Chance’s Greatest Lesson: Be Steadfast

Growing up in Atlanta, Chance Wren learned independence and the power of faith and family. Would that foundation be enough to carry him through college up north?

May 15, 2017
Mark Abramson photographed Mr. Wren during his junior year at Bard College. Now Mr. Wren is a graduating senior. He emailed and spoke with Mr. Abramson on several occasions. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Chance Wren, 22, received a full-tuition scholarship to attend Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. He is a Posse Foundation and Gates Millennium scholar. Born in Birmingham, Ala., he moved to Atlanta at age 5 and was raised by his single mother, Dhana Michelle Moore. She also raised Chance’s younger sister, Sky, and his older sister, Housthon. He attended private schools, including W. Deen Mohammed High School. At age 17, he converted to Islam, breaking a family line of Baptists. He found a spiritual home in the Muslim community, which he says provided him with a nurturing environment and strong male mentors. He graduates this month with a degree in computer science, heading to an internship at Massachusetts Financial Services, a Boston investment firm.

Life at Bard was very different from anything he’d known. In these excerpts from our interviews, Chance reflects on coming to terms with life on campus and in the world beyond.

A professor avoids "the N-word."

In my freshman year, I had what’s called the first-year seminar class. We had to read the slave narrative of Frederick Douglass. And the particular teacher — I can't remember his name, but he was a white guy. He was of German descent. And I was the only African-American in my class. It made the situation a little bit more awkward. When we were reading in the book, he would replace the N-word with "black person."

Being in that particular setting and having that happen made me more than a little uncomfortable. But not uncomfortable to a point where I wanted to speak to the professor about it.

It was one of the first instances that this ever happened in my life. Thinking back on it now, I probably would have spoken to my professor. But then, I just came out of high school. I never really experienced it before. I was going through all these emotions like, should I say something? Is this really wrong? Should I do something about it?

Life with Jada, learning about himself.

There are times when I need other people, and I definitely need my girlfirend, Jada, to be there when I'm in need. We're two different people from two different places, and we've had totally different experiences.

We deal with different things in different ways. When she has an issue or a problem that's really, really bothering her, she comes to me, or her mom, or a friend, almost immediately.

When I'm going through things, I don't always share everything about how I feel. That was something that I needed to work on, being able to express and share how I felt in that moment instead of keeping it bottled up. It goes back into this large independence that I have for myself, but also this having very minimal dependence on other people that also can be seen as my downfall.

Being his own Muslim on campus.

When I first got to campus, I felt as though I had to be Muslim for everybody else rather than myself, so that they didn't get the wrong idea about me and my faith and other people who believed the same things I did.

One of the things that I've learned is that we're all different. It's made me sort of hyperaware of my faith, in terms of being at Bard, where there are barely any other Muslims around.

I wanted to give them a better perception of Muslims and Islam, rather than the perception that the media gives them. I was having a conversation with one guy about religion. He asked me what I believed in. I said I was Muslim, and I converted. He said, "Oh, really? You don't look like a Muslim." I was like, "So, what does a Muslim look like?"

It's things like that. Not only are we the most ethnically diverse religion, we come from all different walks of life, and we don't even agree on all the same things, on how to live our lives. I've tried my best to be my own person and my own individual and my own Muslim identity, really. I've tried to be my own Muslim.

Back in Atlanta with his mom, Chance recalls how he became independent at an early age.

My mother, Dhana Moore (above), raised me to be as independent as possible, even at an early age. I mean, I had my own bank account when I was in middle school, like eighth grade; a lot of my friends didn't even have a bank account. A lot of my friends weren't living at the house by themselves like I was.

During my eighth-grade year and for about half of my high-school career, my mother practically lived in Washington. And my little sister, she was at her dad's house, and so it was just me there at the house. So I would wake myself up in the morning, take my own bath, make my own food, get myself to school, do my own homework. I never really asked my mom for help on homework. I didn't have anybody to help me on homework, really.

Most of the time Sky's father would bring her over for the weekend and leave her with me. Sky wasn't even 1 around this time. She was still a baby. I'd change her diapers, make sure she got a bath, make sure she was fed and clothed up, everything. I had people checking on me, making sure I had everything I need. For the better part of it, I was fine.

My mom has been away a lot, and she's kind of missed a good amount of things that I've done in my life, simply because she's had so much responsibility placed on her as a single parent, and so she's had to work. The only reason she worked so far away, up north, is because the salaries were higher, and the cost of living in the South was lower. So that was a sacrifice she had to make.

My mother is definitely someone that I've looked up to all of my life. She's been the pillar, the rock, in our small immediate family. She continues to be still.

I don't aspire to be my mother, but I do aspire to use the things that she has taught me.

Being the father figure with his family.

It's been a while since the four of us have been together in one place, when I think about it. This is my mother, whose arm is on my shoulder, my grandmother, me, and Sky. This is my family.

Shouldering his own responsibilities — plus those of family and friends.

The perceptions of me by other people, the expectations, the amount of work I have to do, my obligations to my family, my faith, myself, my friends, my work, my academics. Where I might see myself, the unknown, and things that I can't see are the questions I have in my mind.

Regardless of the amount of weight that I have, I'm still carrying it.

I'm still prevailing. I'm still here.

Stress relief: Letting go and having fun.

One of the things I've tried to avoid during my stay here at Bard is using substances like alcohol and marijuana as stress relievers. We’re stressed out, and we want to feel something that is not negative. We want to feel different. We want to let loose. Relinquish this control that we have over ourselves and just kind of let things ride a little.

Perception vs. reality.

People always tell me, they get the impression that I've got myself together, and it doesn't look like I'm struggling too much. But I am. I am, just as much as they are.

What he saw, and what he learned from college.

As liberal as Bard may claim itself to be, there is also this lack of liberalness, if that's a word. Or open-mindedness.

The most important thing that I have learned at Bard is how important it is to remain steadfast in who you are and what you believe, while also remaining open to other thoughts, views, questions, challenges, and perspectives.

If you are going to make a change with yourself, your beliefs, your practices, your goals, be sure that you make that change because you believe that it is best for yourself to do. This is easier said than done in some cases and can only come with experience, but I have learned that it is paramount for oneself and those around to at least try.

Beyond Bard. 

Part of me feels ready to enter the work force and proceed into the next phase of my life, building a career, traveling, etc. But another part of me isn’t ready simply because of the anxiety that I harbor from not knowing where the next steps that I take in my life will lead me. In a way, I feel almost the same way I did when I was graduating high school four years ago, when I didn’t know what my college experience would be like, where it would take me, who I would meet, what would I learn, what friendships would be made or lost and more.


Rose Engelland, senior photo editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, also contributed to this photo essay.