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Facing the unimaginable: Kojoh Atta ’20 grapples with personal, collective grief amid pandemic

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In the city of Westerville, Ohio, where Kojoh Atta grew up, history ends in 2006. On the government’s website is a list of historical tidbits: The town was founded in the early 1800’s and named after the Westervelt family. A century later, during the Prohibition era, it became home base for the Anti-Saloon League, a powerful temperance organization; was subsequently known as “The Dry Capitol of the World”; and in 2003, was dubbed “Sportstown, Ohio” by Sports Illustrated magazine. In 2006, Westerville Central High School, the newest in the district, celebrated the graduation of its first class.

Beyond that is just one nebulous and never-ending today. Atta liked Westerville, with its red brick buildings and smiley people. But even from a young age, he knew he had to leave.

“By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was like, ‘I gotta leave the state, there’s not that much here for me, at least not right now,’” he said.

Growing up in a low-income neighborhood and living in public housing, there was “a fundamental lack of opportunities.” 

In 2018, over 16% of Franklin County, which encompasses various cities, including Columbus and parts of Westerville, lived below the poverty threshold. This is over 3% higher than the national average, and it’s even higher for people of color: Almost 30% lived below the poverty threshold, compared to a little over 10% of white residents.

Most people Atta knew stayed and went to school or work in the area; no one really left central Ohio. “It was unimaginable for me to go somewhere like Stanford,” he said. 

But unimaginable doesn’t mean impossible — it just means that something is too good or too bad, too large or too far away to think of until it’s real. 

Atta already knew a thing or two about the unimaginable: His family had done it twice.

Within the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, they would have to do it once more.

***

For a few weeks each fall, millions of people from countries that don’t send many immigrants to the U.S. fill out applications for diversity visas. Then, about 50,000 people are randomly selected and can enter the country within two years of their application. 

The Attas — originally from Offinso, Ghana, a small municipality near the capital city of the Ashanti region, Kumasi — applied to and won the United States green card lottery twice: once before Atta was born and again after.

In 1997, when the Attas first applied for the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, there were about 3.4 million qualified applicants. Just 2.4% of them were allowed to apply for an immigrant visa. 

When the Attas first moved to the United States, they briefly settled in the Bronx, a borough of New York City known for its diverse population. But eventually relatives convinced them to move to the geometric heart of Ohio, a place with a surprisingly large African population. First, they lived in North Linden, a neighborhood in northeast Columbus, before moving to Westerville in the mid-2000s. 

As of 2016, Franklin County, where the Attas live, is home to over half of Ohio’s African immigrants, or over 31,000 people. Ohio’s African community primarily comes from 14 countries, including Somalia, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. 

The Black immigrant experience in the United States varies, depending on personal history and country of origin, among other components. However, many African immigrants face socioeconomic obstacles. They are twice as likely to live in poverty compared to American families, and many African immigrants face unemployment rates about 1.2% higher than the general population.

As he got older, Atta started to realize, “College [was] my way out.” So, throughout his high school career, he filled his schedule with AP and honors classes where he was one of few Black men in the room, despite going to a diverse school.

His senior year, he frequented the Westerville Public Library, where the librarians knew him by name. He took all the free tests in the library’s sole ACT book again and again, all the while dreaming of college — no school in particular, but a hazy somewhere away from Westerville.   

Back then, Atta’s mother, Bernice, worked at Walmart, stocking shelves and manning the registers. Shortly after moving to the States, his father, Bernard, got his G.E.D. and started nursing school in his 50s. By the time Atta was in high school, Bernard worked as a nurse at a correctional facility in Orient, a short commute from their hometown. “The way I grind all the time definitely came from him,” Atta said of his father.

College application season was stressful. As a first-generation college student, Atta applied to the 2016 Questbridge National College Match, a selective program that pairs academically-motivated, low-income youth with top colleges, and waited to see what would happen. 

It was March 19, 2016, and the Westerville Wildcats were playing against the Lima Senior Spartans in the boys basketball state championship game. Atta sat in the packed stands, watching the high school superstars — including some of his friends — compete in Value City Arena. In the final quarter, as the clock counted down to zero, the score was 55-55, and the Wildcats and the Spartans dashed across the maple floors, each desperate for the game-winning shot. With just one minute left, senior Jordan Humphrey, a Wildcat, broke the tie. Immediately, fans of Westerville South rose to their feet, cheering, hugging and throwing their hands up in relief. 

What followed was a week of celebration. At the end of the week, after a night out with his friends, Atta arrived home, still brimming with good feelings. But, scrolling through his Motorola cell phone, his heart dropped when he saw an email with the subject line, “Your Stanford Admission Decision.” 

