Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.
Dinah Clottey has long considered Michelle Obama to be an example of what is possible.
Growing up in south suburban Blue Island, just 12 miles from Obama’s South Shore childhood home, she saw the former first lady as a role model—one who inspired her to pursue a transformative education on the Hyde Park campus.
Having moved to the U.S. in 2007 amid a historic presidential race, Clottey’s first memory of the Obamas was hearing Black adults express doubts about their political future—doubts informed by their own experiences with racism and colorism. A little over a year later, when the Obamas stood poised outside the White House for the world to see, young Clottey was ecstatic.
“As a Black woman, and as a dark-skinned Black woman in particular, I’m just not used to seeing people like me on television or doing the types of things Michelle Obama has been able to do,” Clottey said. “It's because of her that I believed I could get into a good school like UChicago. It didn't matter that I’m Black or what resources I had. I knew I could still make it happen.”
Born in London, Clottey moved to Chicagoland at seven years of age with her mothers Karen and Tosha and her two sisters, so that Tosha could be closer to her family. For as long as Clottey can remember, her mothers instilled in her and her siblings the value of education. Tosha had not attended college and always struggled to find work, while Karen had sacrificed so much by taking their family in when they first moved to America.
Ultimately, both women wanted their daughters to have the best chances they could to chase their dreams. Fifteen years after moving to America, Clottey has found her purpose: advocating for social change through multimedia production.
Since being admitted to the University of Chicago College as a Questbridge and Odyssey Scholar in 2018, the sociology major has already compiled an impressive list of accomplishments: spearheading new campus traditions, starting her own fashion line of socially-mindful, handmade clothing, and campaigning for Vice President Kamala Harris. Earlier this year, she was even among a group of college students from around the country selected to meet Michelle Obama for a televised discussion.
In January, Clottey was also named the undergraduate winner of the UChicago 2022 Diversity Leadership Award. That recognition, she said, is a result of her transformational experiences in the College, including her involvement in the Organization of Black Students (OBS), which she has led as president, and the Center for College Student Success (CCSS).
“Dinah’s unwavering commitment to social justice and advocacy has been expressed in truly creative ways in our campus and neighborhood communities,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “She has focused every opportunity available through the College to pursue meaningful change in important social issues, and reflects the combination of civic and academic leadership in our students today.”
The Odyssey Scholarship Program provides a path to education for talented students who otherwise would not be able to afford one of the world’s top universities. Odyssey Scholars help increase the range of perspectives in the UChicago community and deepen the conversation about the world’s most pressing topics.
“Walking into UChicago, I was a lot more timid and shy than I am now,” Clottey said. “Being in these roles has made it easier to advocate for other people, as opposed to me just advocating for myself.
“Keeping that ‘why’ in mind has enabled me to push through a lot of the anxiety that I have when it comes to opening my mouth. I've been able to just do it anyway, despite whatever fear I feel.”
Amplifying underrepresented voices
In 2019, Clottey was elected president of OBS, a student-led group committed to addressing the educational, cultural, social and political issues that afflict the Black community in Chicago and at large. During her term, Clottey helped organize the George E. Kent Lecture, an annual event honoring the late Afro-American literature professor. Working with her fellow OBS members, Clottey invited esteemed Black speakers to come to campus, including poet and activist Nikki Giovanni.
Clottey’s proudest achievement within OBS, however, was establishing the inaugural Black Convocation, in partnership with the African and Caribbean Student Association. Held for the first time in Rockefeller Chapel on Oct. 5, 2019, the welcome ceremony celebrates Black students, graduates and faculty. Since its initiation, Black Convocation has been held every year with growing participation, even through virtual and hybrid formats during COVID-19.
Seeing how Black students have reacted, Clottey said, has given her a unique sense of fulfillment.
“It feels really good for that to be a starting point, and for Black students to continue that tradition into the future.”