CHRISTOPHER LUJAN: Good afternoon, everyone. Yeah, welcome back to our fourth Soup & Hope. My name's Christopher Lujan. I'm the director of the LGBT Resource Center and part of the Soup & Hope Committee.
I wanted to welcome you all here today. The Soup & Hope Committee would like to also acknowledge that the land upon which our university operates is in the traditional homeland of the Cayuga Nation. We are grateful for the ability to organize here and wish to extend our respect to the people and elders of the Cayuga Nation.
Just a couple of reminders today. Soup will be served throughout the event. Please feel free to bring your own bowls. Or if you'd like to purchase one, we have some at the table. For those who may need access to restrooms, we have an ADA accessible restroom to your left.
At the conclusion of today's reflection, please feel free to come up and share your warm welcomes and thank yous to JT. I also wanted to take some time today to thank our soup servers. Today's soup servers are Phazione McClurge, Mo Bradford, Malik Leary, and also-- we got a addition-- Kenan Clarke. Thank you so much for your time.
I also wanted to take the time to acknowledge the amazing work that our cochair Valerie Foster and the rest of our dedicated Soup & Hope Committee put together these amazing talks every other week. Thank you so much for all your hard work. So now I'm happy to invite to the podium Andrew Quagliata to the podium. He'll be introducing today's Soup & Hope speaker.
ANDREW QUAGLIATA: I'd like you to take a moment and think about the qualities of a good teammate. Motivated, hard working, someone with integrity. JT Baker is that someone. He's a guy you want on your team.
I had the pleasure of meeting JT when he first arrived to campus in June 2017. JT is a first-generation college student. And he participated in Cornell's Prefreshman Summer Program.
He was a student in my management communication course. My first impression of JT was that he was motivated to learn. He asked big-picture questions and wasn't scared to simply ask why.
My office hours were Tuesdays and Thursdays. And JT was my best customer. His curiosity began with the coarse material, extended to college life, and what his future could entail.
By the time JT completed the second assignment in the course, he'd already secured an internship the following summer working for the chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings. Only three weeks earlier, JT had described the prospect of interning with the Vikings as a dream.
In his final reflection paper, he wrote, "During this course, I was pushed out of my comfort zone and encountered some challenges. But I ultimately became a better student from the challenge." When JT's pushed out of his comfort zone, he just works harder.
He's a student athlete on the Big Red varsity football team. He's somewhat famous in Statler Hall, where he serves as a student ambassador and on the Dean's Advisory Board. JT welcomes prospective students and families with a warm smile. And he works hard to be sure the voices of all of his classmates are represented.
His work ethic extends beyond a full schedule. JT puts in effort to truly understand others. He traveled to Israel with the Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission last year. JT says, the trip changed his perspective of the world. He learned not to make assumptions about others until you take time to hear their story.
JT is also a person with integrity. He does the right thing even when others aren't watching. His integrity was challenged during his campaign to be the student-elected trustee on Cornell University's Board of Trustees. JT had reason to be critical of a process that seemed unfair. But he handled the situation with maturity and grace.
In his position on the Board of Trustees, JT focuses on the needs of others with a particular attention to marginalized students. JT, at the age of 20, already understands the Martin Luther King Jr. quote, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?" In fact, one of JT's friends told me, that's what most people don't know about JT, he helps a lot of people. JT is generous with his time, knowledge, and the connections he's made.
I've had the good fortune of learning with JT, hosting him in my home, and traveling with him. I'm grateful he's on my team. He stays calm in dicey situations, like when my boat almost ran out of gas. And we were in the middle of Cayuga Lake.
He can pilot a plane. He's a man of faith. He has a first degree black belt in karate. He can cook a mean French toast and scrambled eggs.
He's motivated. He's hard working. And he's a person of integrity. We, at Cornell University, are fortunate that JT Baker is on our team. Please join me in welcoming JT.
JT BAKER: Thank you so much, Dr. Q, for that really remarkable introduction. And I want to thank you for not only being a great teacher and educator but a mentor, and a role model, and someone I really consider to be a part of my family for everything that you've done for me for my last three years here. It really means a lot to me. So thank you.
And I also want to thank Mr. Victor Younger, and Christopher, and the entire Soup & Hope Committee for hosting this wonderful event. I came for the first time two weeks ago and heard the speaker. And as I reflected, all I could think of was how unique this environment really is. It's the only space we have true unity. One of the only few spaces we have that on this campus and, I would even argue, in our country.
And especially in today's society where it seems that we're divided and separate by so many facets, being here in unity with different ages, different religions, different races-- we have all levels of the University of Cornell-- people from Ithaca all under one roof, enjoying a good meal, and listening to a positive message is really special. So thank you. And I'm honored and humbled to have this platform to share my story. And I want to thank everyone who's taking the time to come and spend your lunch break with me today.
