Fall 2022 Cover Story: Aura of Resilience

Photo by Elinor Franklin & Jenny Lee

When you first meet Yamiya Fowlkes, you are met with an aura of resilience like no other. From trudging through an uphill battle after her life was torn to pieces, the 24-year-old is finally at a place where nothing can tear her down. How did she get there? She is letting go of her past and letting her future shine bright.

Fostering a Creative Spirit

One Christmas morning, ten-year-old Yamiya unwrapped a gift that would open her curious eyes to a brand-new world. After making countless tiny clothes for her beloved teddy bears, her parents bought her a sewing machine to take advantage of her hobby unlike ever before. From there, her fascination for fashion and creative expression blossomed.

Growing up in southeast Washington D.C., Yamiya quickly learned how to live in a fast-paced and free-spirited environment. Yamiya and her family later moved to Prince George’s County in Maryland. Until eighth grade, Yamiya went to a French immersion school with her brother and after that, she went to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts for vocal music with her sister. Outside of her studies, she partook in various types of art classes to fuel her lust for creativity.

At her middle school, students had to wear uniforms, but Yamiya remembers coming down the stairs in her hot pink leg warmers and her Mom said, “Oh! I love these leg warmers!” Yamiya’s cousin, who was living with her at the time said, “What are you wearing?” to which Yamiya replied, “Well, Mommy said that they’re really cute.”

Photo by Elinor Franklin & Jenny Lee 

After two years at the performing arts school, Yamiya could not see a future in the vocal arts. She ended up transferring to the School Without Walls in Washington D.C. to pursue a STEM track after excelling in her math and science courses. It wasn’t a creative path, but it was one she succeeded in. Within walking distance to the White House, she describes having a “unique” high school experience. Whether it be bumping shoulders with politicians in cafes or having the opportunity to be an active participant in walkouts and protests, Yamiya contributes much of her creative spirit to the surroundings she grew up in — rather than her school subjects.

When it came to Yamiya’s future, her parents’ philosophy was that she was free to do whatever she wanted, except when it came to her career. As she began planning her future, there was only one school on her mind: New York University, commonly known as NYU. Yamiya was determined to call the big apple her home and there was nothing stopping her from making her dream of studying creative arts a reality, despite her parent’s wanting her to pursue something STEM-related. Applying to NYU was a “given” for Yamiya because she calls it her “second home.”

I would catch the buses all the time to New York and stay with my cousin. We would have the time of our lives for a weekend and then catch the bus back. I feel like I fell in love with New York City because it was so easy to get there.

Fast-forward to application season. Yamiya began applying to more than 20 distinguished schools, but claims that NYU was the only university she “can remember caring about.” On top of these schools, her parents encouraged her to apply to the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), but Yamiya could never imagine herself there. She begrudgingly applied.

While at an aerospace engineering conference, an opportunity for USAFA presented itself to her. Yamiya had the opportunity to meet Stayce Harris, the first Black woman to become an Air Force lieutenant general. “I kept in contact with her. My parents said, ‘Just ask her about the Air Force Academy,”’ says Yamiya. “I was talking to her about [applying] just to please my parents.”

Despite going through the complex process of applying, she pushed everything USAFA-related into the back of her mind and “wasn’t thinking anything of it.”

As acceptances began to roll in, Yamiya was on the edge of her seat for the life-changing email to grace her inbox. One night, Yamiya’s mom called her telling her she had an email waiting to be opened from NYU. Yamiya waited until her mom came home to read her fate. “Congratulations” appeared across the screen. Yamiya remembers excitedly jumping up and down on her bed because her dream finally came true. She would be living in her second home — her creative side could finally flourish.

“For two whole weeks, my mom and I played “Empire State of Mind” on repeat because we were convinced that I was going to go. At this point, I hadn’t gotten into the Air Force Academy.” If Yamiya were to be accepted, she knew her parents would push for USAFA over NYU. So, with the looming decision, there was a cloud floating above the celebrations, waiting to unleash a treacherous storm.

