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Making His Mark

May 27, 2008

When Agnes Nortey was pregnant with her first child, she prayed daily that her son would be born with a birthmark. In her native Ghanaian culture, a birthmark signifies a blessing from God. When her son James arrived, doctors feared the baby was born with a fatal disease--dark patches covered the boy's body. Mrs. Nortey knew better; she simply saw 40-plus birthmark blessings, including one that extended into the white of James' left eye.

"Oddly enough, I see better with this one," quips James A. Nortey II, referring to that same left eye. While some of James' birthmarks have faded with time, the blessings his mother so diligently sought are visible to everyone James meets.

"The running joke this year [at Brooks College] has been that if you really need something done, have James's mother pray for you!" says Dr. Michele Henry, associate faculty master at Brooks, where Nortey serves as senior community leader (CL).

Nortey's parents both grew up in Ghana. His father, Joseph, earned a degree from the University of Texas before returning to Ghana to marry Agnes. The couple emigrated to Texas soon thereafter, where James was born a couple of years later. Inheriting his father's adventurous spirit and his mother's concern for others (she's a longtime nurse), James made his way to Baylor from Cedar Park, Texas, via numerous scholarships, including Baylor's Founders Scholarship, the Baylor Student Foundation Scholarship (twice), Henry L. Robinson Phi Beta Kappa Scholarship, A. A. & Marjorie Hyden Scholarship, Opal G. Cox Trust Scholarship, Ron H. Morris ATO Scholarship and the Frank W. Mayborn Scholarship.

Nortey quickly found himself at home at Baylor, settling in at Brooks Residential Hall as a freshman. He has served as a community leader in Brooks Hall, Martin Residential Hall, and Brooks Residential College the past three years.

"Being a CL really is the premier leadership experience [at Baylor], on the front lines of students' lives. My job is not merely to serve as supervisor of a hall, per se, but to engage these freshmen, sophomores and juniors, to really help them figure out where they've been in their lives and where they're going," he says.

Even while balancing his studies (3.96 GPA) and CL duties, Nortey has found time to man several other leadership posts at Baylor. A philosophy major and criminal justice minor, he serves his fellow students as chief justice of Baylor's Student Government, resolving disputes and interpreting Baylor's Constitution. In fact, he squeezed in an interview for this story between working on his Honors thesis (the subject: reducing the recidivism rate of ex-convicts) and heading off to court.

Off campus, Nortey has led five different Sunday School classes at University Baptist Church. He also has volunteered at Mission Waco and with the McLennan County Sheriff's Department.

Nortey credits his four years at Baylor with giving him a great education while helping him find his calling.

"Baylor gives students the opportunity to get involved, to use their talents, to get plugged in, to become leaders," he says. "It's hard to find your calling unless you put your talents to the test [outside the classroom]."

In addition to serving the Baylor community, Nortey has represented the University well all over the country. He was selected as one of only 12 African American males in the nation for a prestigious two-summer program at the Institute for Responsible Citizenship in Washington, D.C. He was honored with a summer internship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C., in the office of law enforcement coordination, which distributes counterterrorism information. There, Nortey was given Top Secret clearance, which allowed him to travel to an undisclosed base and work with highly sensitive materials. While in D.C., Nortey met several congressmen, spoke with Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and shook hands with President George W. Bush in the White House.

"It was literally the best summer ever," he says. "After experiencing all these things and seeing the inner workings of our government, it made me want to serve my country."

Near the end of April, Nortey's 12-member Model United Nations team traveled to U.N. Headquarters in New York to compete with more than 150 schools from around the country. The team brought home an Honorable Mention award. As assistant head delegate for Baylor, he works with other Model U.N. leaders to train fellow students for national competitions.

Amongst all the accolades and activities, Nortey says the most important lesson he's learned at Baylor is the importance of people investing in each other, explaining, "That's what we're supposed to do as Christians. I know I've been blessed, so I'm going to bless other people."

Nortey was a finalist last summer for the Harry S. Truman Foundation Scholarship. With encouragement from his professors, James put in well over 100 hours filling out the application.

"I had so much help from many of the faculty, especially [associate director of the Honors Program] Dean Elizabeth Vardaman. She drilled a lot of inspiration into me," he says. "She really believed that I could succeed. That mattered to me. I think it paid off, because even though I didn't win that scholarship, it propelled me toward other challenges, to reach further than I ever thought I could go."

After graduating this May, Nortey is headed to Harvard Law in the fall. Ultimately, he hopes to become involved in federal law, either as a federal prosecutor or judge. Chances are good this won't be the last time you read about James A. Nortey II making his mark.

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