Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown Gives John Jay Students His Best Life Advice

Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown Gives John Jay Students His Best Life Advice

Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown Gives John Jay Students His Best Life Advice

The keynote speaker for Commencement 2019 was none other than Netflix’s Queer Eye “Culture Expert” Karamo Brown, a three-time Emmy award winner, a counselor, a psychotherapist, and an advocate for LGBTQ youth. Brown not only admires the spirit of John Jay’s students, but he’s also immensely proud of the College’s goal to increase social mobility for underrepresented populations. We had the opportunity to sit down with Brown to learn more about his life and his best advice for John Jay students.

As you know, John Jay’s mission is to explore justice in all its many dimensions. John Jay also prides itself on reaching traditionally underrepresented groups and improving social mobility. Why are these missions particularly important to you?

People of color, the LGBTQ community, and women have had to deal with so much oppression and hurt, yet they still make it through and they accomplish so much. So, to be at a school like John Jay, where these groups are highlighted, supported, and encouraged, is important to me, and it is important for our country. Those individuals are the people that are the fabric of what it is to be American. They are the ones who are breathing new life into everyday experiences that have become mundane or traditional in a negative sense. I think it’s so important to support them and to help them understand that in this world you will go through certain challenges, but those challenges will not be a deterrence for you to achieve success or for you to be a part of this American dream. 

President Karol V. Mason with Karamo Brown
President Karol V. Mason with Karamo Brown

“You will go through certain challenges, but those challenges will not be a deterrence for you to achieve success or for you to be a part of this American dream.” —Karamo Brown

Did you know that John Jay is eighth in the country for minority students applying to law schools?

Good job! We need that. Our justice department needs more diversity. We saw what happened in this last election when we saw an influx of women and women of color going into Congress and being in our House of Representatives. That’s beautiful because it means that there is a voice for everyone, there is a place for everyone. I think it’s important to have all diversities, genders, and sexual identities represented in the world, especially when you are talking about justice issues, where so many people go into the criminal justice system. It even starts in elementary schools, where people say because you are black or Latino and come from this neighborhood, you are a problem child. When you have people who understand that you are not a “problem child” and that we can channel your challenges into greatness, then that’s really important.

Karamo Brown chatting with valedictorian Jasmine Awad
Karamo Brown chatting with valedictorian Jasmine Awad

“Having these different generations say that they want to learn together, support each other, and go around the world to make a difference in our communities is great.” —Karamo Brown

What do you find inspiring about John Jay students?

I was talking to a John Jay student online who is 23, and I also spoke to a student who is in his late 40s, and they’re both graduating. I think it’s important for us to realize that the desire for education doesn’t stop just because society has said that you have “aged out” of what they believe or deem considerable for being in college. Having these different generations say that they want to learn together, support each other, and go around the world to make a difference in our communities is great.

Karamo Brown delivering his keynote address
Karamo Brown delivering his keynote address

“I always say that comparison is the thief of joy.” —Karamo Brown

What was your college graduation experience like? What are some of the similarities that you see in yourself and the John Jay students that you are addressing now?

Most people have anxiety and fear of what’s coming next. And, that was true for me and all of my friends. It was this celebration of our accomplishments and what we did, but then it was also like, “What now? Am I going to be able to find a job? Am I going to be able to support myself? Do I have to move back in with my parents?” It was a tumbleweed of “what if” and “what now.” How do you address those questions in a way that is healthy and positive, so that you can actually attain the life that you want. For me, when I look at John Jay graduates, I see the same experience that I had. And a lot of that comes from our society’s inability to teach young people that curiosity is still important, and the ability to be patient with yourself. I think those two things—the lack of curiosity and the desire to do something or you’re wrong—is causing people to have these fears and anxieties. I got over it by realizing that my only job in this world is to be kind, to be curious about what is new out there, to try different things, to learn about myself, and to also be patient with myself. I always say that comparison is the thief of joy. You go out into the world, and you see a guy in your class that’s got a job, got married, or had a kid, and you say, “Well, when’s my turn?” You have to be patient with yourself and realize, your journey is for you. As long as you are okay with going on your journey and taking it at whatever pace it happens to be, you’ll get there. 

If you could go back in time, what do you wish you knew when you first graduated from college that you know now?

The thing that I wish that I knew would be more financial literacy. I don’t think that we do enough for our young people and students when it comes to teaching them financial literacy. After going to college, they go into the world and need to know how to manage their bills, how to have money for a social life, and how to deal with the possible debt from getting an education. The pressure starts to get to us and we make a lot of wrong decisions—which is why most students leave college in debt and are fearful of what their future is going to be because of that debt. I think it would be great if we could give students in high school more financial literacy education, and then have that continue on and be monitored during their freshman and sophomore years of college.

Any last words for John Jay students?

I’m proud of you. You are amazing. I support you. And, your future is bright, don’t believe anything else.