The late Dr. Donda West is generally known as a “celebrity mom” for helping to launch the rap career of her son, Kanye. But she was also an esteemed educator in her own right, championing the cause of literacy. July 12, marked her 60th birthday, and her legacy continues to the touch the lives of those that knew her in life.

As chair of the English Department at Chicago State University, West was a mentor to her colleague, Dr. Brenda Eatman Aghahowa. Hiring Aghahowa as a lecturer in 1997, West encouraged her to apply for a tenure-track position that was opening at the time.

“She was as supportive as any employer possibly could be in assisting me both in having the time and scheduling to earn the Ph.D., and also in navigating the tenure process,” Aghahowa said. 

She fondly remembers sharing hotel rooms with West during the numerous professional development conferences that she invited her to attend. West, she recalled, encouraged her to follow in her footsteps as chair of CSU’s English department, a post West vacated to focus on her son’s music career. Now in her second three-year term as chair, Aghahowa said, “I would not, nor could I have done any of these things professionally without the motivation and practical assistance she so enthusiastically and consistently gave. Thank you, Donda.”                                  

Bryant Smith, art director at OwensMorris Communications in Chicago, was a former student of West’s at Chicago State. As a budding writer, Smith took a very selective-enrollment course to be taught by famed poet Gwendolyn Brooks, but West took over the course for the first few weeks while Brooks’ scheduling conflicts were ironed.

“She would often state that she was not a poet, but would give brilliant examples of her work and depth of knowledge in regards to the poetic art form and writing in general,” said Smith, recalling her as concise and always encouraging students to answer their own questions, rather than providing answers for them.

Once Gwendolyn Brooks took over the course, West would, on occasion, slip into class and become a student herself. “Her giddiness was apparent as she would take notes, or watch us toil at giving birth to some strange poem. Dr. West was a student first, and knew that mastery of anything does not exempt one from learning from someone else, or about one’s self,” Smith said. “Her ability to give, encourage, and uplift came from a genuine space and her desire for everyone to be as happy about life as she was.”

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