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Seeing is Believing: Gateway alumnus shares his journey from at-risk teen to Fulbright Scholar

Image of Darnell with students
Ja’Michael Darnell (center) and two high school students from Hearne, Texas show their Longhorn pride as they tour the campus

While studying theater arts at UT Austin, Ja’Michael Darnell wrote a play about a young woman who was stuck in a town called “Lostland.” With some help from a mystical
woman, she realizes her intrinsic power and begins to chart her own destiny.

“She’s introduced to the Electric Lady who tells her, ‘You have the power in you—change your mindset and be who you want to be,’” says Darnell, who graduated in 2014 from the College of Fine Arts.

Not too long after writing that play, Darnell set forth on his own journey of self-discovery—from Austin to Italy to New York. He has performed in a number of plays, landed a role in a foreign horror film and studied Italian culture, art and performance in Florence. He has since made a return trip to Italy, where he studied physical theatre on a Fulbright scholarship.

Looking back at his past accomplishments, Darnell says he never would have made it this far without the Electric Ladies—and men—who kept moving him forward.

Ja’Michael Darnell (center) performing in Gregory S. Perrin’s Liberty! Equality! And Fireworks!
LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin

“Now I’m paying homage to the people who helped me change my perspective in life,” he adds. Growing up in the small town of Hearne, Texas, Darnell watched many of his peers wandering down the wrong path. At times, he felt stuck in the “Lostland” and wondered if he’d survive once he made it out.

“Jail seems like a rite of passage for many people after high school,” Darnell says. “Some get caught up with the wrong crowd, make bad decisions, and eventually end up in prison. Sometimes I’d wonder if this would be my course in life and whether I was even cut out for college.”

Galvanized by his grandparents’ support, Darnell graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and made it into his dream school. Yet when he arrived on the overwhelmingly large campus, that familiar sense of self-doubt crept back in. “Even though I graduated at the top of my class, I felt like I was falling behind everyone else,” Darnell recalls.

“Again, I started wondering if I could make it at a school like UT.” Darnell soon found his way to the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence (LCAE), a hub of free student success resources including academic advising, tutoring, mentoring, study abroad opportunities and more. The most valuable resource, he notes, was the team of supporters
who helped him realize his full potential.

Image of Ja'michael
Photo by Kimberley Mead Photography

Inspired by his personal champions, Darnell decided to return to his hometown and pay it forward.

“I’m currently finishing up my year as a long-term substitute teacher at my old high school,” Darnell says. “I don’t have any desire to become a teacher, but this job allows me to motivate students to fight for their dreams.”

He hopes to help them see that graduating from college—and even studying abroad—is indeed possible.

“I want them to know that I fought for myself to achieve this dream,” Darnell says. “I ask them, ‘If you don’t fight for it now, when is it going to happen?’”

During his year-long sojourn, Darnell has brought several students to his alma mater for campus tours. The goal, he says, is to get them to see a world outside of their own.

“I want them to see that there are so many resources at UT that help students feel safe, supported and uplifted.”

While giving his students a tour, he makes sure to introduce them to DDCE Associate Vice President Aileen Bumphus, who helped him come into his own as an actor and playwright.

“Dr. Bumphus was in my play, ‘The Electric Lady,’ and she doesn’t even know it,” Darnell says, smiling. “She was always there for me and gave me encouragement when I
needed it the most.”

Tiffany Tillis, director of the Gateway Scholars program within the LCAE, saw his potential and recommended he join the center’s Gateway Scholars, a student success program that offers signature courses, study abroad opportunities, mentoring and more.

“Gateway made UT feel like a small community,” Darnell says. “It was great meeting so many people and seeing so many friendly faces walking around campus. I still keep
in touch with most of my friends in that program.”

Now he wants to keep up the momentum by empowering more at-risk students to chase their burnt orange—or perhaps maroon—dreams. When he’s not bringing aspiring Longhorns to UT Austin, he’s organizing leadership retreats at his hometown, where students can meet with successful college graduates who, like themselves, came from humble backgrounds.

“Seeing is believing,” Darnell says. “I tell them, ‘I’m a Black man from Hearne who went to Italy and graduated from UT. I just want you to hear my story and ask me questions.’”

Image of theater
Photo courtesy of Atelier Teatro Fisico

Unlike most up-and-coming actors, Darnell’s  ultimate dream isn’t limited to the silver screen or the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“It would be a dream come true if one of my students got into UT,” he says. “Ever since I came to UT, I was dying to get people to come with me. There’s so many opportunities here.”

After wrapping up his substitute teaching stint, Darnell plans to move to New York City to pursue his acting career and audition for graduate programs. No matter where his career takes him, he will always plan on making return trips to Hearne, where he aspires to open a community theater.

“Currently there aren’t that many opportunities for kids to continue learning after school,” Darnell adds. “Theater provides a safe space where you can be yourself. I don’t
want any child to not have an opportunity to perform, dance, write and open up their minds to other cultures and beliefs.”

Whether he’ll be strutting down the red carpet with A-list celebrities or taking the stage at a sold-out Broadway show, Darnell will always stay true to his roots.

“It’s about being humble and keeping where you come from close to heart,” Darnell says. “Like Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch said, ‘Think of home.’”

Editor’s note: Ja’Michael Darnell aslo participated in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Grad Internship program. Read about his experience in the IE program here.