Name: Misha McDaniel
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
Major: English, minor in Africana Studies, and certificate in French
Activities: English Undergraduate Advisory Board (UAB), FGLI Dean's Advisory Board (DAB), African American Arts Alliance (4A), Harrison College House office, TAC-e (One Acts), Vote That Jawn, New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir
34th Street Magazine: You’re majoring in English and minoring in Africana studies. What drew you to these disciplines?
Misha McDaniel: I always liked English growing up. I liked reading and writing. I liked English class. I liked analyzing literature. One of the things I wanted to do when I got to college was study Black literature specifically. I feel like K–12, you don't really talk about race theory and literary theory. I feel like it's a very white–washed curriculum. So I enrolled in "Intro to African American Literature" [first–year] fall, and that kind of introduced me to the cross–section between English and Africana studies, and also to Black literature being studied in an academic space. That class basically changed my life, and professor Crawford become one of my mentors.
Street: You're on the English Undergraduate Advisory Board. What's that been like, and why did you join?
MM: Professor Park wanted to revamp English UAB when she came on as the undergraduate chair. She wanted to make the English community feel more like a community, and I wanted to be a part of that. Just thinking, too, about my perspective as a Black English major, as a first–generation, low–income (FGLI) English major—I wanted to be able to offer my perspective. But also I like trying to do community engagement—coming up with fun events for English majors and minors, and cool merch ideas. That's kind of what drew me to it—just trying to be a part of making the English community fun. And also just to meet other English majors!
Street: You're also on the FGLI Dean's Advisory Board. Can you talk a little bit about what that's meant to you, and how you got involved?
MM: I actually joined this past fall! FGLI students have always had a very complicated relationship with the administration because we are such a small minority and our needs are underrepresented and often misunderstood. And 2020—with the pandemic, and the way Student Financial Services (SFS) handled things like housing and food support, just seeing the way that affected FGLI students ... it really made me be like, "I want to do something." I want to actually try during my last year here. I know more about how SFS works and what opportunities and resources are available to us. I wanted to raise awareness around our issues and make sure our needs are met and heard by the administration directly. I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet other FGLI students and become active in something that I'm passionate about personally, but also ethically.
Street: Is there anything you wish more Penn students understood about the FGLI experience and what it means to be a FGLI student at Penn?
MM: I feel like I wish more people understood what it means to not come from a super rich family or a financially stable background. And financially stable can mean a lot of different things, too. I think that's something to note. Penn's definition of FGLI is very different from the world's definition of FGLI. FGLI can come in all sizes and look in all ways. It can be a single–parent household, double–parent household, Black, white, brown—it doesn't matter. But what's important to note is that without those financial stabilities and without family financial support in a way that's 100%, FGLI students need more support from the administration, and need more attention and transparency and communication. There's only a few of us—we're a very small percentage—and we need more help. Most of the demographics of students here aren't from our background, so obviously professors and admin are not necessarily used to dealing with folks who can't afford their textbooks—who have to find other means to get food for the semester or to have a computer. I didn't have a laptop half of my [first–year] fall. It's something that I feel like a lot of students won't understand, but it's something that happens a ton and can be very mentally and emotionally draining. You're already at this rigorous school competing against all these people. We all still need support and attention. Not special treatment, but just more support.
Street: What inspired you to get involved in performing arts at Penn? And I've heard you're also part of the Penn Gospel Choir?
MM: I discovered my love of acting the summer before I went to high school, and so ever since then I've been acting in theater and musical theater. When I got to Penn, since school–wise Penn was very critical and academic, I wanted to make sure I had an outlet through theater. So I did a show—not every semester, but almost every semester. It was really fun getting to know different theater troupes. I did PenNaatak, Quadramics Theatre Co., and I was doing a Front Row Theatre Co. show when COVID–19 hit. Having that creative outlet every semester and putting on a show for peers, and friends, and family, and the West Philadelphia community as well—it's just been very rewarding to keep up with that side of myself.
I wanted to join the Gospel Choir my [first–year] fall, and I finally did junior spring before COVID–19 hit, and I was super happy about that. I'm a Christian, and I've been missing worship and praise at college. It was cool finding a community of Penn students who love God and wanted to just sing and dance. And I don't even think you have to be a Christian to join the group—you know, if you just like gospel music! It was also cool being exposed to different types of gospel music and to see the mesh of cultures coming together for a fun, joyful cause.
Street: You studied abroad in the United Kingdom. What was your favorite part of your travels?
MM: The fact that I was able to travel within the continent. My biggest thing when I came to college was being able to study abroad, being able to travel—not on my dime. I grew up traveling up and down the East Coast, but I didn't travel out of the States because I didn't have a passport when I came to college. So definitely one of the most rewarding things for me being in London was being able to get to other places in Europe for a relatively inexpensive price. That's something that I'm very grateful for. And it was on, you know, Penn's dime—which is always what makes it better!
Street: You're a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and a Beinecke Scholar. Can you talk a little bit about these honors, what they mean to you, and what they entail?
