picture.”

Jennings said he wished he was more open-minded in college, but there were certain things in life he had to understand about himself before reaching a non-judgmental perspective.

In the book, Jennings indicates feeling ashamed of his mother when she visited him during parent weekend at Brown. “I had anxieties of people viewing her a certain way because she wasn’t educated. … I was ashamed of being ashamed of her,” he said.

Jennings later initiated a conversation with his mother about school and was shocked when she understood him, even though she didn’t have a college degree.

“I didn’t have to lower the bar to talk to her – in fact, I had to step up because she was a step ahead of me,” he said.

“I was a runner,” he said. “When hard times came, I would run. Now I’m 40, so I’m too old to be running. When a problem comes at you, you have to face it head on. Face it courageously. You have to address it. You can’t be afraid of the outcome.”

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