By Joe Arruda
As she sat in her Baltimore Public School classroom, Adaeze Alaeze-Dinma was among the gifted and talented students.
With fighting and chaos commencing in the halls, the daughter of two Nigerian immigrants was set to separate herself from the rest. Not knowing it at the time, her way out – that eventually landed her in the Springfield College Athletics Communications office – wasn’t too far out of reach.
An AAU teammate’s mother approached her asking if she had any plans to continue basketball after high school. At this time, Alaeze didn’t recognize the importance of schooling in regards to advancing in sport.
“Just watching me play they were like, ‘If you really want a shot at going to college and going to the next level, you have to have better schooling’ and stuff like that. So they put in a good word and they were just like, ‘This will be the school that’ll help set you up,’” Alaeze said. “Athletically I was blessed, but it definitely helped get me on my path academically to be able to go to whatever school wanted me.”
The gifted seventh grader soon noticed academic development that she wouldn’t have gone through otherwise in the public school system.
When she enrolled in Roland Park Country School, the transition was more than a simple change of scenery. The teachers seemed to care more and the same went for the students.
However, as with many private schools, the makeup of the student body is drastically different than that of public schools.
“I grew up in a predominantly black area, so I wasn’t really exposed to quite as many white people as I was when I got to my private school. I think I really noticed the difference when I got there and would hear comments like, ‘Oh, your hair is different’ or ‘Wow, you changed your hair again’ or something in that nature and it’s just those smaller remarks that you’re just not used to hearing because it didn’t matter,” Alaeze said.
“Just hearing that change in narrative back in middle school it was odd, it kind of gives you this self-conscious feel because growing up around black people it was like, ‘Oh, your hair looks good!’ and then when you get there it’s just like, ‘Oh you changed it again? You change your hair so much.’ Even those slight little words, in those subtle moments, is when I started to feel like I was in a different world.”
Being a part of the minority at Roland Park, Alaeze became a sort of “token” black person.
She received comments along the lines of, “‘Oh, Daisy, you talk white,’” or “‘Oh, can you relay this message to your black community as a whole?’” People saw her as someone who they felt comfortable talking about issues with.
“I look at it as a good and a bad thing. I am happy that people are comfortable with talking to me, but then at the same time it’s just like you should be able to feel comfortable to talk to anybody about any type of issue that you’re having. It can be an exhausting role too, where it’s like people putting the pressure on you to be the example or set the quota for people and it’s just like, we’re all people, we’re all individuals, we all have different stories, we all have different paths – being that token, I see it as a good and a bad thing,” she said.
Though ignorant comments like the aforementioned were often directed her way, Alaeze is appreciative of those – black and white – who supported her along her journey.
She said, “Even in the midst of everything going on, there are still black people who are on the more blessed side of things. I don’t think I was judged as much as the next person might have been. I don’t think that I was perceived in a negative light as much as the next person might have been, and I do think that’s because of the opportunities that I’ve had and that I was presented with.”
Those opportunities brought her journey around the world.
She played Division I basketball at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia, and then went on to play professionally overseas and with the Nigerian national basketball team.
While her parents immigrated to the United States, landing at the University of Texas where they received their first degrees, the rest of her extended family remained in Nigeria. Around the age of five, Alaeze was able to visit her family in Nigeria, but it wasn’t until the opportunity with the national team arose when she was able to visit again.
“Because of that experience (at training camp in Nigeria), it was the second time meeting my family. That was the best part of it all,” she said.
“In America, it’s only me, my mom, my dad, and my two brothers, and so the national team allowed me to go back home and see other people in this world who look like me that I didn’t get to grow up with. I always envy those people who get to grow up with grandmas and grandpas and uncles and cousins and all of that because that wasn’t a part of my experience.”
She continued to express how the experience provided her with a genuine sense of happiness, filling a void that the WhatsApp calls could not.
Communication was something important to her. Alaeze’s outgoing and outspoken personality makes her a natural fit for the field which eventually landed her at Springfield College.
After finishing up an internship at Indiana University, she was named the Coordinator of Student-Athlete Leadership Development and Sports Communications Assistant with Springfield Athletics.
And her presence has already made an impact.
In a sportsless semester, the Athletics Communications office has still found a way to generate content focused on the athletes. After a summer that amplified the call for social justice and turned heads toward the oppression and inequalities that face black Americans on a daily basis, Alaeze introduced the “My Story, My truth” initiative.
Every week, the video series highlights the experience of black student-athletes at Springfield College.
“The ability to tell a story, I think, is the most captivating thing that someone can do. People are moved by your experiences, all you have to do is have the platform to actually get it out there,” she said.
“I just felt like this would be a great opportunity for them to just be at the forefront of using their voice and getting more of who they are out there instead of just them in regards to their sport or their degree or where they come from. I’m more than a Baltimore native, I’m more than a first generation Nigerian, I’m more than a basketball player. All of those smaller stories in between really ties it together to be like, ‘This is who I am. This is my truth, this is my story.”
Alaeze believes that an important step along the road to acceptance is listening and learning to the variety of different backgrounds that people have grown up in.
At the end of the day, Springfield College student-athletes are Springfield College student-athletes, regardless of the color of their skin, the amount of money they were raised around or where they came from.
The opportunities that Alaeze has been able to take advantage of have had a significant impact on who she is today. Her role now is solely focused on those who she is able to return the favor.
She said, “I just want to give back. One of my favorite quotes – and I say it all the time – is, ‘Be the blessing you once received.’”
I have been so blessed and fortunate in my life that it would be so selfish of me not to be that to somebody else. All you need sometimes is that one person to care, and that makes a world of a difference. I definitely think I was put on this earth to give back and to help those that might need help just to be a good aid, a good resource, a good vibe for whoever needs it.”
Photos Courtesy of Adaeze Alaeze-Dinma