“There is no way in hell I’m getting into this school,” he thought. He clicked on the email and waited for it to load. After the first word — ”congratulations” — he stopped reading and started to shout, as if he were back at the basketball game, cheering on his team.

“I was just going mad in my bedroom,” Atta said. His father asked what was going on, his voice tinged with concern, and when Atta told him, he, too, started to shout. Then, Atta’s mother entered the room and asked what was happening. “She doesn’t know what the hell Stanford is, but we’re all screaming. She starts screaming too,” Atta said.

The Attas’ next door neighbors even came over to check on them and, when they found out, stayed to celebrate. 

Remembering the moment, the corners of Atta’s mouth folded into a smile.

“I will never ever, ever forget that day,” Atta said. “In my mind it was like Ghana winning the World Cup…”

“There are moments in life when you know your life has changed, and that was one of them,” he added. “It was definitely one of them.”

Pictured: Kojoh Atta and family pose for a photo (Courtesy of Kojoh Atta)

***

In fall 2016, Atta moved into the student residence Otero House, a tan building with orange roof shingles. He had received the Gates Millennium Scholarship, enabling him to attend college debt-free. Still, though, that first year was overwhelming. It took time getting used to the groups of strangers huddled around a single table at CoHo, staring at lines of code until the white light of their computer screens made their eyes red and glassy. It took time getting used to students in their Patagonia jackets with $300 mini fridges, barista-quality coffee machines and speakers that could make the walls tremble. And it took time getting used to professors with thin white hair and sophisticated-looking glasses who had testified before Congress the week before or had lunch with a Zuckerberg-type the other day. It seemed as if Northern California and Central Ohio were different worlds. 

He recalled going out to dinner with a group of other students in downtown Palo Alto, a stretch of tree-lined streets where people dine beneath French-style awnings and twinkling lights. When he and his friends got to the restaurant, Atta stared at the menu and its high-priced items. Within a few minutes, he decided it would be cheaper to take an Uber home rather than eat.

That first year, Atta spent most of his time with friends he had made through the Leland Scholars Program (LSP), a summer program for incoming frosh from low-income backgrounds. “Boy did I lean on that community starting freshman year,” he said.

While navigating the campus social scene, he was trying to figure out his academic career, torn between the many options at Stanford and the pressures that come with being at such a tech-oriented school. At first, he wanted to be pre-law, then computer science, then — he wasn’t sure.

It was through talking with his frosh year roommate, whose family had a background in business, that he became interested in finance, which ultimately put him on the path to majoring in political science with a concentration in political economy and international relations with minors in African and African American studies and Spanish. 

Over the years, he forged a path as a student leader. 

“If Kojoh has his mind set on something, he will do it,” said Mark Torres, a member of Yale’s class of 2020 and a close friend of Atta’s. “He’s the kind of person that I feel like, you have to have someone like that around you because he makes me dream bigger things … He’s the kind of person that you just don’t meet that often.” 

Mamadou Diallo ’20 called Atta “incredibly ambitious, just oozing with ambition.” 

“You can just tell that this man has high hopes for himself and the world and everyone around him,” he said. 

Atta and Diallo met during Admit Weekend, a three-day welcome event for prospective students, and they became close friends through LSP. 

On campus, people would often mistake Diallo for Atta. “We’re of the same stature; we’re both darker skin black people; and we both have African names of sorts,” Diallo said. “I would kind of always know what he’s up to because people would always approach me.” 

And Atta was always up to something. In his sophomore year, Atta served on the Associated Students of Stanford University Senate; he received the most votes out of all of the candidates. The following year, as a junior, he served as co-president of the Black Student Union. And his senior year, he worked as a resident assistant (RA) in Robinson House. 

“Kojoh and I both agree on the fact that neither one of us got to where we were without help… Kojoh always brings up the fact that if it weren’t for his family coming to America from Ghana, he wouldn’t have had the chance to even attend Stanford,” said Torres, who immigrated from the Philippines to the United States when he was a child. 

***

In March 2020, as the first reported coronavirus cases in the United States made news, Atta was more than halfway through his senior year. 

Things started to change on campus slowly, then all at once. In early March, there were email reminders to “stay home when sick; wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds; cough and sneeze into your elbow” — all the usual things. Then, the dining halls started to make small changes, moving to premade plates, then closing off the water fountains and coffee machines, then removing the individual packets of salt, pepper and sugar packets. Something big was unfolding, but no one knew what yet. 

His last day on campus, Atta and his co-staff ordered takeout, hoping to bring comfort to their residents. When Atta left campus, he, like many others, expected to return.

Then, spring quarter was canceled. Students scrambled to make last-minute accommodations.