So January 11, 1999, that's when it all started. That's when I was born. Most people don't know this. But I was born three months early. At birth, I weighed a pound and a half, 1 pound, 8 ounces. I could fit in the palm of my father's hand.
And due to my premature birth, I had a bit of obstacles as a baby. I couldn't maintain the proper blood temperature, the proper body temperature. And the most essential thing of life, I couldn't breathe on my own. So I had to spend three months in the hospital after my birth.
And I was born to two older parents, James and Alice Baker. My dad at the time was in his late 50s when I was born. And my mom was in her late 40s. And even before I was born when they first found out my mom was pregnant, the doctors told her, ma'am, it's very likely that you don't have a successful pregnancy due to your age.
But they continued on. And they even told them, even if you do have a successful pregnancy, it's very likely that when your child is born, he'll have effects from your old age. And, indeed, I did, which I just named off from my premature birth.
But they had hope. And when I was born, the doctors had hope. They invested in me. They gave me the resources I needed to survive.
My family had hope. My family comforted my mom and dad, believed in me. And most importantly, God had hope in me. And God had a bigger plan.
And although this is 21 years ago now and, as you can see, I came a long way from that pound and a half, I share that with you to give you my first experience of hope. All these people were giving me hope before I even knew what hope really was. They were giving someone hope who didn't even know that I needed hope. And that's important.
So today I'm going to tell you three other instances in my life that hope has directly affected me. First, I want to tell you a little bit more about who my parents really are and how their hope transformed my future. I also want to share a little bit about my high school journey and how I ended up right here on this stage with you today. And lastly, I want to really share what it's like for me to be a Cornell student in today's age.
So, as I mentioned, my parents are older parents. Some of the most hardworking people I've ever met in my life. And they've invested and sacrificed so much so I could be here.
Both of my parents did not go to college, did not receive any formal education after high school. Both came from families and communities with a high level of poverty. Also, both grew up in a time where even still today it's hard to be a minority in America, but even harder when they were growing up being African-American.
But they had a dream. They had a vision. They were inspired. My mom and dad had a dream of opening up a restaurant and catering company.
And, like I said, no formal education, no financial means. And if you know anything about restaurants, they're very hard to operate. And I'm in the hotel school. So I know a little bit about food and beverage.
But just a statistic, so 60% of small restaurants fail in the first year. 80% never see their fifth anniversary. But my mom and dad had this hope and their vision of, they wanted to build a better life for themselves. They wanted to achieve something bigger than their circumstances. So they set off on this goal.
And not only did they want to open up a restaurant, they wanted to open up a restaurant in North Minneapolis. And if you know anything about Minnesota, North Minneapolis is the most poverty-stricken city in the entire state. Highest population of underrepresented minorities, mostly African-Americans. Highest rate of violence, highest rate of gang violence, highest rate of drug and alcohol abuse.
But this is where we're from. This is our community. This is where my mom grew up, where she went to high school, where our family is. This is where our people are.
So instead of wanting to open up a restaurant in the suburbs or downtown Minneapolis, they wanted to give the community hope. They wanted to revitalize a community that seemed lost. So they did that.
I spent my entire early years working in the restaurant. That's where I learned my discipline, my hard work. My love for hospitality would eventually led me to the hotel school.
I did everything from bussing tables, to washing dishes, to helping my dad flip pancakes, and where I learned how to make that mean French toast and scrambled eggs, to helping my mom in the front of house, helping customers, helping her on deliveries. And I seen the internal hope that they had. My mom and dad having to wake up at 5:30 in the morning every morning and staying at the restaurant until 10:00 PM. Working holidays and weekends because, in the food industry, people want to eat on these days. So we're not able to spend family time.
But they had that vision. They had that internal hope. I also seen my dad have to run off drug dealers from selling drugs in front of our restaurant. And those same drug dealers coming back to the restaurant, and breaking our windows, and trashing the restaurant, and robbing my mom and dad, and even threatening our family.
But they persisted and they stayed. I even seen that same man, my dad, take those same gang bangers and try to give them hope, offer them jobs, to come in, to make an honest dollar, to give them other options other than what the streets were giving them. That's when I learned the true definition of hope and what it means to give a young person an opportunity.
My mom and dad-- and I gave you the statistics about how long restaurants last-- have been on that corner of Glenwood and Morgan in North Minneapolis for 25 years. And they've done things for the community and become an anchor to truly revitalize and give the community hope. If you go to North Minneapolis right now, it's a totally different picture. And a big part of that is my mom and dad's presence there. And the lesson I learned from them was having hope within yourself and being able to go and try to achieve dreams bigger than what many people may think you're capable of because of your circumstances.
