He was the first student from his Baltimore County magnet school to enter the Ivy League. After a lonely beginning at Harvard, though, he became a big man on campus. Brandon Terry, who recently turned 21, has been declared by fellow students one of the 15 most interesting seniors at Harvard.
His name showed up as part of The Harvard Crimson's annual "vanity issue," in which the student newspaper's editors featured 15 students who, in their view, have the most interesting lives or are making the biggest contributions to the lives of others at the college.
Terry writes a widely read biweekly opinion column for the Crimson called "On the Real," which has prompted soul searching and social action. He turned the school's Black Men's Forum from a tiny group into one of the five most financially well-off groups on campus. He's quoted regularly on campus and in Boston papers because he likes to debate issues involving race. And he will graduate in June with a degree in government and African and African-American studies.
If that's not enough, he's a vocalist and lyricist for the Harvard student rap group, Tha League.
Hip-hop was Terry's style when he arrived at the campus in Cambridge, Mass., four years ago from the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science. "People were put off by the way I dressed and the way I talked," he says.
"You know how they have the black table" in the cafeteria? "I had my own table. Nobody wanted to sit with me," he says.
Late one night, walking through a largely empty Harvard Square behind a young white woman, he noticed she quickened her pace and raced to her dorm. "What's going on?" he wondered. "I am going to see her in math class tomorrow." On a visit home to Baltimore in October of his freshman year, Terry got a pep talk from his family, he says, and decided "I am not going to live my college career this way." He returned to campus and joined the Black Men's Forum, a place he says he could feel comfortable and also grow.
Harvard wasn't his first choice; he believed he would be more comfortable at the University of Maryland. But he decided to take a risk and enroll at Harvard because of the positive reaction he got from family and friends when he was accepted. "This would be a whole new frontier for my family, my school," he says, "and I knew no matter what, I could survive."
Then, his first summer home from college, he worked in Baltimore's public housing complexes, handing out condoms, registering people to vote and listening to stories, "just me and people talking." One woman told him how she became addicted to crack and how disappointed she was with her life. "It's a whole story you don't get from a sociology paper or watching The Wire," he says.
The experience "pushed me to think about the future. My life has to be something more than 'I have a Harvard degree so let me make $1 million a year.'"
His goal is "to be engaged academically and politically at the highest levels to change the discourse about race and class in this country," he says. Not only does he hope to come up with ideas, he says, but also the programs or institutions that can put them into play. "You can't depend on everybody to read a book," Terry says. He also wants to be involved with real people.
After graduation, Terry hopes to get a fellowship or a magazine writing job. Ultimately, he plans to earn a doctorate in political science and African-American studies.
The youngest of five children, Terry says he's been blessed with educational opportunities and "two parents who really care." His mom, Avis, is an administrator at the Baltimore Alternative Learning Center. And his father, Kenneth, is a mobile unit driver for the Red Cross.
As a child, though, he often heard of death, drugs and "a general lack of positives," which made him wonder, he says, "why is this part of the world this way and what is the common denominator?"
Now, as a young black man who has had opportunities, Terry says, "you wonder, what is your responsibility?"
On campus, he's a proven activist. Terry is "probably the most influential undergraduate at Harvard," fellow student Kwame Owusu-Kesse told the student newspaper.
Since last month, after a black faculty member who was denied tenure left Harvard, Terry has been drawing up proposals for Harvard's president on recruiting a diverse faculty.
He's been promoting prevention of sexual assault and sexual violence, particularly against black women, in campus forums and as a peer educator with male freshmen.
Last year, as president of the BMF, he brought in actors, Wall Street managers and politicians, including the Rev. Al Sharpton. This spring, another of his ideas will be fulfilled: a campus conference on AIDS and the African diaspora.
"One of the things I am most proud of is that we pushed a lot of issues people see as race and class issues to the forefront," Terry says.
Most recently, Terry's column on genocide in the Sudan in which he criticized African students for not being politically involved led some African students to start an awareness campaign and to sign petitions calling for Harvard's divestiture from companies that invest in Sudanese companies.