George Mason University Visiting Robinson Professor Hakeem Oluseyi attributes his unlikely rise from the pull of poverty and crime to hope, hustle and help, and he’s hoping to pay that blessing forward.
Now a renowned astrophysicist, inventor and author who regularly offers his expert analysis on TV, Oluseyi credited education as the gateway to a better life for him. Raised by a single mother with little education, he lived in some of the nation’s toughest neighborhoods while constantly moving around and eventually being drawn into criminal activities at a young age.
“For me, education was a pathway clearly,” he said during a recent talk at the Fairfax Country Club as part of the Mason Science Series, “so I feel like I have to do for others what was done for me. I got by on hope, hustle and help. That help didn’t just show up out of the blue, so I have to do the same thing.”
Oluseyi, who was the first person in his family to graduate from high school, now boasts a PhD from Stanford University has held previous professorships at places like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California-Berkley.
He was the chief science officer for Discovery Communications Inc. and spent 2016 to 2019 at NASA Headquarters, where he served as the space science education manager for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate via the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program. He has authored or co-authored more than 100 scientific publications and has 11 patents.
Such a future seemed unlikely at best during his youth, when stability was little more than a wishful fantasy following his parents’ divorce when he was four years old. His mother desperately sought opportunities to improve their lives, so the family was often on the move. Oluseyi said he never attended the same school or lived in the same state for more than two years in a row, with the family often moving multiple times during the school year.
As a result, Oluseyi has experienced daily life in some of the nation’s toughest neighborhoods, including Houston’s 3rd Ward, New Orleans’ 9th Ward, and South Central Los Angeles, where some of his cousins were part of the notorious Crips gang who were “robbing banks and worse,” he said.
In the final 16 months of that difficult 10-year stretch, Oluseyi lived in nine different households while attending five different schools in three different states.
Through it all, a young Oluseyi found refuge from the chaos in books, and his mental acuity quickly drew the attention of teachers and others, who saw his vast potential and helped guide him to another path.
After enlisting in the U.S. Navy at age 17, Oluseyi would eventually receive a dual bachelor of science degree from Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Oluseyi has chronicled his stirring personal story in his best-selling memoir, “A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars.”
But Oluseyi has considerably more than that in mind, and hopes to help change the lives of Mason students in much the same positive manner that others did for him many years ago.
He said part of why he wanted to come to Mason, out of all the colleges and universities in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, was to be somewhere he could make a direct impact on students from working-class communities.
Oluseyi will begin teaching classes in the Spring 2022 semester, and plans to engage with student groups and students in his classes to help grow community in that area, he said.
“There are people for whom someone like myself can make a difference in their life,” Oluseyi said.