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The CIBC Norman Bobins Leadership Award

Rodney J. Walker

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago in 12 different foster homes and enduring physical, psychological and social abuse, Rodney Walker is no stranger to adversity. As a result of this trauma, Walker struggled in school. He was placed in special education, repeated the fourth grade and finished his freshman year of high school with a -1.5 GPA.

The turning point in his life came during his senior year of high school when the Dean of Students introduced him to a mentorship program. “The mentorship program allowed me to let go of the stress of daily life. For the first time, I was able to practice forgiveness and learn to be resilient,” said Walker.

During his mentorship, he joined a program run by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and was inspired to launch his own small business, Forever Life Productions, a custom video company for special events. “NFTE introduced me to the power of creative thinking. It showed me how to gain control over my life and that there are multiple ways to become successful,” said Walker.

When he was a senior, his high school required that students apply to jobs or colleges before graduation. To Walker, this only seemed like a formality, but it was this requirement, paired with mandatory college counseling sessions, that helped him be accepted to Morehouse College.

It was while he was in college that Walker first met young black men who went to Ivy League Schools. “Through learning from and building relationships with these peers who shared my identity, I was exposed to what was possible, and it inspired me to apply to an Ivy League myself,” Walker said. Good thing he did – Walker won a full scholarship to Yale University.

Later, Walker began traveling across the country speaking to youth and adults about the importance of resilience, education, philanthropy and community investment. During these presentations, he realized that his life and education path made a compelling story, so he set out to write a book about it.

Walker’s book, A New Day One: Trauma, Grace, and a Young Man's Journey from Foster Care to Yale, was published in 2016 and went on to become a best-selling educational memoir. Today, Walker is earning a Master’s of Science degree in Education at Harvard and is graduating this spring. He will return to Chicago to focus on youth engagement.

“We need more young people to inspire others and be the change we want to see in the world. By speaking up, young people have the ability to motivate, educate, inspire and instill hope in others.”