The Power of No
by Joseph Master
Jemie Fofanah doesn’t fear the fire. She brings it.
Take for instance, political science professor Sean Yom’s thoughts on her prowess as president of the Temple Debate Society: “She has the ability to transform the explosiveness of raw argumentative passion into a cool-burning fuel that chugs along at all hours, working systematically to always find another way into a closed building. “
It isn’t typical for an undergraduate to be described as thermodynamic. But Jemie Fofanah isn’t your typical undergrad.
Fofanah, who majored in political science and minored in economics, is the sort of person whose autograph you ask for, just because you know she has a shimmering history ahead of her. You feel it immediately in her posture, her eye contact, and her masterful ability to maneuver through tough conversation. You sense it in how she answers what is perhaps the most contrived question ever conceived: “What’s your magic moment?”
Her reaction is a master class in mindfulness.
First, she leans forward in her chair — slow.
She presses her hands together — soft.
Twists her fingers — firm.
She smiles, closes her eyes. Takes a beat.
It’s not an awkward pause. It’s an intermission during a delicate conversation, no doubt conditioned by hundreds of hours of debate prep. She’s talking about her junior year, when she began to question everything — when she bit off more than she could chew. She was interning for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office (a gig she didn’t enjoy) and had just become president of the Temple Debate Society, in addition to taking on many other leadership positions. She had so much responsibility, but so little terra firma. It was the most difficult, rewarding, time of her life.
She settles back in her chair and unfurls her fingers.
“I got it!” she says. “It was learning to say ‘no.’ Saying ‘no’ is a very powerful skill to learn. Being confident in the fact that it’s OK to be unsure."
I have been hesitant. I have self-doubted. I have failed. But that is life. That is learning.
Pretty enlightened for 22. But then again, Fofanah isn’t your typical senior. She admits she might come across as Type A, but that she is aggressively Type B. She takes her time — with almost everything. She loves to sleep in. She adores writing, but abhors editing. She listens to Beyoncé’s Lemonade daily — and actively channels Queen Bey’s energy. Reading Chimimanda Ngzoe’s National Book Critics Circle Award winning Americanah changed her life. Fofanah is an open book. But she wasn’t always so fearlessly accessible. She learned, over a life-changing four years at Temple, to stop chasing experiences because they sounded impressive and to seek out experiences she truly wanted. She learned to say “no” to most things so she could say “yes” to the right thing.
Yet, growing up, “no” was an awkward, almost extraterritorial word given Fofanah’s proclivity to please. It took determination for her to own it, to balance her soaring ambition with adolescent doubt.
Fofanah was born in the United Kingdom, and moved to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to live with her father when she was young. She identifies as a “third culture kid,” a term coined by sociologist Ruth Hill while watching her children inherit aspects of India’s culture while conducting research there in the 1950s. For Fofanah being a third culture kid meant being raised in an environment that she didn’t necessarily consider all her own — growing up amongst rolling hills and marble monuments; dining in restaurants where servers dressed in Civil War-era attire. No, she never felt altogether at home in her hometown.
“Temple is the first place in my life that I consider home,” she says. “Because there are always going to be things that keep me coming back to Temple, whether it’s my friends or my political science professors. To get more personal, Growing up in a town that was disproportionately white, and of a certain socioeconomic class, I kind of stood out in a way that I didn’t enjoy.”
Fofanah admits to suffering from imposter syndrome in high school — a disclosure she utters casually, confidently, with a half-smile, as if speaking of a past life.
“I never felt I could really compare to my peers. I never really saw myself as a standout student. But my English teacher always told me I could do better, that I could do great things.”
She credits that same English teacher, as well as a special chemistry teacher who happened to be a Temple alumnus, for helping to guide her to Temple.
Once she arrived, Fofanah plugged in immediately with the College of Liberal Arts Center for Academic Advising and Professional Development, as well as Honors Advising. She was painfully aware of how much she wanted to accomplish, but had no idea how to structure her time. She remembers walking into the Honors Lounge as a freshman and speaking with Honors Program Director Ruth Ost.
“Well, you should probably do some things,” Ost said.
So she did. Fofanah joined the debate team and shouldered leadership responsibilities for various organizations, including acting as student coordinator for Honorables of Color, parliamentarian for Temple Student Government, as well as serving as an Honors peer mentor. She conducted her own independent research. She devoted herself to social justice. She’s in Phi Beta Kappa, Pi Sigma Alpha and the National Political Science Honors Society. She is wrapping up an internship at Planned Parenthood and just finished her thesis, which is being overseen by political science professor Heath Fogg Davis.
Says Davis: “Jemie is a Temple superstar! She has sought out and taken advantage of the many opportunities that Temple makes available, including internships, her role on the debate team, and her leadership in the university's Honors Program. One of the things that impresses me most about Jemie is her deep commitment to social justice, especially on matters impacting women of color.”
In June, Fofanah will move to Washington, D.C. She accepted a position as a research assistant and reader to the Honorable Judge David S. Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
For such an active and engaged champion of social justice, the D.C. Circuit presents a unique opportunity, as it oversees arms of the federal government (such as the Environmental Protection Agency) — which means cases don’t have to go through a lower court before they could end up on her desk.
For Fofanah, the opportunity was an obvious “yes.”
“We could end up touching lots of federal policy,” she says. “Which technically makes it a step below the Supreme Court.”
As she prepares for her move to D.C., Fofanah looks back on her career at Temple as the best time of her life.
“Temple is my charging station — in a way that I could never say about anywhere else I’ve lived. This is the place where I learned how to think, which is a skill I think is underrated. It’s something you acquire over time. I learned how to interact with people. I learned how to enter spaces and how to be deliberate with my actions. That is the most important thing I’ve learned here: to think.”
She leans forward in her chair.
Twists her fingers.
Takes a beat.
Fofanah smiles. She talks about her new job. About exploring a new city.
“I couldn’t say ‘no’ to that.”