At an early age, Isis Duncan understood the assignment: to be successful in life, she must overcome obstacles and discomfort and strive to be the best she can be against all odds.
Consider it a smashing success.
Duncan's journey, in earnest, began at a young age. As a child, her teachers were not very supportive or encouraging regarding academics. Even something as simple as spelling became an issue because of improper instruction in elementary school, which later spilled into a lack of confidence from educators who boldly disregarded her efforts. Couple that with the fact that she was often told at home and within the four different school institutions she had transferred between that she was too hysterical with her speaking and writing approaches.
Feeling defeated and realizing that no matter what she did, no one would listen or take the time to give her a chance, she turned to something that would later serve as a way out of the doldrums, enabling her to rise above adversity and become the woman she is today.
While the twists and turns of life continued, her true calling came during her second year at Bard High School Early College Cleveland. While continuing to drown in self-doubt and experiencing bouts of PTSD while reading poetry and fiction as part of her creative writing class, that's when the lightbulb came on. As a lifelong writer, Duncan often did so emotionally, cautiously, secretly and openly but with no rhyme or reason. It wasn't until she was introduced to poetry in her class that the words began to mean something more- and so did her life.
Although stanzas in a poem might be short, they began to become powerful words that stood out on the page and essentially cheered her on figuratively to become something great. Duncan began to use the power of the pen to wring out the negativity of her past and use it to move forward to bigger and better things. Things began to look up; she applied to join Twelve Literary Arts, an organization focused on slam poetry for urban youth that became highly inspiring. She was accepted into their fellowship program, meeting many teens who shared their own burdens within the group. Although they were all feeling pain in one way or another, they began working together to unravel their many troubles, which had left an indelible impression on their lives.
Then along came Cleveland Poet Siaara Freeman.
If there was ever a seismic shift in someone's life, that was Freeman to Duncan, who would push her to take a deeper dive into her writing and not hold back. Duncan has credited Freeman as one of the most significant shifts when it came to growth, and her accountability led Duncan to write many heartfelt poems featured in local poetry slams, special events, and even the Cleveland Museum of Art.
After graduating from Bard High School, Duncan attempted a move to Baltimore to continue her education but once again found herself on the short end of the stick after having to depart two weeks after the program began due to a lack of funds. Although she found herself back in Cleveland and felt like there was no way out, she took a different approach this time.
The setback might have stalled her progress in the past, but Duncan had a new lease on life. She continued to work at Twelve Literary Arts and was soon promoted from fellow to intern, gaining a large amount of enjoyment in helping other youth talents expand their poetic talent. Around that time, she made the most significant decision of her life: applying to Cleveland State to complete her bachelor's degree.
Fast forward to the present, where she's held true to her commitment to completing her degree, and despite all her previous hardships and negativity, Duncan never gave up. Through the power of poetry, passionate writings and self-commitment to persevering no matter the odds, she will walk across the stage at commencement, on the receiving end of a bachelor's degree in English Creative Writing.
She once told herself at the beginning of her CSU journey, 'I am deserving, I can do this. My future is dictated by the faith and trust I have in my ability to be vulnerable and receptive, and no one can take that away from me’.
CSU: How has CSU cultivated your character, values, and standards of excellence?
Isis Duncan: I think CSU helped cultivate a standard of diverse support! As a commuting student, I travel 45-48 minutes daily to school by bus, and when I first began attending, I wasn't submerged in university life. I would come to school, complete my work, and go home. That was my routine. I felt fine with this routine because I had just returned from a two-year break where I was working full-time and was usually making sure I was taken care of at the end of the day. But as time went on, I joined TRIO and started connecting with advisors and students coming in and out of the TRIO office, and the lively support they gave always left me warm. This led to joining with many other students from different backgrounds, giving/receiving ideas and resources to benefit our needs, and ultimately making connections with people I can see myself reaching out to.
CSU: How do you think you’ve changed or grown during your time at CSU?
