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Harvard Grad Yara Shahidi Says ‘College Provided A Safe Space To Do A Lot Of Growing Up’

Harvard Grad Yara Shahidi Says ‘College Provided A Safe Space To Do A Lot Of Growing Up’
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Yara Shahidi brought melanin to Peter Pan, Black Girl Magic to Grown-Ish, and most recently, a sprinkle of fame to study time. The 23-year-old partnered with Extra Gum earlier this month with the aim of helping high school students via an initiative called the Extra Hours Hotline. It’s a free online tutoring platform in partnership with Princeton Review—leading tutoring, test prep, and college admissions services company— that offers high school students help with homework after dark. 

The Extra Hours Hotline enabled students to win a tutoring session with the actress and producer.

We touched base with Shahidi to hear about her partnership and how it aligns with her love of education. The Harvard alumnus graduated from the prestigious college in 2022 having majored in social studies and African American studies. 

Let’s get into the importance of education, the importance of not letting it define you and Shahidi’s career bucket list. 

Essence: Tell me about your partnership with Extra Gum and this Extra Hours hotline!

Yara Shahidi: I was really excited when Extra told me about the hotline, one, because I don’t think it’s much of a surprise to anyone that’s followed me, but I’ve always been a huge nerd and I very publicly documented a lot of my high school journey [and] a lot of my college journey. And I even knew with all the support in the world, it was tough. I had tutors, I had to put in all sorts of time on the weekend when I was done with work. I was always doing schoolwork. And so I say all that to say when Extra approached me, I realized that there was a way to support students in this really kind of weird witch hour of nine to 12 when your parents are asleep or it’s hard to get that extra support. You can’t reach out to teachers if you have a question. It really resonated with me because not only do I currently live with my brother who’s a high school student and see him going through it, but it’s indicative of the support I needed when I was in high school. 

And fun fact, I actually was the person that used the trick of chewing a certain flavor of gum, and then chewing it again when you had to recall certain information. 

Love that so much. I know college is still an aspiration for a lot of young people, but they also have access to resources like social media that can help them build a thriving career without college. Why was doing both important for you? 

I think for me particularly, the balance of work and college really helps because I think college provided a safe space to do a lot of growing up, particularly in figuring out what I believed and actually having the time to study and figure things out–especially as somebody that’s been outspoken from a young age. I think it gave me time with myself to just be very reflective, in which the stakes weren’t as high. 

But on the flip side, I think work gave me a grounded space to practice what I was learning. So I didn’t just exist in this space of theory. But I think the balance helped give meaning to both worlds. College was this nice balance and I got to honor my curiosity in college and study any and all things that interested me. 

What are some things you do to not fall into that trap of spending all of your time trying to be productive and grinding? 

I think the biggest thing that I’ve had to come to terms with that I haven’t quite perfected is actually identifying what am I working for and what am I working towards. I think it’s really easy in both spaces to either chase a grade or chase a result versus where I’m trying to move, which is chasing a certain milestone, chasing a certain experience. And it doesn’t mean that the work changes, but I think my drive to do it changes. 

And also my ability to prioritize shifts, because I think one thing that I’d fallen into that’s really easy in high school is that I may have been in a very particular circumstance, but a lot of high schoolers are multitaskers that have sports and extracurriculars and family lives, like you said, with social media, public lives along with school. And I think it’s easy to feel the weight of those equally. But I think the more I’ve been able to figure out, okay, what do I wanna walk away from school with’? An understanding of myself, an ability to communicate how I feel and what I think, then I was able to better figure out what to give time to and when it was time to grind. Something my family and I talk about a lot is the fact that there’s no reason to grind just to grind or for grind’s sake. 

I think especially in high school and college, it’s easy to take pride in the all-nighters and the lack of sleep and like, when’s the last time you ate a meal? You don’t remember. I think the one thing that I finally had gotten to [see] is it’s not as cute as it sounds and you actually don’t win any points. And so the closest we can strive to having a more balanced life, the better, which is, again, why this was meaningful to me because this is the support I needed for my work-life balance, calling in that extra help, having a teacher that I talked to work through a problem so I wasn’t spending double the time trying to do it by myself. 

How can students not attach their identity and value to their performance? 

Ooh, it’s a great question. I mean, this is what I struggle with because as much as this has been something I’ve strived for, feeling detached from those results, it feels good to feel validated. And I know for me, at times, I’ve turned to academic validation when there are other uncertainties in my life because it felt like, where else can somebody objectively look at me and say, I’m doing a good job? So identifying that feeling was really helpful for me to be like, okay, what is it that makes the a’s feel so good’? What makes the other things feel just so terrible? 

I remember one time–oh my goodness, this is so embarrassing. I’ve always been that student that strives for top grades, top whatever. And I was doing really well in this college class. I turned in an entire essay on spellcheck. 

And people that don’t know me, don’t realize I’m good at a lot of things, great at writing. Spelling has never been my strong suit. And I just assumed because spell check didn’t underline any words as misspelled that I was killing the game and had no words misspelled. I turned in this entire paper to my college professor who was at the time loving the work I was turning in and he basically had to email like, “Yara, I don’t know where to start with this one, because there’s just so many basic errors.” 

And the reason I bring this up is the learning lesson for me was that was my first time in my academic career that I just took what he was saying at face value and did not take it personally like I typically would have if I had received that even a year earlier. It would have really tore me to pieces, and I would’ve felt like I had failed him. Like I wasn’t worthy of being in that space, that it had some sort of indication. [When] I looked at that email, there was nothing to do except laugh. Like I misspelled Germany because I was typing too fast and just didn’t seem to reread it. 

It was a very big moment for me to be like, oh, I’ve finally gotten to a place where one, my mistakes are just learning or are learning curves. It’s easier said than done, but I know personally the more I’ve been aware of why I hold so much emotion around academic validation, the more I’ve been able to dismantle the feeling. 

If you had one more year to live your dreams before you turned into a pumpkin, what would you want to achieve? 

That’s so fun. Well, okay, here are the things I’d want to do–I definitely wanna start a school. I was a kid that had the privilege of going to Montessori. I was homeschooled, went to public school, went to an all girls Catholic school. So I’ve tried a little bit of everything and I would love to take my experiences and start my own kind of program.

This is so random, but we were talking about opening like a bookstore or something. 

But then honestly I think the biggest thing that this year has taught me is it’s been really nice to live life and see where life takes me, to have certain grounding goals. 

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