As Dr. Q mentioned, I flied airplanes when I was little. I received a black belt in karate. I played football, and basketball, and travel. And that was because my mom and dad, due to the fact that they were older, they were able to sacrifice and really knew how important it was to nourish me, which I'm very appreciative of.
But that set the foundation for me to end up at a place here like Cornell and kept me away from ending up like those same people who are selling drugs in front of my dad's restaurant because they're in the same community I live in. I could have easily ended up like one of them and went down that path. My parents made an intentional decision to keep me involved, to continuously showing me other forms of hope so I didn't end up down that road. And that's what led me to my high school career.
So in high school-- I want to tell you a quick story. Initially, when I went in my freshman year, for some odd reason, I wanted to go to an Ivy League institution. And, like I told you, neither my mom and dad went to college. No one in my immediate family went to college or my extended family.
And for some reason, JT wants to go to an Ivy League school. And I never really know why until when I was actually preparing for this speech and I really thought about it. And a part of it was that internal hope my mom and dad showed me.
The fact that they didn't have the financial resources, they didn't have an education, but they wanted to build a restaurant. And they had that dream which may seem impossible or unachievable. But they did it. That's the same reason why, for someone who's never seen anyone in a college setting, I, for some reason, wanted to go to an Ivy League institution and also because of the fact that my mom and dad instilled in me a high value of education. So I did.
And over time, I became really vocal of, I think, I really can go to an Ivy League school. I really want to. And then all of a sudden, I started hearing my classmates say, well, JT, you're not smart enough to go to an Ivy League school. Or, do you even know what it's really like at an Ivy League?
Or teachers telling me, do you know how hard it is to be accepted into an Ivy League school? Are you sure you just don't want to focus on football? And that does something to a student.
But I had one important mentor in my life who's one of the most important people I have, especially throughout my high school journey. And his name was Coach CJ Hallman. He was my freshman basketball coach and my varsity football coach.
He sat me down one day in his office and said, JT, what are your dreams and goals? And from the reaction of other people, I've sheltered myself at that point. And he said, be honest with me, really. Don't tell me what you tell people to feel comfortable or so they don't make fun of you or they don't laugh at you. But, really, what are your dreams and your goals?
And he told me, he said, take this notebook. And I want you to go home. And I want you to write down your biggest dreams and goals in this notebook. And at first, I was a little skeptical. But I did that.
I went home. Two days later, I came back. I said, Coach, here are my goals. I had three things in this notebook. And this is the same exact notebook he gave me.
The first was, I wanted to change my family's circumstances and be the first one in my family to go to college. The second goal, I wanted to go to an Ivy League institution. Third, I wanted to play Division I football. And the next thing that Coach CJ did was the most important thing-- and I can challenge all of you to really understand this-- is he invested in me. And he gave me hope.
He said, OK, JT. You have those three goals. Let's make a plan. I want you to do your research. And I'll help you figure out how to get into an Ivy League school.
What type of GPA are you supposed to have? What type of ACT score do you have? You must have perfect attendance in all your classes. Do you have to take honors classes? How much weight do you have to lift every morning for you to be able to play Division I football?
It wasn't necessarily about the touchdowns, but more about, what type of person do you have to be to play for a team like Cornell University? Be on time, have integrity. Always do the right thing when no one's looking.
Be that person your classmates can go to. Be a leader. And that's what I did. And this was a very, very important lesson that I learned was that when someone takes the time to invest in you and open up opportunities, it changes your life.
So then fast forward to my senior year of high school or about junior year, I was officially recruited by Cornell University along with Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and several other schools outside of the Ivy League. Now I went from a young man who didn't believe that or had people tell me that I couldn't go to college, regardless of an Ivy League institution. And now at the end of my high school career, I have all these different options. But Cornell was the very first school to recruit me before any of them. And I felt most at home here at Cornell.
And then I started hearing things when I officially got admitted into Cornell. JT only got in because he plays football. Or JT was only admitted because Cornell had to satisfy their diversity requirement and he's a Black student. And then I continued to be put in a box.
But that internal hope that I learned from my mom and dad, I was able to persevere and stay the course. And that's what led me to here. So now I'm a first-generation college student, as Dr. Q said, from a low-income background, from a family who never went to college. And now I'm at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, playing Division I football for one of the most tradition-rich programs in all of sports on top of my other involvement being in the number one school for hotel administration in the world and studying what I love.
But I want to take a step back. My first professor I ever had here at Cornell was Dr. Quagliata. And he also did something very special for me, like what Coach CJ did for me in high school. The first day of class, I stayed after to introduce myself, talk to him, went to his office hours, as he said.