ID: This is a loaded question! I have changed/grown a lot over the past two and a half years, and I am grateful for the heart-wrenching moments along with the warm ones. Within the narrative I gave to the valedictorian committee, I will refer to a statement I gave them:
I began caring for my physical health; I took advantage of the therapy counseling programs available on campus and started asking the bigger questions about mental patterns that were holding me back. I watched my mindset evolve from “Why me?” to the biggest shift, “Why not me?”. I couldn't have gotten to this point without the pain and tribulations, and my “why not me” question made me realize how appreciative I am of my discomforts. I realized that it truly is within how I work my mindset and physical presence vs. what has affected me before and how I molded such moments into my identity. Many things will always be a part of me, from scars, physical and mental, but it is my choice and my choice alone to decide how I proceed with them.
This describes a lot of my change. I wanted to make a choice in my life for once that led me toward my betterment. Many choices were made for me by people who didn't have my best interest at heart, and that really affected the way I treated myself and how I trusted myself. But the pure willpower to disregard others' actions and find your way is something beautiful, something comforting… that's what I finally wanted in my life. Comfort and understanding within myself, and I’m slowly yet increasingly making my way there daily.
CSU: Aside from being Valedictorian, what stands out most about your CSU experience?
ID: What stands out the most from my CSU experience is my ability to show up for myself even when I didn’t have the energy. While that answer can seem vague, I stand by it! College is tough, passing a class is tough, and ensuring you are accountable for your setbacks is tough, but I continued to tread on. Other things are happening outside of a college campus, from family emergencies, mental issues, working long hours to pay bills, widespread sickness, and political events… but college still insists you show up as your best self. Some days weren't my 100%, but I showed up on those 25% days; I went to work for ten-hour shifts three days a week while finishing assignments afterward, and I kept thinking about the end goal I had set for myself from the beginning. My tenacity to push forward was memorable.
CSU: What is your favorite CSU memory?
ID: If I had to choose my favorite CSU experience, I would say when I went to Washington, DC, with my TRIO group in March of 2022. We had an amazing experience: a beautiful hotel, delicious food, and great moments exploring the city! We were there for three days, and it was just a nice moment of relaxation, discussion, and discovery!
CSU: What is next for you in life, and how has your experience at CSU prepared you for it?
ID: After graduating from CSU, my next steps in my personal and social career come in many forms:
a. To continue being a student. Many believe learning stops at high school and college, but that is far from the truth! I have always been a curious individual, and it's my goal and mission to continue exploring areas of interest and learning beyond my degree. From getting certificates to eventually going for my MA in the coming years.
b. Work on my business: photography! Before coming to CSU, I was a photographer part-time on the side and truly enjoyed taking pictures for others and myself. I want to re-brand my business and work on my craft from the ground up.
c. Continue editing and crafting my manuscripts! I am a writer at heart, and I want to publish my work at some point. This will take time, and I am ready for the patient game, but my works won't write themselves!
d. And finally, find a job that correlates to my selective field. My goal is to find a job at a high school, a non-profit organization, or an internship that teaches creative writing and specific forms of creative writing. I would love to be in the teaching field, but I also see myself being a program coordinator who can establish what we can teach or collaborate with regarding creative writing.
CSU has prepared me for these goals in many ways:
- Finding resources.
- Having a support system that's willing to give insight and guidance.
- Having a mindset toward being orderly and concise.
- Finding confidence in my professional impression.
CSU: What advice would you give to the next class or a freshman entering your major?
ID: You are the only person who can define what success looks like and feels like to you.” I know this is such simple advice, but in a world where we see multiple versions of success and apply these standards to our daily living, it’s important to keep yourself grounded and focused on what brings you joy and your personal goals. For example, I struggled with seeing my journey as successful for a long time. I had to take breaks, was bombarded by unavoidable issues, and wasn’t living for myself at one point because of what I thought others would have wanted me to do. You MUST view this academic journey through your own lenses and grasp it for what brings you joy! If curing others brings you joy, do that! If finding peace of mind brings you joy, do that! Success isn’t defined by the world but by your goals and ambitions; the milestones you place and reach are your success story.