Since IHADLA’s inception, many students have passed through our program and have gone on to achieve a wide variety of educational, career, and personal accomplishments. For our first Alumni Spotlight piece, we are highlighting an exceptional member of our Program 1 class, launched in 1987. Denita Hartfield-Oyeka was in the 6th grade in 1986 when she met IHADLA Founder Eugene Lang at her own elementary school graduation and her life began to change dramatically. Before this moment, Denita faced difficult circumstances living in her neighborhood in South Central, Los Angeles; her mother died when she was 7 while her father was incarcerated and she was raised by her grandparents. Although Denita cites her grandmother as her “inspiration”, her household was strict which combined with outside circumstances including pressure to join a gang, knowing victims of gun violence, and fearing she would become a victim too created a difficult environment to grow in. She shared that before coming to IHADLA, people in her life “did not believe in her aspirations and goals but she remained determined to show them that hard work was the key”. After the kickstart of Program 1, Denita remarked that IHADLA “gave her a new sense of direction and motivation”, exposed her to experiences outside of her neighborhood, and most importantly, taught her to follow a positive path to fulfill her dreams. She said she was “always excited about learning”, and with the encouragement of program coordinator Floy Hawkins, she became “proud and comfortable with her ability to excel in even the hardest aspects of academics.” She was always teased for being too smart, raising her hand, and asking too many questions and was called names like Ms. Penny Perfect. Despite the challenges of being “smart and cool at the same time,” this never deterred Denita from her love of learning.
After she finished high school, Denita joined the US Army at 17 years old, where she served for 17 years in Chemical Nuclear Biological Intelligence Operations. While in the military she received her Bachelor’s Degree in Education: Workforce Development and Training and her Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice: Terrorism/Weapons of Mass Destruction despite travelling to various duty assignments in several states and countries. In 2005, while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom/ Operation Enduring Freedom in Mosul, Iraq, her convoy was ambushed and she sustained serious injuries including trauma to the brain. During her recovery from these war injuries, she remained determined and completed her Doctorate in Public Policy: Organizational Management and Leadership to help other veterans transition into civilian life after combat. She complained that her injuries caused the process to take longer than she imagined but it became a personal goal to “defeat her fears that her injuries were bigger than her dreams”. While her recovery is on-going and she has completed her education, Denita has continued to serve her country by working for the Department of Justice and is pursuing her own entrepreneurial endeavors. She lives in Santa Clarita with her husband and has 6-year-old twins.
When reflecting on her experiences since becoming a part of the IHADLA community, Denita shared that IHADLA “exposed my family to opportunities, activities, and tangible goals that I had not been exposed to. [IHADLA] taught me that I could customize my career, that I could speak in public, that I could motivate my peers, and that my voice was valuable.” She recalled learning about intergenerational inequality and making connections between the struggles of previous generations and her and her classmates’ lives. She went on to mention that the IHADLA staff and mission empowered her and her cohort to “move to action for our community” so they could “build Los Angeles for our futures.” With the support of the IHADLA community, Denita noticed changes in her sense of persistence, hard work and determination, learning that “dreams could not exist without action,” to “build dreams from scratch and incorporate the tools to attain those dreams.”
Denita also talked about the variety of experiences she was exposed to thanks to her involvement with IHADLA, including workshops on public speaking, community action events, as well as trips to museums, and college campuses that “made the dream of being the first to go to college a reality.” She continued that on the college visits she participated in, including to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), “there were other young ladies at college that came from my neighborhood and looked like me”, leading her to feel more excited about pursuing higher education.
Looking back on her own experience with IHADLA, as well as the experiences of her program and following generations of Dreamer Scholars, Denita shared her thoughts on the importance of IHADLA in “developing and motivating people to become more than their environment. IHADLA challenges youth to personalize their futures with realistic goals [and] provides options to eliminate several barriers to accomplishing your dreams.” She said that, “for Dreamers [Scholars], the developmental opportunities, exposure to new places, and the cohesiveness of their cohorts become indispensable and stays with you for your entire life.”
Denita’s story is exemplary of the many types of educational, personal, and professional success our Dreamer Scholars achieve during and after their time at IHADLA, and we are so proud of all of the achievements she has accomplished. Supporting and staying connected with our alumni through events, reunions, and personal communication is essential to maintaining our mission and community at IHADLA. We are grateful for their continued support of the work we do!