Her World Turned Upside Down

The NYU festivities took place at the end of Yamiya’s senior year. During that time, she visited the campus and became accustomed to her new environment for the next four years. However, during these celebrations, one message stumbled into her inbox — this time, the “Congratulations” brought Yamiya the very opposite of excitement.

With the price and logistics of NYU, her parents saw no other choice but for her to go to USAFA for aerospace engineering. With a full scholarship and a guaranteed job after completion, there was no other option her parents considered — no further discussion.

Yamiya could not wrap her head around this news. She remembers thinking, “Are you serious right now? We had already visited NYU, we had looked at dorms — it was really crazy … I don’t think I had any positive thoughts.”

Photo by Elinor Franklin & Jenny Lee 

A mere two weeks after her high school graduation, Yamiya had to prepare herself to move to Colorado due to the timing of basic training for the academy.

“In my head, Colorado is nowhere. I’m from a big city, so the idea of Colorado is not appetizing at all. I was just like, “Is this really happening?”’ recalls Yamiya. She only had one week to digest this news.

Yamiya knew little to nothing about what she was about to get herself into. She was unaware of the rules and the day-to-day happenings that take place at USAFA. Yamiya never saw the academy in her future — only her parents did. The week leading up to leaving was not an easy feat. When reflecting on that difficult time now, Yamiya states that it’s a blur.

When you’re going to basic training, they don’t allow you to bring anything with you. So it was just like, I have a week to emotionally prepare. There was nothing enjoyable about the experience at all. I was just distraught. I sat in my bed for that whole week and just waited until it was time to catch the flight there.

An Identity Stripped Away

Once she stepped foot in Colorado, Yamiya’s life was forever changed. “My very first day was extremely traumatizing,” asserts Yamiya. “It was a turning point in my life.”

When Yamiya arrived at the campus, she had only a short time to say her goodbyes before she would be thousands of miles away, with little to no connection to her parents. She remembers feeling “terrified” after they left. A week ago she was dreaming of New York City, and now, she is in the middle of Colorado, alone, in a place she never imagined she would find herself.

“Immediately you’re in basic training mode — which is just like the movies,” Yamiya describes. “[Cadets] load you onto a bus and they’re screaming at you, harassing you. Telling you that you’re worthless.”

After a tense bus ride, she walked into the academy and instantly felt her identity being taken away.

“The first thing [the cadets] say is, ‘We have to cut your hair off. We don’t allow locs here,’” mentions Yamiya. “And mind you, I’ve been growing my locs since childhood. That is my identity. Especially as a Black woman, hair is such a controversial topic.”

“Not only are they cutting my hair off, but it’s the military, there are not many Black people. So, there was a white woman who had no idea how to handle Black hair, cutting my hair,” says Yamiya. “I didn’t have any hair products, so I was walking around with a horrible haircut with no hair products that take care of my hair … As a Black woman in a white space, it was traumatizing because I had no idea where to go from there.”

To add to her trauma, Yamiya was one of the very few women and black people there. After having her hair cut, she remembers crying on the way to have her photo taken. “They took me to a back room and there was a photographer … She’s like, ‘I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how traumatizing this is for you.”‘

This is actually the only moment that I feel like I experienced any real empathy.

“The cadets are supposed to be really mean to you because you’re going through basic training — it’s like hazing. And I remember leaving sobbing, jogging away,” Yamiya notes. “I honestly don’t remember what the rest of the day was like, from there. [That experience] overshadows everything.”

Photo by Elinor Franklin & Jenny Lee 

She mentions that during her time at the academy, her hair was “a big source of trouble.”

“You’re not allowed to dye your hair an unnatural color,” says Yamiya. “My mom is a natural redhead, so I thought I would take advantage of that. [Cadets] were like, ‘You’re Black … There’s no way that’s natural.’ And I was like, ‘Do you want me to show you photos of my mother?’’