And the thing he told me stuck with me still to this day. No matter what, do not let anything get in the way of your dreams, JT. And while you're here at Cornell, times will be tough. But never limit yourself. Instantly, changed my entire perspective on Cornell and allowed me to feel comfortable, to feel like I belonged here at Cornell because a professor took the time to make me feel like I was seen, that my dreams and my aspirations and my hopes could come to fruition.
Also, he talked about my internship working for the Minnesota Vikings that I got because of an assignment he gave me in class. And that allowed me the blessing to meet one of my biggest mentors in my life, Kevin Warren. And if you don't know who Kevin Warren is, Kevin Warren was the highest ranking Black executive on the business side of the NFL. I've worked for him for the last three years now.
Kevin Warren has shown me that it's a lot more than just being a football player. I have a lot more options. Kevin Warren has shown me what I can do if I do the right things, get a good education, and the life I can make for myself. And now Mr. Warren has left the Vikings and became the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, which is a major deal in sports because, ultimately, he's the only Black commissioner of any Power Five conference.
But I would have never met Mr. Warren and had that opportunity to learn professionalism, learn taking a stance, being a leader if it wasn't for Dr. Q. And now that I've gotten to Cornell, I've taken all those lessons, the internal hope I've learned from my mom and dad. I've used the resources given to me by Coach CJ, by Professor Quagliata, by Kevin Warren to make the most of my opportunity.
And now the table has shifted. I went from receiving all of this hope from people to now being a symbol of hope. I can give hope to future young African-American students or underrepresented minority students from low-income backgrounds and let them know that you can too come to Cornell. And when people laugh at you in your high school because you have a dream to better yourself, you can still overcome all those obstacles.
Being here, playing football, and, on top of my academics and my other service to Cornell, being on the Board of Trustees, that's one of the most remarkable things I could think of. Even still to this day, my mom and dad truly don't understand what my experience is like here at Cornell. But they're always-- so my mom and dad comes back to campus once a year. They drive me back in the summer. And you can just see their facial expressions.
And my dad has literally made this statement to me, every time I'm here on this campus, JT, I pretend like I'm a student. And that does something to me, that my dad's dream was to go to college. And he wasn't able to do that.
But now I'm living out his dream. And it's not just on my own. It's because of the sacrifice and the investment that my mom and dad made in me and the life that they've built for me. I seen my dad do things, for example, like truly sacrifice all of his interests just to pour into me. And now that I'm here.
So now I go back to the Board of Trustees, being a Black 21-year-old, serving on a board which is the highest level of governance here at Cornell. So our president and our top of administration reports to the board. And we make every vital decision pertaining to the university and all of our campuses. I'm on the board with members of Congress, major CEOs, billionaires, coming from my background and my community. But they see me as a peer.
And all this stemmed from was a little hope. And that's why it's such a remarkable thing that the Soup & Hope Committee holds events like this. Now I'm a change for hope here on this campus. And you are too.
That is the definition of hope. You are the definition of hope. You can do the same thing my doctors did and give hope to someone who doesn't even know they need it or someone who's not even seeking it just by how you live your everyday lives. You can do the same thing that Coach CJ did for me in high school and invest in someone, see that they have dreams and aspirations, and help them achieve those, and give them hope. You can be great role models like my parents and show people what it means to have internal hope and to do the right thing.
That's the message I really wanted to leave you all here today, especially in a time where we need hope so very bad in our country and our world. I mean, it's simple. You can do this in your everyday lives, how you treat people. You can do it for your sons and your daughters, your neighbors, your coworkers. You never know how your actions will affect someone.
My life story is a story of hope. And I can easily say that I'm not supposed to be up here speaking to you today. And I'm not supposed to be on the Board of Trustees at an Ivy League institution, helping run a $14 billion organization. I could have easily went down a different path. But it was because of hope and all these different people that I listed that took the time to give me, as a young man, hope.
And the last thing I'll leave you with is that I often say, people-- JT, how do you do all of these things? And, what makes you special? There's nothing that makes JT Baker special. The only thing that separates me from a lot of other people from my community who do not make it to this point is that someone took the time to give me hope.
So, please, thank you for being here. Thank you for wanting to listen and have an inspiration of hope. But continue spreading that hope because that changes lives. Thank you.
CHRISTOPHER LUJAN: All right, thank you so much, JT. That was amazing. I just want to give a heads-up. Our next Soup & Hope will be March 12, come out, where we'll be hearing Eric Acree. Everyone, have a great afternoon. Bye-bye.
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James Timothy (JT) Baker '21 shares an inspiring story of how a little bit of hope allowed him to set big goals and pursue his dreams, as part of the 2020 Soup & Hope series.