In Kojo Asamoa-Caesar's junior year at Old Dominion University, a roommate tried to talk him out of running for president of the Student Government Association: "You're a pure soul; why would you go into such a dirty game?"
Thirteen years later, Asamoa-Caesar '08 has entered what some consider an even dirtier game: He's the Democratic nominee challenging a Republican who holds a U.S. House seat in Tulsa, Okla.
His idealistic rationale is the same as it was at Old Dominion.
"I want to dedicate myself to a cause that supersedes any position, any power, any money," Asamoa-Caesar said.
If Asamoa-Caesar wins, he'd be the second Monarch in Congress. Elaine Luria (M.E.M. '04) is running for re-election in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District.
Asamoa-Caesar was born in Alexandria to parents who had left Ghana three years before. His mother, weighed down with two jobs and college classes, sent him to live with her family in Ghana when he was 2. "My 'auntie' took me in and really cared for me," he said.
The experience "was indispensable and life-saving and value-giving. It really emphasized the value of 'It takes a village.'"
He returned to Northern Virginia at age 10 and later graduated from Annandale High School. Asamoa-Caesar chose ODU because a friend there raved about the atmosphere, which mirrored Annandale's diversity.
He majored in communication and was elected SGA president. "I wanted to change the culture from a self-serving position to one serving students," he said.
Among the SGA's successes under his leadership: Permitting freshmen to join the organization and lobbying the administration to expand the cafeteria at the Webb University Center.
In addition, Asamoa-Caesar founded T.R.U.S.T.: To Respect, Unite, Support & Teach, a service organization that still exists. He also was a resident assistant and Preview counselor and led a Bible study group. For his service, he received the Kaufman Award in 2008.
After he graduated, he attended law school at the College of William & Mary, though he doubted he'd work as an attorney. "I thought it would be a great place to learn about yourself, about the world and how it works, and how you fit into all of that."
His career choice quickly crystallized. "I came to define my life in terms of the American dream. To me, education is the escalator to the American dream."
After W&M, he joined Teach for America, which sent him to Tulsa to teach kindergarten. The next year, he taught third grade and was named the school's teacher of the year.
Asamoa-Caesar went to Denver to serve as a fellow with the Urban Leaders Fellowship. He returned to Tulsa to be the founding principal of an elementary school, then interim executive director of 36 Degrees North, a co-working space for entrepreneurs.
The deficiencies he saw in Oklahoma's educational system inspired his run for Congress.
"We were constantly bumping up against a wall, not matter how hard we worked," Asamoa-Caesar said. "I was not looking to run for office, but I had to run to rectify the situation."
He is the youngest and first Black nominee in his district. Oklahoma is overwhelmingly represented by Republicans, but Asamoa-Caesar said the race is "very, very winnable," noting that a Democrat upset a Republican House incumbent in Oklahoma City two years ago.
He's learned a few things on the campaign trail. First, "don't try to be all things to all people." Also: "Be wary of the advice you get from political consultants."
Old Dominion, he said, "has been indispensable to my journey. I got to build my wings there and really fly.
"ODU was a microcosm of the broader world. I learned what it really meant to be a servant leader and I got a chance to make mistakes."
Read a longer version of this article in the upcoming issue of Monarch Extra at www.odu.edu/monarchmag
Do you know any other Monarchs running for Congress? Email firstname.lastname@example.org