Achieve the Dream: Moving Forward, Giving Back
A student searches for cultural acceptance and helps others find the same.
Ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the annual Marade in downtown Denver, the University of Denver Newsroom is profiling students who are “achieving the dream.” This is the theme for the DU students, faculty and staff marching behind the University banner this year. For more information on the Marade, click here.
What are you?
That question used to follow Ontario Duley everywhere.
To the classroom, where his teacher helped students make Native American headdresses at Thanksgiving. To the playground at recess where his classmates would “whoop like Indians.”
To his everyday conversations with people in his hometown of Aurora who hadn’t seen anyone like him.
What are you?
Most of the time, he avoided the question and changed the subject.
Sometimes, he just walked away. But those three words always came with him.
“I was always trying to find a counterpart, someone who I could culturally relate to,” says Duley, a third-year political science student at DU. “At home, there’s food, family, gatherings, celebrations. And then you go to school and people have a completely misrepresented view of that identity.”
Born to a black father and a Seneca Native American mother, the middle child in a middle-class family, Duley grew up with four brothers and sisters.
When he was 11 years old, a car accident left his mom disabled. The next month, his parents separated. The next year, his mom lost her job. Soon after, they lost their house.
“That's when we went on food stamps and government assistance,” Duley recalls. “I can remember times when there was just a box of cornflakes in the cupboard. But my mom persisted. She never gave up on us, she was always present and loving and affectionate, always giving us everything we needed.”
From an early age, Duley thought about helping others. He thought maybe he’d make a difference as a psychologist, but changed his mind in high school when he volunteered in Aurora’s Teen Court, working to ensure that first-time youth offenders didn’t repeat their criminal mistakes or wind up back in a courtroom.
“Even though there were tough situations happening for me, I always had the mindset that I could persevere,” he says, crediting his mother and her cultural values. “I always knew there was someone in a tougher position than I'm in.
“My dream has always been to help people, to give back in some way.”
As he now dreams of attending law school — something no one in his family has ever achieved — Duley hasn’t forgotten about the people who may relate to his past. A member of both the Native Student Alliance and the Black Student Alliance, he’s “trying to welcome students and make sure they have a space where they feel comfortable.”
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he plans to march with those same students in the annual Marade, standing up for equality and acceptance.
“It's lonely if I make it and don't give back,” he says.
And in giving back, he’s finally found an answer to the question he always dreaded.
What are you?
Now the words come easily: “We’re all the human race.”