Within the first 30 minutes of being on campus, her identity was stripped away, and now, she had to navigate both the mental and physical hazing placed upon her at the academy. The first two weeks were what Yamiya referred to as “basic training,” and they were “intense.” During her first year, she was enrolled in USAFA Preparatory School to prepare her to move up into the official academy for her second year.

Yamiya describes that everything at the academy had to be done with absolute precision. There was no room for mistakes. Because of this, she had a lot of fear and anxiety.

“First of all, you have to jog everywhere, you cannot walk anywhere. Also, you can’t walk anywhere you want to, you can only jog at 90-degree angles,” Yamiya explains. “You can only jog along the wall and if you get caught not along the wall, it’s bad news.”

For Yamiya, the morning routine was “absolutely terrifying.” Every detail, down to the angle of the sheets or the position of her pillow had to be perfect. “If I sleep in my bed and it’s messed up, I’m getting in trouble. So, you’re basically sleeping on the floor. And then, you never know what time they’re going to wake you up.”

It’s the small stuff that’s really anxiety-inducing. I feel like for people that want to join the military, maybe that’s exciting for them. There are definitely people who enjoy that type of stuff, who enjoy that type of challenge. But that wasn’t the type of challenge that I was looking for.

The world Yamiya was longing for was full of creativity and freedom. For her, USAFA was the farthest from that.

“It’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience … Usually when people join the military, they are those types of outdoorsy people. I’m from a big city, I was not an outdoorsy person,” claims Yamiya. Because of feeling isolated and out of her element, Yamiya remembers feeling very angry most of her time there.

“During that time, there was a lot of anger and I was taking it out on everyone around me. I feel like you’re supposed to have your squad … and they are supposed to be the people that you lean on … The point of basic training is to break you down, and then build you back up and teach you to lean on your peers … But, I was just so filled with anger that I was not leaning on them.” Yamiya recalls. “And then also, there weren’t many Black women in my squad. So I felt like they didn’t understand what I was going through.”

Yamiya felt she was driven into a corner and had no one to turn to for help.

It was definitely a feeling of being trapped in an unhappy situation. I didn’t trust my squad, I didn’t trust upper-leadership. It was really a matter of keeping everything to myself and just feeling really trapped, feeling very angry and just really unhappy.

To help cope with not being in New York, Yamiya got the coordinates of the city tattooed on her arm during the first month of being at the academy. “I was definitely being very rebellious.”

Despite the troubles Yamiya faced, there were some moments when she felt like she could be herself and connect with her love of creativity, along with her culture. One part of the program was a guiding light through all of the troubles she faced — her sponsor family.

“They were a Black family … [being with them] was the only time that I really felt like I could be myself because they were for the culture,” Yamiya explains. “When in Colorado, you’re not finding Black people who are really for the culture, so I became really close with them. And then, I brought all my other Black friends to their house and they ended up becoming the sponsor family for me and my two other Black best friends who were there.”

Thanks to her sponsor family, Yamiya had the opportunity to go out with her friends to the mall and movies to get away from the toxic environment on campus. Being able to leave campus reminded Yamiya of the life she could’ve had.

Breaking Free

During her second year at USAFA, Yamiya had enough. The hazing and ignorance that she experienced during her first year were still continuing after graduating from the Preparatory School — she knew in her heart she needed to break free and finally go after the life she was longing for.

Yamiya mentions that “It gets worse and worse in terms of hazing. The cadets are increasingly horrible to you.” Realizing she needed to leave in order to protect her physical and mental health, Yamiya had to let her parents in on her decision, to which they replied, “You can’t leave.”

Photo by Elinor Franklin & Jenny Lee 

“We end up getting into an argument on the phone,” explains Yamiya. She told her parents, “I’m leaving and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Her parents replied, “If you leave, you can’t come back home and you won’t have any support from us.”

Even after hearing that, Yamiya decided to begin the process of leaving on an honorable discharge — it took months. She started the paperwork to be discharged in November 2017 and didn’t get to leave until the following year in February.

