Set for a U Penn Ph.D. Despite Losing His ‘Biggest Advocate’ to COVID
Through the Liberal Studies program, a class of ’22 grad sampled his interests and found his track amid hardship.
Kwame Ocran (M.A. ’22, Liberal Studies), a Macaulay Honors College graduate, came to the Graduate Center’s Liberal Studies master’s program to sort out which Ph.D. discipline spoke to him the most. After sampling what he described as amazing seminars and writing a thesis on Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, whom he calls “Black divas of refusal,” he’ll begin later this year a Ph.D. in historical musicology at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s part of his plan to become a long-form music critic.
Ocran came to CUNY because of his parents, immigrants from Ghana who both graduated from CUNY. “CUNY has been the single greatest factor in my parents’ success in New York,” Ocran said.
In March 2020, Ocran lost his mother to COVID. She was a nursing educator and a former head nurse of Jacobi Medical Center’s psychiatric ward and the first nurse in a New York public hospital to die from COVID.
Ocran spoke to the Graduate Center about what he learned from his mom and how the Liberal Studies master’s program helped him make his next step.
The Graduate Center: I read in the acknowledgments of your thesis that your mom had a significant influence on you. I was wondering if you could share more about that.
Ocran: My mom was my biggest advocate. She's the first person I would call after class just to see how her day was going, to let her know that I would be taking the 6 or 5 subway train home to the Bronx. My mom was a wonderful person, and she taught me the benefits of CUNY. She brought me to my first CUNY class when I was 8. I sat in on her psychology lecture at Lehman College. My mom gave me this joy and this zest for learning, and for teaching oneself and for finding ways to solve problems. She will be greatly missed because I won't be able to check in with her after class anymore and bore her with all the things that I've been learning.
GC: How does a Ph.D. prepare you for long-form music criticism?
Ocran: As a music critic, I want to be able to take a long time — months and perhaps even years — to meditate over someone's work. I think six years in a Ph.D. program will give me the time it takes to garner the right respect for music and cut my teeth in learning how to speak properly about it while mastering the art remixing songs and extant criticism, examining the perspectives of hip-hop philosophy and jazz theory, to name a few.
GC: What surprised you about your Graduate Center experience?
Ocran: I'm so floored by the depth and the breadth of topics studied at the Graduate Center. How does that one building fit so much knowledge production? I think that's one of the secret gems within the Graduate Center. You're able to study what really speaks to you. You can create any outcome, any permutation at the Grad Center.
GC: I understand that you found the Graduate Center Writing Center helpful. Can you talk about that?
Ocran: When I first encountered the Writing Center, I found a lot of services being offered — editing documents, helping with personal statements, and looking at theses or writing samples. Those programs spoke to me, and I said, ‘I'll give this a try.’ For the most part, it's been a very successful experience. I was able to create a hybrid CV/résumé through the Writing Center. That was one of the things that benefited me when I applied to Ph.D. programs. Another aspect was working on my thesis, which took about a year because of COVID. And after I graduated, I turned back to the Writing Center for help with my personal statement. I would say that students should seek the Writing Center to give themselves a better chance of weaving together well-written and succinct arguments.
GC: What advice do you wish you had received at the beginning of your master's program?
Ocran: Don't be so hard on yourself. Everyone is going through the same battle. I think that's a modification of Plato. I had a lot of impostor syndrome going into the master's degree. I also was not sure what I was going to do with myself there. I had a lot of questions. It took me a little while to learn that I should just trust the process, because eventually you'll find your way.
GC: Is there anything you want to add about your GC experience?
Ocran: Some of the seminars I took deserve praise, like Working in the Dark: Queer Takes on the Night, with Tyler Schmidt. An amazing seminar. It will test your limits of engaging with material. Eric Lott’s American Studies seminars are awesome. They were my opportunity to create a niche for myself and understand more about music and popular music. And then, last, I was going to shout out David Humphries, who is the D.E.O. [deputy executive officer] in the Liberal Studies program. He is an excellent mentor.
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