MM: So I guess Mellon introduced me to academia in general. I didn't know what academia was when I came to college. My mom has an associate's degree, which was the norm when she was getting her degree. I don't have anyone in my family with doctorates. I come from a working—class background, so just figuring out that academia exists and there is a place for me to study English and Africana studies—to kind of mold my own research and do that seriously, legitimately—that was just super cool to find out through Mellon. Just having the logistical support in thinking about how Ph.D. applications work, what you need, your elevator pitch, how to construct your own independent research project—all that stuff I had no clue about. So this has been very formative for me and my own understanding of academia and academic research in the humanities.
Beinecke was kind of wild because I received the scholarship two weeks after COVID–19 hit. I applied while I was studying abroad, so it was a very disjointed process—I was in another time zone and trying to schedule meetings and do everything through email. For me, it's been very reassuring because I feel like, like a lot of us, I suffer from imposter syndrome. Being recognized in that way was super reassuring and just made me feel like I can go to graduate school, and I can do this. Also, for me, money is something I do stress about. So it was also reassuring in that way—I can pursue graduate studies and not have to worry as much about funding and all of that.
Street: You're planning to earn your Ph.D. focusing on Black speculative futures. What does this mean, and what does this mean to you?
MM: Black speculative literature—how I kind of define it—is narratives of sci–fi [and] fantasy that are featuring Black stories, Black people, Black voices, and Black experiences. I specifically am thinking about African American literature—contemporary, so post–1970. And when I say Black speculative futures, I'm thinking about, how does African American speculative literature get us to think about Black presence and legalities? How does it get us to think differently about Black possibility? And how can that be used in a conversation about resistance, imagination—what is the power of imagination? How do we think beyond the disaster of the transatlantic [slave trade]? How do we think outside of the afterlives of slavery? And I believe speculative literature in general is a beautiful genre that is often overlooked in academia. I think it's considered kind of low–brow, but I think fantasy stories and science fiction stories reflect our realities in ways that are unbelievable in order to get us to think critically about what we know to be real, and what we know to be possible.
Street: What has been your favorite part or most memorable experience at Penn?
MM: I guess the Africana Studies Department, just as a whole. Every professor I've had from Africana—since being a [first–year] until now. I can call my graduate fellow from the program, and she'll have a conversation with me. The faculty themselves are all brilliant. Being at Penn has been so cool—being able to be exposed to the minds of some of these professors. Honestly, the faculty that Penn has just across the board is exemplary. The Africana faculty are so welcoming, and their classes are always super interesting. They give you space to really think about these issues in ways that are unique and different and artistic. So I guess that's been my most memorable thing about Penn: Africana and all it means.
Street: If you could impart one lesson on the Penn student body, what would it be?
MM: Get Penn to pay for it! Whatever you want to do—whether that's a fellowship, or research, or studying abroad, or whatever. Penn has so many resources, and so many people that will come to bat for you. A lot of times it's just asking the right questions, doing the right internet deep dives, and figuring out what programs are available. There's so much here. You can get grants, you can get funding for lots of different things, or do lots of programs through Penn that aren't available elsewhere. And if you can get Penn to support you, I would say go for it. The worst they'll say is no, but they're not going to say no, because you're going to be knocking at their doors like, "I want to do this opportunity." That's what they're here for. They're here to help us!
Street: What's next for you after Penn, and what do you hope to accomplish?
MM: I applied to graduate school last semester. I applied to Ph.D.s in English and African American studies, and then MFAs in creative writing, specifically fiction. So hopefully after Penn, I'll be in a graduate program starting my career as a scholar creative, as they say. I hear back in a few weeks, I think, so fingers are crossed.
In terms of the bigger picture, I'm a writer first and foremost, just like at heart. So I do want to publish my novels. I do want to continue to write academically and do my research. I want to create. I want to write stories. I want to write stories featuring Black people: Black young people, Black women, Black queer people. And I want them to be speculative. I want us to have Black superheroes, but I also want us to have Black worlds that aren't our own—whether that's through my novels, or going into TV writing, or teaching as a professor. I want to cast those voices and perspectives to the forefront as a writer of them, as a curator of them, and as a teacher of them.
Last song you listened to?
"I See Fire," by Ed Sheeran.
What's something people wouldn't guess about you?
I can tap dance!
If you were a building on campus, what would you be and why?
I want to say Van Pelt, not even because I study there, but the knowledge it holds—I love to read, I love to write, and I love to think. I feel like Van Pelt encompasses that at its core.
M Archive: After the End of the World, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Her explicit tie of the critical and the creative just blew my mind my sophomore year, and ever since I haven't been able to put it down.
Imaginatively—because I write about the power of the imagination.
Who do you look up to?
N.K. Jemisin. She is the type of creative writer I would want to be. I think she's a brilliant mind, and I'm happy to be alive while she's alive so I can write about her books in real time!
If we weren't in a pandemic right now and you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
There are two types of people at Penn...
People with Canada Goose jackets and people without them, but I think somebody already stole that one.
And you are?
Oh, definitely one without one.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.