Once Yamiya finally completed all the requirements to leave, she ended up staying with her sponsor family — since, at the time, she wasn’t speaking to her parents. But, after living with them for some time, she was able to arrange her way back home. Yamiya’s father flew out to Colorado to help her move out. They decided they would road trip the way back — an experience that helped to bring them closer again. When reflecting on the trip, Yamiya says, “That’s honestly one of my best memories … and then from that point on, road trips became me and my Dad’s thing.”

Once back home, it was time for Yamiya to decide her next move. Since it was February, she began applying to colleges — Penn State being one of them.

She decided to accept admission to Penn State College of Engineering in the fall. Due to the way her USAFA credits were transferred, Yamiya was considered a first-year, not a third. Since being at USAFA until she was 20, she remembers having her 21st birthday as a first-year student. “It was just kind of weird, though. When I got here I told everyone I’m a junior … But in reality, I was a freshman.”

Since being discharged from the military and transferring to Penn State, Yamiya mentions she didn’t take a moment to reflect on what her future could look like. But then, she had an epiphany.

“I was still in the mindset of needing to please my father and he wanted me to do engineering … I took one semester of an aerospace engineering class, and I was absolutely lost,” Yamiya remembers. “When my parents came up for family weekend, I told them, ‘I’m dropping out of engineering. I want to go into marketing or business school.’’’ In response, her Dad said, “If you drop out of engineering, I’m not paying for your education.”

Yamiya took the frustration from her Dad’s disapproval and turned it into determination. She began to realize that just because she was studying engineering, it didn’t mean that she had to pursue it post-graduation. It wasn’t easy, but she finally felt free coming to that realization. “I found myself and fought for what I wanted,” Yamiya states.

Thanks to her involvement at Penn State, Yamiya found outlets where she could explore her creativity, saying “I was happy … I was building the community that I longed for.”

“I had a friend from my middle school who was on a dance team here, Island Fever. She recruited me to the dance team because I danced growing up. [Island Fever] became my second family,” explains Yamiya.

“I feel like it really helped my mental health. When I was at the academy, I was in the gutter — considering I was angry all the time.”

Nowhere Else But Up

Now in her last semester, Yamiya is set to graduate in December with a degree in industrial engineering. However, a career in engineering is not on the horizon for her. She dreams of working in a creative industry, specifically entertainment — a dream her ten-year-old self would be proud of.

Thanks to her own courage, Yamiya is flourishing. Since being at Penn State, she has earned creative internships at distinguished companies including Disney, Amazon and Pepsi. After graduation, she will be moving to Los Angeles to live in the heart of entertainment.

“It’s definitely been a battle getting to this point. I definitely feel very proud of my accomplishments,” Yamiya claims. But, it was an uphill battle because she wasn’t studying what she loved.

I actually had a conversation with my parents a few weeks ago, where I was telling them I wish that I had stood up for myself earlier in my college career because I wouldn’t be doing engineering right now.

Photo by Elinor Franklin & Jenny Lee 

Though her relationship with her parents has been up-and-down, Yamiya currently describes it as being healthier than it was in the past, and that there are some things still to be worked on. “After going to therapy, I was able to start having open conversations about how [they have] affected me. I’m now able to talk to them about what I want to do in my life and now they always support me.”

Thankfully, Yamiya explains that her parents are excited about her move to Los Angeles, and after realizing how their words have deeply affected her, they have stopped being controlling over her collegiate and professional career.

One person who has always supported Yamiya throughout this time is her little sister, Miyanna. “I genuinely think she is the reason I decided I need to go after what I want,” Yamiya states. Miyanna says she is her sister’s “number one fan” and that she admires how “driven” Yamiya is.

One of the things I’m definitely proud of is going after the jobs that I want, despite being in the field I’m in as an engineer … I worked for it all by myself.

Throughout her six-year journey, Yamiya has had adversity thrown at her from every angle. Yet, she has kept her head up high, embodying what it means to be resilient while carving out space for what she wants on her own terms.

“There’s always going to be people in your ear saying, ‘I think this would be better for you, or I think that you would excel at this’ … Only you know what you would truly be happy in.”

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