“Personally for me and my friends, it was nerve wracking just because I guess with our backgrounds it wasn’t as simple as, ‘Oh, go back to your house,’” Diallo said. “For all of us it was like…You can’t go home and not pay rent, maybe you have a lot of siblings in your house, maybe it’s not a place conducive to do work.”

When Stanford announced only students with special circumstances could return, Atta and Tristen Nollman ’22, an resident computer consultant (RCC) in Robinson, turned to the Stanford Community Offerings Sheet, a list of resources including temporary housing options, organized by Stanford Mutual Aid and Stanford’s First Generation/Low Income Partnership (FLIP). That’s how they found the Herrin family. 

Jessica and Chad Herrin got their undergraduate degrees from Stanford in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Later, both attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where Chad graduated in 2001. Jessica is the founder and chief executive of Stella & Dot, a jewelry company. Chad is a technology investor and software executive. They live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their two daughters.

“I remember getting an email saying, you know, ‘We’re closing campus and there are students who are first-time, low-income students who don’t have a place to go, and I just remember thinking, that was me when I was an undergrad,” Jessica said. 

Nollman and Atta moved into the Herrins’ guest house, and what was supposed to be a weeks-long spring break turned into months as the state of the pandemic worsened. Atta, with just a suitcase full of belongings, stayed with the Herrins for the remainder of the school year and most of the summer. 

The group got to know one another over homemade meals and long talks.

“For me, it was joyous to feel like, in that difficult time, there was something nice coming into our lives, like meeting these two incredible people,” Jessica said. “They felt like part of our family very quickly.”

In the spring, as cases, hospitalizations and deaths surged, Atta said, “Relatives in Ghana were calling and saying, ‘This stuff is getting crazy in America. What’s going on?’”

Then, on May 9, Atta’s father was diagnosed with COVID-19. When he began to experience severe symptoms, Atta pleaded with him to go to the hospital. But he wouldn’t. He was worried about the medical bills. And besides, he would recover, he said.

Nine days later, on May 17, 2020, Atta was working on a project for Mozilla’s Fix-the-Internet Spring MVP Lab. All morning, while typing away on his computer, he received call after call from extended family, neighbors and old friends, asking him how he was. He didn’t know what the calls were about. He was fine, he told them. He had received a text message the other night from his mother saying his father was doing better. Then, whoever was on the other line would fall silent. “I got about 30 calls just within that morning… 30, 40, maybe 50. It was hard to keep track.”

At one point, he got a call from a friend he has had since elementary school, who he hadn’t talked to in a while. “They were saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. And I was like, ‘Sorry, for what?’…Why are you telling me sorry? Do you know something I don’t?’” Atta said. “I just hung up. And then I started getting worried.” 

After that, he tried calling his mother and his four older siblings, but no one was answering. Around 2 p.m., he got a call from one of his brothers. Atta thought, perhaps, they had finally taken his father to the hospital. His brother was silent for a long moment until he finally said it: Bernard died.

“I literally dropped to my knees,” Atta said. “I just kept saying, ‘You are a liar. You are a liar.’”

***

In the United States, incarcerated people and corrections staff are especially susceptible to COVID-19. Because of the way correctional facilities are designed, preventative measures that protect against the spread of the virus, such as social distancing and improved indoor ventilation, are extremely difficult to implement. Inmates often sleep and eat in shared spaces, and corrections staff, such as guards and nurses, move between the outside world and these isolated communities, making it challenging to contain a highly contagious, respiratory disease like COVID-19.

According to The Marshall Project, in the state of Ohio, prisoners contract COVID-19 at 2.3 times the rate of the general population. Prisoners also die from the disease at 1.9 times the rate of the general population. Since the onset of the pandemic, there have been over 9,000 cases of coronavirus among Ohio prisoners and over 4,000 among corrections staff; at least 134 prisoners and 10 corrections staffers have died.

When Bernard passed, he was 61 years old and healthy, with no preexisting conditions. Bernard’s mother is 99 years old and his father lived until his mid-70s. At the funeral, Atta thought, “He probably had a lot of years left in him.”

In the United States, Black and brown communities have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic due to a number of factors, including a lack of access to adequate healthcare and an increased likelihood of working on the frontlines. In most states, cases and deaths in Black people have remained disproportionately high since March.

For days, Atta didn’t tell anyone about his father’s death, not even the Herrins. But at night, he laid awake in his bed wondering: Would his father have a funeral given the pandemic restrictions? And if he did, would they be able to afford it? 

It is an Ashanti tradition for the Asante people to be buried where they were born. But the Attas could not travel to Ghana. It is against Ashanti tradition to have a body cremated, but given the cost of burial and the conditions, they feared they might have to. One night, Atta started a GoFundMe, unsure of who would see it, if anyone.

