Jubba Seyyid: member of a club
Jubba Seyyid – national men’s epee champion – graduated in 1992 with a degree in communication and cinema from the University of Notre Dame. After graduating, Seyyid was hired by NBC News as the team’s youngest field producer. He produced the Emmy-nominated, controversial and critically acclaimed Ice Cube/FX series, BLACK/WHITE, and received five NAACP Image Awards for the acclaimed TV One series, UNSUNG. Seyyid is currently a creative executive at ViacomCBS where he produces content for VH1 and MTV, is an active member of the Television Academy, and has been a dedicated mentor to numerous producers, executives, and students.
When I got the call from Mike DeCicco, head coach of the Notre Dame fencing team, I was already attached to Penn State. In fact, I even had a dorm, a roommate, and mailings with maps of college grounds and other orientation information.
I told Coach DeCicco that I was excited about Penn State and that I had a scholarship and new equipment and friends and a lot of pretty girls waiting for me in central Pennsylvania. (I met a few female students during my visit to campus who said they couldn’t wait for me to return.)
But Coach wasn’t deterred by my alleged commitment to Penn State.
The next few minutes are hazy in my memory, but Coach DeCicco talked about the importance of the University of Notre Dame and how the education was unparalleled, which I already knew from my limited research. That’s where my knowledge of the school ended – if you don’t count my father’s proclamation that it was “the whitest college on the planet.” Notre Dame wasn’t even on my radar. I had never visited the campus and only knew one student who attended. But DeCicco’s promises of a scholarship after freshman year were alluring, and his silver tongue painted a picture of unparalleled mystique and tradition.
Apparently that was enough to seal the deal on a gullible seventeen-year-old from Newark who was on two full scholarships: one from Penn State and the other from Rutgers. Suddenly my eyes were seeing green – clovers and dollar bills – so a year of student loans didn’t feel like a mountain of debt, but more like a bargaining chip that I could get rid of with an education at home. Our Lady.
Where do I sign?
Even though my father didn’t particularly like Notre-Dame, he was extremely proud that I was there. He was especially happy to tell all the white people he met that I was going to be a student at Notre Dame. He was sure that would frustrate them, since Notre-Dame is the only school that all white parents wanted their child to attend.
That being said, I’m sure my dad was just a little frustrated that I had to choose one of the most expensive schools in the country. It shouldn’t have been a surprise though, as my decision was in line with everything I had done in life up to that date.
I had expensive tastes for a child.
I loved skiing and dreamed of racing cars. And fencing was my sport of choice, to shout out loud. The only more expensive sport I could have chosen would have been polo. (But where could I have boarded my horse in Newark?)
So apparently we had money for beer and I tasted like champagne, and Notre Dame was about to be my first bottle of Perrier-Jouët.
I remember the afternoon my father and I arrived on campus. We unpacked the car and dropped into Dillon Hall for the first time. Two things stood out. One of them was a college student who carried an entire rack of polo shirts to his dorm — I mean, thirty shirts. I had one, and this guy had a full Ralph Lauren store!
The second thing was that my roommate was obviously going to be a slob because his dirty underwear, books, and other junk were on the floor. He also had heavy metal tapes on the dresser, so I knew I was going to have culture shock. White metalhead meets black Newark hip-hop. It was unfortunate to think that I already needed a new roommate.
The polo shirts were important because for the first time I realized my socio-economic position in the community. Anyone who could afford that many shirts of the same type was clearly operating at a different financial level than mine. It didn’t make me feel overwhelmed or small, but for the first time, I was peeking behind the doors of people whose concerns were far different from mine.
As a fencer, I had certainly rubbed shoulders with the elite, but I had never shared a living space. It was passionate ! I was open to the great experience. That was dorm life. The redneck, on the other hand, I was not looking forward to meeting.
As I was putting my clothes away in the closet and hanging up my Vanity 6 and Lisa Lisa posters, I blasted the stereo with EPMD’s “Strictly Business.” And that’s when the unknown metalhead walks through the door: a six-foot-tall black kid, football player from Houston.
“Hey man. I’m Bobby,” he said. “What are you playing? Sounds amazing.
We’ve been best friends ever since.
I reluctantly took a lesson in Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, and with it a newfound appreciation for variety, not just music. It was a lesson that ran through all aspects of upbringing and life and one that I still proudly claim as a personality trait. Variety is truly the spice of life, and the ability to be open to it is a trait to cherish, because the best experiences in life occur when you are open to the possibilities of the unknown.
This is the first lesson I learned at Notre-Dame.
My four years on campus were filled with life-changing moments, some good and some bad. I remember my first football game. I remember people crying when we played the Notre Dame Fight Song and the Alma Mater.
Tears? Oh good? At first I thought it was bigoted, but it didn’t take me long to realize that students, alumni, and fans had a spiritual connection to the university. I was reluctant to buy, as I never loved anything the way I loved my family.
But it soon became clear that these people saw the university as a member of their family, albeit a structure and a symbol of faith and endurance.
It also became clear that I was part of a club, maybe even a huge secret society. Secret because it is almost impossible to articulate. You have to experience it. I never got that full scholarship after freshman year as promised, even though I won the national championship in sophomore year and the silver medal in junior.
The soft-spoken coach was apparently good at his job, God rest his soul. Not having a full scholarship meant I had to find a student job to make ends meet. I went through battles with the financial aid office, not knowing if I was going to be allowed to attend classes. Grueling hours of work, hours of study, and hours of practice make for a tough time as a student-athlete. I was bitter for a while, especially since a few of my white teammates had full scholarships but no championships under their belts.
If I’m being honest, I have to admit that’s something I’ve never really accepted. If sports, in particular, are meant to be a meritocracy, then I had the proverbial tree. Clearly, inequality was on and the race card was played. But youth and inexperience were my Achilles heel, and now my experience is a life lesson.
I can say without hesitation or doubt that I would not have achieved the professional successes I have had in life without my experiences and my relationship with Notre Dame. For the first few years after graduation, during job interviews, there were two things people wanted to discuss from my resume: my David Letterman internship and my experience at Notre Dame.
Investigators loved or hated the Irish; There was no middle ground! But even enemies respected the Dome. I’ve been interviewed by several Trojans – USC graduates – over the years and I’ve always had a stinky eye.
But I always had the job too.
I think that says a lot about Notre Dame’s culture, education, and the indelible impression the university has left on the American and international landscape.
When I think of Frazier L. Thompson and what his experience must have been like as Notre Dame’s first black student, my tribulations seem insignificant. He was a pioneer, and we were able to reap the benefits of his existence on the planet and in the university. I’m honored to share my story as a tribute to him and those who followed him, and I’m honored to know that one day someone will read this and smile, laugh, or relate to my experience. It makes me proud to be a member of this secret society we call the University of Notre Dame.
Reprinted from Black domers: African American Students at Notre Dame in Their Own Words edited by Don Wycliff and David Krashna. © 2017 by the University of Notre Dame. Reprinted with permission from University of Notre Dame Press. black servants is available wherever books are sold.
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