Aundrea Cline-Thomas is the former NBC10 reporter and current reporter at CBS New York reporter.
Q: Please tell us about your background (birth, parents, childhood …)
My parents were born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, however, they met and got married in Washington, D.C. My sister was born in Sierra Leone and came over to the United States when she was 16 years old — it was the same year I was born. My older brother and I were both born in D.C. and we lived in a Maryland suburb.
My parents spoke both English and Krio at home, and we spent a lot of weekends going to Sierra Leonian functions. My parents were very, very strict. As the female child, I couldn’t really do much of anything, like play in the neighborhood. I could only go over to a few friends’ homes.
However, my parents provided me with a really great and diverse childhood. We were exposed to both Muslim and Christian religions. My mom worked at the World Bank and my dad worked at a Marriott Hotel. We were exposed to their co-workers who were also immigrants from across the world. Sometimes they would have us be a part of their cultural traditions as well. It was fun.
Q: How would you describe your K-12 experience in American schools?
I really enjoyed my elementary and middle school experience. I went to a small school that was pretty diverse; about half of the families were immigrants, so my situation didn’t seem unique. The school celebrated the diversity as well and as a result, I got to learn about a lot of different cultures.
High School was a different story. I went to a Catholic school that a lot of my elementary and middle school friends did not attend. I was awkward and felt invisible. It was a predominantly white school with students who were more affluent; most of them had designer clothes and got cars when they turned 16. Thankfully, we wore a uniform.
I was nowhere near being “cool." Sports were my saving grace, and I was a complete tomboy. I started playing volleyball during my Freshman year as a way to make friends, and I fell in love with it. By my Senior year I was a co-captain of the team. I also continued playing basketball pretty competitively until just before my Senior season. My closest friends were my teammates, which made me feel like I was a part of something.
Academically, I did well because that was what my parents demanded. I knew that I was going to college and it had to be a good one. However, since my parents didn’t fully understand the American educational system I had to advocate for myself at times. For instance, I had an English teacher who didn’t automatically put me in AP English during my Junior year although I knew I was capable of doing the work. I had to demand that she sign the paper to let me in the class. I went to a good high school, but if you weren’t careful, teachers would let you slip through the cracks or not work up to your fullest potential. I knew I had to get into a great college. Even at that age I understood what it would take, so I didn’t wait until the last minute. I made sure to always challenge myself and advocate for myself because I knew that was something my parents wouldn’t specifically know how to do.
Q: How do you believe your African background shaped your educational experiences in America?
My African background shaped every single aspect of my life. Every other year during the summer, we would go back to Sierra Leone to visit my family. It would be two, sometimes three, weeks with no TV, inconsistent electricity, having to boil water to get hot water to shower, helping my cousins wash clothes by hand, etc. I am so grateful for those experiences. I learned the language, forged relationships with my relatives and really got to know where I came from. It’s an advantage that African Americans don’t have. We know exactly where we come from. It’s a really powerful thing.
I also witnessed the worst poverty that I’ve ever seen. When the Civil War made its way to Freetown, we were worried. One of my mom’s aunts died as a result of the war. I heard the stories about the killings. My family had some close calls and I remember feeling helpless. I was keenly aware of my privilege just by being born in America, and the awareness of that privilege was reinforced by my parents ALL THE TIME as they wouldn’t allow us to take anything for granted. They also fostered a culture of giving back. We didn’t have a lot of excess, but we would hardly have anything when returning back to the states because we would give so much away. My parents always had gifts and money for family, but my brother and I would give away the shoes on our feet to our cousins who asked. We’re still the same way today.
As it relates to our educational experience, being African made me not act up at school. I had a lot more to lose than my peers did. I knew I had to succeed not just for myself but for my whole family, especially those in Africa who would need my help. My thought process was simple: if I could go to a great college, then I would have a better chance at a wonderful career and make a lot of money. With that money, I could take care of my family. It’s my driving force to this day.
Q: How important do you believe cultural identity is?
If you don’t know who you are, you don’t know where you are going. Life is hard. You have to know the “why” behind what you do. It has to have a purpose. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’re not going to give it your all and you may not succeed. Sometimes that “why” is all you have. My “why” has always been intertwined with my cultural identity. I’m so proud of where I come from. I’m so proud of what my family has overcome. I’m so grateful that my grandparents in Africa prayed for me. It’s like having a secret stash of gas in your tank. When you think you’re on E, you reflect on who you really are, and there’s this whole reserve of gas ready to fuel your trajectory. I’ve had to tap into it many, many times.
Q: What personal and professional accomplishments are you most proud of in your life so far and why?
Personally, I’m proud of the fact that I’m connected to my family both in the states and abroad. We really show up for each other. I’m proud that if someone is in need, I’m more able to help out financially.
Professionally, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve done enough work to chart the course in my life. I decided I wanted to be a journalist at the very beginning of my Senior year in High School. I had no clue how that could happen but if my parents could come to the States and create a life for themselves and us with less resources, I could follow my dreams. I did just that. Now I’m beginning to pivot a little bit and I’m looking to different paths for my life. I’ve done the work to put my life in my hands and can now decide where I want to go and what I want to do next. The goal of education is not to give you a job, it’s to give you options in life. That’s what separates people.
Q: What would you tell your younger self, for example in middle or high school?
I would tell my younger self that it gets better. I didn’t like High School at all. It seemed like such a big deal in the moment, but now many years later no one cares about high school. I would tell myself that you are perfect just the way you are. I was tall, awkward, skinny and such a late bloomer. I didn’t like any of it. What I didn’t like about the way I looked then, is exactly what I get complimented for now. Skinny long legs are actually in style. Lastly, I would say stick to your tribe and have fun. The goal isn’t to make everyone like you but find the people who support you and have fun with them. That’s all you need.
Q: What advice would you give to a student of African background in the U.S. and other parts of the world?
You don’t have to assimilate fully to be valuable. Your culture makes you special. Your global perspective is something most Americans don’t have. Use it as leverage to open doors that you walk through and ones you invite others to walk through. Teach just as much as you learn. Don’t water down your culture or make it invisible. It’s central to who you are.
Aminata Sy is the founder and president of African Community Learning Program, a multimedia journalist, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies international relations and English. She is also the founder, editor, and publisher of the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.
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