Then, Ohio Governor Mark DeWine announced the news of Bernard’s death during a press conference on live television. “We’re sad to report that COVID-19 has taken another member of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s family,” DeWine said. After that, Atta received a flood of messages. 

A few days later, the Herrins noticed something was different. Atta wasn’t moving through the house with his “perma-smile,” as Jessica calls it. He was quiet, stony. They could feel that something was wrong. “I could barely even muster up the words to say that he was dead,” Atta said.

But when he did, “it just sort of stopped time and centered all of us on that reality. Because it wasn’t just the pandemic, it was also Black Lives Matter and having the experience where I didn’t even know what was going on because I was so wrapped up in what was going on with Kojoh that I didn’t watch the news in days,” Jessica said. “It was devastating and consuming and just heartbreaking.” 

Together, they grieved.  

Later that night, Atta looked at the GoFundMe for the first time since he’d made it and was shocked to see the outpouring of support. “It was all basically Stanford folks,” he said.

The money from the GoFundMe — over $47,000 in total — paid for the funeral and enabled the Attas to continue supporting their distant family in Ghana, who had relied on Bernard for remittances. 

“My dad had at least 60 people depending on him and his paychecks and the stuff that he sent back. He sends back a lot of food, used cell phones…He carried the whole team on his back his whole life,” Atta said. 

After his father’s death, Atta carried the team. 

“He did his family and his father justice by making sure that even though they were crying, they all had something to eat and they all had a place to go at the end of this situation, and I really admire him for that,” said Auriel Wright, a member of the Harvard class of 2020 and a close friend of Atta’s. “He knows what it feels like to lose your father tragically but he also understands that the struggle and the grind must go on.”

The funeral came on June 6. That day, Atta was son, was pallbearer, was witness. During the service, he regarded Bernard: his deep brown eyelids closed over his dark, kind eyes. Atta is a deep sleeper; so was his father.   

“It just looked like he was sleeping…I wanted to just shake him awake…It was unbelievable,” he said. “We had so many plans…We were supposed to be going to the Japan Olympics.”

***

A week later, Atta sat on a cousin’s couch, dressed in his cap and gown. He watched virtual commencement while eating Jollof rice and waakye. Graduation was nothing like he’d thought it’d be.

That summer, while coping with the personal grief, Atta experienced collective grief. After the murder of George Floyd, millions of Americans protested in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and mourned the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbery and many others.

Amid all of this, Atta applied for MBAs because “I [felt] like my dad would be disappointed if I didn’t.” He will attend The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania as a member of the class of 2026. In August, he moved out of the Herrins’ house. 

“I feel like Kojoh is like the son we never had,” Jessica said. “You know, it sounds crazy, because he only lived with us for six months. But those were quite a few six months: It feels like a lifetime, honestly.”

For the next few months, Atta lived in a studio apartment in San Francisco, where he worked remotely. 

At the end of October, on Halloween, Atta got his first shot of the COVID vaccine in the AstraZeneca & Oxford University vaccine trial.

“Never would I ever think I’d be participating in the COVID-19 vaccine trial… Never would I ever think we’d be in a pandemic… Never would I ever think I’d have to carry my dad’s casket as a result of said pandemic…Never would I ever think that my depression would be so confusingly and concurrently woven into a steadily growing hope and excitement for all that is new, innovative, and disruptive that is rising amidst this unprecedented global upheaval,” he wrote on Instagram that same day.

He felt a slight immune response, but the symptoms subsided after 24 hours. The second shot was painless. 

***

Some have reported that the pandemic has altered their perception of time. For over a year, the days have blurred together into one unending today. At the same time, there have been major events, both personal and public, a lifetime of world-changing news since last March. 

Many years from now, what memories will have stuck? Perhaps, the mundanities of pandemic life will be forgotten, and maybe, then, all that will remain will be that last normal call with your father, planning for the Tokyo Olympics; those final days on Stanford campus, beneath the cloudless sky; and that day when you woke up in your tiny studio apartment in San Francisco to cheering and the clanging of pots and pans to learn that Joe Biden had been elected the 46th president of the United States.

Looking back on all that has happened, Atta asks himself, “How do I live life even more fully for all these folks who have passed, for my father?” Even amid all the grief and loss, the answer — now and then and forever — is, in Atta’s words: “I have to choose joy.”

“I have to choose joy.”

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Chasity Hale is the Vol. 259 managing editor of The Grind. She is a senior, studying communication and creative writing. Contact Chasity Hale at chashale ‘at’ stanford.edu.