Two midterm exams, a meeting with the JMU communications team and now a small speaking engagement to start his Thursday evening — Dela Adedze appears on the screen, a small box amid rows of identically shaped rectangles. He’s prepared a few words to introduce the Student Diversity Summit.
Adedze thanks the student presenters and participants and, although many of the attendees are only names or avatars, Adedze brings the same energy he would to a ballroom filled with 100 people. With any small slip up in his words, Adedze smiles, brushes it off and continues.
After he finishes, Adedze will rush to campus in time for his weekly meeting with fellow Student Government Association leaders. Meanwhile, the purple graduation gown hanging on the back of his bedroom door in the background reminds him that his time at JMU is almost up.
For the past few months, this is what Adedze’s role as JMU’s student body president has looked like: Zoom meetings and virtual events. As elections for next year’s student government come to a close, Adedze’s unusual year as JMU’s student leader is coming to a close. Fighting through COVID-19 restrictions and an almost empty campus, Adedze’s term has been like no other.
At first, Adedze thought his role as an economics major on the finance committee would be just another line on his resume. However, he soon learned he could impact organizations on campus with the funding his committee allocated, and he connected with other SGA members who shared his passions.
Two years later, and just weeks before COVID-19 shut down the country, Adedze was finishing a paper before the 11:59 p.m. deadline when he received a phone call. He’d been elected student body president.
Nick Garrett, Adedze’s fellow leadership team member and friend, said Adedze showed early on that he’s a representative of the people, not his own interests. When Garrett, the academic affairs committee chair, discussed credit/no-credit classes with administration in the fall, Adedze was by his side making sure student voices were heard.
Adedze’s main goal as president has been to make SGA a consistent and valuable resource for anyone in the student body.
A student could text Adedze, “My classroom in Showker is 85 degrees. I have no idea who to contact. I know ... you're in SGA. Who do I contact? What do I do?” and he’d make sure that it’s handled.
In fact, that’s his favorite part of the job. Any time, day or night, Adedze loves to get texts and FaceTime calls from numbers he doesn’t recognize. It could be a text about the university’s latest actions on COVID-19 or a call to tell him a professor has scheduled a quiz on a break day.
He always answers.
Each Thursday starting at 6:15 p.m. and lasting as long as needed, SGA’s executive council and committee chairs gather to discuss their latest projects. The group gathers in the X-Labs and nearly fills the high-tech room furnished with glossy white tables and five massive TV screens.
Between jokes and side conversations, the students plow through business as Adedze sits silently, taking in their reports. He offers his opinion when asked and chimes in occasionally. Mostly, he listens.
Four years ago, Adedze never could’ve imagined himself here.
Majoring in economics and double minoring in political science and writing, rhetoric and technical communication might be plenty on any other student’s plate, but Adedze began to pile on extracurriculars starting the fall of his freshman year. First, he joined the fraternity Sigma Nu, and in the spring, he was elected to SGA as a senator for the College of Business. Soon after, he joined the Madison Venture Group and Brothers of a New Direction. His junior year, he was accepted to Student Ambassadors and, along the way, he served on the leadership teams of most of the clubs he’s participated in.
“My main goal was trying to just put myself in as many different spaces as possible,” Adedze said. “So, I could not only, like, really understand other people, but also just so I can sort of, like, remove that sense of ignorance I have about a group of people.”
Adedze was born in Champaign, Illinois, an hour outside of Chicago. His parents are immigrants — his father from Ghana and his mother from Rwanda — and the first years of Adedze’s life were spent surrounded by a diverse mix of families, like his own at a University of Illinois student housing complex.
Adedze’s parents divorced when he was young, and his mother raised him and his younger sister while she finished her education. As a child, Adedze could frequently be found at his local community center after school sharing kimbap with his friend Jong Un or eating chapati with his friend Muhammad. His neighborhood and school were never one-note, so it was a shock when he was moved to a private Catholic school in third grade.
“For some, I was, you know, literally the only African American kid they've ever seen,” Adedze recalled. “I remember kids touching my hair, all of that, like I was an artifact in a museum or, you know, an animal in a zoo.”
In seventh grade, Adedze’s family moved from Chicago to Arlington, Virginia, where he’d attend Gonzaga, a private, Catholic all-boys school in Washington, D.C.
During lunch, Adedze didn’t have an “assigned” lunch seat. Instead, he hopped from table to table, talking with everyone from the football players to the theater kids. Adedze ran track for three years, was part of the student newspaper, joined the Black student association called Onyx, played trumpet in the band and even performed as a pirate in “Peter Pan” his senior year.
His senior year, Adedze signed up to run for student body president. He wasn’t selected.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Adedze sat at a computer in the SGA office talking with two of his friends on the leadership team, Garrett and Katrina Tilley.
The small room on the second floor of Madison Union is a time capsule of days on campus before the pandemic. Cushy couches and easy chairs remain closer than six feet apart, pom poms from JMU football games decorate the door and a string of photos filled with maskless faces hangs along the wall. Adedze’s office hours begin and end without a single student visitor.
“I used to see everyone I knew every single day on campus, at least one person,” Adedze said. “Now when I go, I don't know a single person ... It's not the same.”
Due to the pandemic, the extrovert is forced to represent a student body that’s distant and disconnected.
“I remember, just, ever since I've been a kid, I've always been the talkative kid in class — the one who the teacher always kicked out,” Adedze said.
Despite calls to the principal’s office, Adedze’s mother told him to ignore the people who assumed he had ADHD or was a troublemaker.
“The first time I met him, he really stood out to me,” Clay Martinelli, Adedze’s former roommate and fraternity brother, said. “He’s obviously very outspoken. Maybe talks too much, but I really did like that in him.”
Garrett said Adedze’s ability to speak in front of a crowd and advocate for others is an asset. Adedze joined forces with Garrett to champion homework-free break days, and they’ve recently been working on revamping the course registration process.
“I usually have, you know, 13 other leadership team members to depend on as well,” Adedze said. “If I'm ever stuck on something, and I know, like, I can just say, ‘Hey, is there any way you could, you know, replace me at this meeting or go to this meeting?’ My position is really just a title.”
With the title of student body president and a jam-packed resume, Adedze is working hard to secure his spot in the final round of interviews for the tech companies Coinbase and Google.
“I’m taking the time out to really figure it out,” Adedze said. “I’m not stressing too much about life after college because I just feel like it’s going to work out somehow, whatever I decide to do.”
For now, Adedze will keep his phone on. A text about graduation news or his latest meeting with Tim Miller is bound to arise, and he’ll be there to answer it.
Contact Ryann Sheehy at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.