When Elizabeth Agege (C’20) took the podium at her fifth–grade graduation, she told the room filled with pre–teens and their parents that she wanted to be a writer. Admittedly, it was a second–choice career, an ironic safety net. Now, it’s the first title she’ll hold upon commencement.
“I wrote out that I wanted to be a lawyer. But when I got up there, I was so nervous that people were going to laugh at that,” Elizabeth admits over the phone. “So I asked myself, ‘What do you really want to do that’s believable?’ I said I wanted to be a writer. I’ve always been creative and loved telling stories. “
Elizabeth is currently writing a book rooted in moments just like these, where imposter syndrome prevents us from saying what we truly mean. Entitled A Way Back Home, it follows Gabrielle, a Nigerian–American teenager coming of age at the intersection of race, class, and privilege in the suburbs. Set to release in winter 2020, the novel draws on Elizabeth’s lived experiences as a begrudgingly self–described “token Black girl” in a multitude of predominantly white spaces—from her private high school in Potomac, Maryland, to Penn, and the professional world she’ll soon dominate.
“I wanted to write the kind of book that I would have wanted to read when I was growing up,” Elizabeth says. “So many things felt so isolating when I was going through them as a child, but in reality, these experiences were universal for a lot of Black girls in my area.”
Elizabeth speaks with the cool confidence of a motivational speaker, her sentences unbracketed by indecision even as she recounts the microaggressions that used to nag at her. Some of them are fleeting, like the passing acknowledgment that she’s “pretty—for a Black girl.” Others cut deep, like the assumption that rang throughout the halls of her high school when she was the only student accepted to Penn. Many claimed that it was merely due to affirmative action. Elizabeth says, however, that her time here has made her cognizant of her power and that her achievements are anything but incidental.
“There’s so much societal pressure that told me I wasn’t going to occupy so many spaces, so I really am proud of myself for pushing that aside, going to an Ivy League school, graduating, writing a book,” she says. “This whole process has allowed me to push back on what I grew up thinking ... and view my story as one that needs to be told.”
As Elizabeth continues to unravel Gabrielle’s story she hopes the same liberation happens for her protagonist, and, by extension, her readers. At its core, A Way Back Home is a universal story. It’s about recalculating your worth on a fairer scale. It’s about realizing your place at tables large and small. Mostly, it’s about beating the voice that constantly reminds us of life’s can'ts—what we can’t do, who we can’t be, where we can’t belong.
“The point I’m trying to make is that the feelings Gabrielle experiences aren’t limited to just the Black experience. I want my readers to realize the universality of feeling like the underdog,” Elizabeth says.
A passion project, A Way Back Home notches into Elizabeth’s broader goal: “to promote the voices of marginalized people and advocate for those whose voices are muffled.” A political science major with a concentration in international relations, she focuses on the intersection of human rights and equity to turn the theory she learned in introductory level classes into actionable solutions. Right now, this means writing a book that empowers girls of color, but when she came to Penn, her goals weren’t so clear cut.
“I literally needed to be the youngest member on the United Nations Human Rights Council,” she remembers with a laugh, recounting how her first–year Intro to International Relations professor shot that dream down minutes into the first lecture. “He asked us to raise our hands if we wanted to be a part of a big international corporation. Then he told us to put our hands down because it wasn’t realistic.”
A self–proclaimed goal–oriented person, Elizabeth immediately began redrafting her path to success, citing Dr. Eileen Doherty–Sil’s Introduction to Human Rights class as the one that caused an internal pivot. Rather than focus on checking the boxes that fulfill requirements, she needed to find opportunities that fulfilled her “need to help people in real–time.”
At first, she landed at the Police Reform Organizing Project, where she worked her sophomore summer as a policy intern to catalog interactions between women of color and NYPD police officers. Evinced in a documentary, her work unveiled the harassment sex workers and trans women face at the hands of law enforcement while demonstrating the limits of nonprofit work.
“We didn’t have the capital to influence the NYPD, which was so heartbreaking because we knew the problem, had the truth, and saw a trend, but there was nothing we could do to change it,” she said with a frustrated sigh. “It lit a fire underneath me because I didn’t want to get lost in an environment where my voice couldn’t affect change.”
It’s this sense of urgency that characterizes Elizabeth’s contributions. Everything has a purpose and a place. As part of OAX, an off–campus philanthropic society, she spearheaded the creation of their Diversity Committee, which served to create a dialogue about the group’s role in mitigating microaggressions on campus. In tandem with her work as a blogger with Beyond Arrests: Re–Thinking Systematic Oppression (BARS), these roles have expanded her worldview, leading her to meet the kind of people that inspire the latter half of Gabrielle’s character arc: strong, self–assured, and passionate.
“Being around people so driven makes me want to be better,” Elizabeth says.
Elizabeth describes her Penn experience as this sort of nebulous work–in–progress, where the challenges she met here don’t just end with the last CITsender notification. There will always be an inner imposter to combat, a voice that asks to justify belonging. A Way Back Home is a way to silence that challenger. Simply put: it took Elizabeth developing a fictional character to realize the strength of her own.
After all, she says, “Writing this book has made me see where I was in comparison to where I am.”