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Lawyer in the making: Unlocking Ki Zhan Clarke

Ki Zhan Clarke

Sometimes a unique story starts from the beginning of one's life. Literally -- the very beginning. Kizhan Clarke's father intended for his son to be named Keyshawn, but his German mother was on her own for the birth, and did her best. His birth certificate officially says "Ki Zhan."

Clarke's path has often been a bumpy one ever since. But all along the way, he's been able to turn his dreams into realities. Before this All-American wrestler's collegiate career on the mat is over, he'll be well on his way to achieving yet another dream - completing law school.

When American University classes resume, Clarke, who already earned his bachelor's degree in justice & law from the School of Public Affairs, will be enrolled in the Washington College School of Law as a part-time student. The program required a waiver from the NCAA which was granted, and Clarke will be able to focus on his fifth and final year of wrestling during the day while working toward his law degree at night.

The obstacles put in Clarke's way have included many changes in residence, daunting financial hardships, a late start to the sport of wrestling and the necessity to forge his own path. He's the first in his family to even attend college. While in his view the color of his skin has never held him back, being from a minority community is just one more challenge Clarke has faced.

He was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, leading to the very early discovery that being Black set him apart.

"Amongst my family there is much diversity, with my grandmother being German and my grandfather being a Black American," says Clarke. "But my family was one of the only Black families in the town I was born in, so we stood out quite a bit. Although, it never stopped us from doing some of the normal activities like visiting the local farms, picking strawberries, and stopping by the bakery truck to pick up my favorite rolls."

Memories of Germany are few, because Clarke moved to Dallas, Texas, with his mother, new stepfather and brother when he was only a year old. They went back and forth to his native country until he was four, and then they moved to the States for good. The only family they had in the U.S. at that time was his grandfather, whom they lived with until around his fifth-grade year, but "home" remained a fluid term in the years after that. Stops in Houston included apartment buildings, hotel rooms and friends of Clarke's mother. After a visit to his aunt's home in Florida in 2012, the Sunshine State became their permanent home. Three years later, not long before he moved to D.C. for college, Clarke's immediate family finally got a place of their own - a trailer home in Gibsonton, Florida.

The initial move to Dallas provided a different world for Clarke - one in which he grew up around others who looked like him.

"It definitely took some adjusting from being the only Black family in town to seeing Black families at the store, school and especially church," he said. "This made me feel a lot more ingrained into the community, so much so that I even joined the choir at my grandfather's Baptist church. As I matured, I began to realize the importance in the representation of my racial identity."

While the sport of wrestling was not on Clarke's radar early on, his chosen profession was already on his mind.

"I remember being called to the stage for my elementary school graduation, and my teacher announcing my future occupations, which were NFL player and lawyer," he said. "Both were probably pretty outlandish careers for an 11-year-old who shared a single-parent household with two other siblings. I didn't have family members in the legal profession, and the only thing I knew about the career at the time were the nice suits attorneys had to wear."

But even then, Clarke knew achieving his dreams would be something really special. Not only to become the first in his family to attend college and to hopefully be financially stable as an adult after years of struggle, but to make a real difference in the lives of others in his community.

"As I grew older my 'why' evolved greatly," he says. "I now realize the importance of law in every aspect of life, as well as the power that comes from it. With the legal profession made up of mostly white individuals, I can more effectively represent people who come from minority communities much like mine. People from my community deserve to have legal counsel that can relate and empathize with them, which is rare from a typical public defender. It is said among legal professionals that you shouldn't get too close with a client, but I feel that attitude is what leads to attorneys looking at their clients as cases instead of people. I hope to change this notion and even help those who have been shuffled through the justice system because of this mindset."

The statistics on people of color in the legal profession provide a clear picture of the effects of systemic racism.

Eighty-five percent of lawyers identify as White/Caucasian, while only five percent of attorneys are Black. The statistics regarding specific minority percentages have not changed over the past decade, even though the overall minority populations in the U.S. have increased over that same time frame.

"The transition from undergrad to law school makes me excited because not only am I doing something that many individuals cannot do, but I am also representing an underrepresented community in the profession," said Clarke. "I have always seen myself as a leader, whether that be for my family or my team, so being at the front of the pack doesn't deter me. Though this puts a lot of pressure on me, I feel that I only get stronger as my expectations are raised."

The outlook for racial equality and justice is perhaps better than it has ever been with so much of the country recently waking up to centuries of oppression faced by the Black community. The violent acts leading to that awakening are abhorrent, but the movement stemming from it is "a step in the right direction," says Clarke.

"I hate that it has taken this many lost lives for people to realize the issues of police brutality and systematic racism, but I feel that there has finally been a breaking point. I've been to a couple protests, and I try to engage in conversations with individuals so I can educate them and learn a few things myself. We are far from where we need to be, but I'm glad the wheels are in motion."

While the question would never be posed to a white student-athlete, Clarke is fortunately able to answer "no" when asked if he's ever felt he needed to change himself to fit in or if he's experienced discrimination with regards to opportunities because of his skin color.

"I'm able to excel in college and athletics without noticing any explicit forms of racism," he said. "Even with the instances of racial misconduct that have occurred on campus, I feel like wasting my energy stressing over prejudiced behavior is only giving the perpetrators more attention than they deserve. I cannot speak for other Black people or for instances that I will face in the future."

The future of his wrestling career also isn't as certain as anyone would like it to be in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. While no definite obstacles to his senior season have been put forth at this time, there are very likely to be disruptions. For now, Clarke is focused only on what he can control, which is his level of preparation to compete on the mat.

"Although COVID has caused me to adjust my whole life, I live in a house full of other wrestlers, so we still find ways to lift, wrestle, and work out," he said. "I don't plan on my law school schedule interfering with my wrestling either, especially now that I'm in the part-time program. My goal of becoming AU's second national champion hasn't changed since I stepped foot on campus."

Clarke made plenty of progress toward that goal in his redshirt junior season when he was, at one point, ranked as high as seventh in NCAA Division I at 149 pounds. After finishing with 36 wins to rank third all-time at AU in a single season, and placing fourth at the EIWA Championships, Clarke earned his first-ever spot at the NCAA Championships. Unfortunately, COVID led to the abrupt cancellation of those championships just a week out.

The National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) decided to honor All-Americans based on their body of work throughout the year. Clarke and teammate Tanner Harvey both earned Honorable Mention All-America status, and Clarke was also named the wrestling team's MVP at the virtual year-end banquet.

"Having the support system I have with my coaches, my family, my girlfriend, all my teammates behind me having my back, it just made this year such a bright one," he said. "It's unfortunate how it ended, but there's a lot of momentum moving forward and I'm excited for the future."

Clarke credits wrestling for the positive path his life has traveled since he made his way to the sport.

"I cannot explain how much wrestling has done for me," he said. "It has enabled me to become the first in my family to receive a college degree, it's taught me discipline and hard work, and helped me form relationships that will last a lifetime…Without wrestling, I don't think I'd be able to deal with the stress of law school."

Off the mat, Clarke is a two-time NWCA Scholar All-American, and the recipient of the 2020-21 Barbara J. Reimann Postgraduate Scholarship, established in 2007 by Barb Reimann to provide financial assistance to deserving student-athletes pursuing postgraduate studies.

Nothing has come easy for Clarke, making his achievements in academics and sports that much more meaningful. He hopes his background will serve as an inspiration as he continues toward achieving future dreams.

"I want to be an example for people who look like me and grew up in some of the same circumstances. Others need to see that it doesn't take money or privilege to achieve your goals. Everything I have has been earned through hard work and dedication, and I wouldn't want it any other way."

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