Ujay Green’s mom pulled him close, her arms lingering around her 24-year-old son for a few moments after one of the day’s many photos had been snapped.
It was a scene similar to many playing out inside and outside Mariucci Arena after the Carlson School of Management’s commencement ceremonies on this humid May afternoon. Or at any other college graduation across the country.
But for Green, ’17 BSB, the moment was anything but run-of-the-mill. It was part of only his second visit with his mom in the past 20 years.
Green’s father left Gladys Kettor when she was five months pregnant, in the midst of a lengthy civil war in their homeland of Liberia. Four years later, she made the heart-wrenching decision to send Ujay, the youngest of her three kids, to the United States to live with his aunt.
“She didn’t have to let me go,” he says. “She could have been like, ‘No, that’s my youngest son. I want to hold onto him.’ But she let me go, and that’s a huge sacrifice that she made.”
When Green strode across the stage on May 15, it marked his latest personal achievement in an improbable ascension from a troubled youth rife with pitfalls and obstacles. At 13, he spent time at a juvenile detention center for what he says was a wrongful arrest. At 15, frustrated and emotionally distressed, he ran away from his aunt’s house in the northwest Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park. When police found him, he opted for the foster care system.
By the time he visited the office of Jack Negen, his case manager at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, Minnesota, Green had a grade point average that started with a zero and a clear distrust of authority figures.
“He had a lot of anger,” recalls Negen.
Focusing through football
Negen, then an assistant football coach at the school, suggested Green join the team, thinking it would challenge him to be accountable to others and give him a sense of belonging, of working for a common purpose. Negen also told Green he saw potential in him.
“He was really the one that took the initiative to tell me some positive things about myself and provide constructive feedback and help me understand that not everybody’s a bad person out there and genuine people are out there who really want to help,” Green says of Negen, who's now the head coach at Armstrong.
Football also forced Green to improve in the classroom to stay academically eligible. On the field, he wasn’t a star, but his toughness and work ethic served him well. By his senior year, he was a team captain.
“I did a lot of growing up,” he says.
That growth continued at Rochester Community and Technical College, where he stuck with football and flourished academically. He made the dean’s list and Phi Theta Kappa, joined the student senate, and volunteered. As he worked toward his associate’s degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences, his academic advisor, Tung Truong, told him about the Carlson School.
“I watched him get determined,” says Negen, whose family has remained closely connected to Green, moving him to Rochester and even bringing him on vacations.
Sharing his story
Green majored in Management Information Systems (MIS) at the Carlson School, worked in the school’s information technology office, and interned at Ernst & Young. Now, he’s hoping to pursue his master’s degree in social work and use his MIS education to “help others to understand the system of their environments and learn how to navigate through to a better platform in life.” He draws inspiration from his past.
“I want to help the youth, I want to help the families, other immigrants like myself who might have challenges, who might not understand the system in America as much as I do, to help them navigate so they can be as successful as they can, so the path can be easier for future generations.”
- Ujay Green, ’17 BSB
Green also hopes to help the Carlson School enroll more students from underrepresented groups. With that in mind, he returned to Armstrong High School for a full day this spring to speak with students. He also talked with a group of college hopefuls through the Twin Cities nonprofit Junior Achievement. He shared his story, one that he says “if a regular person would just look at it from the outside, they’d be like, ‘That person’s not going to make it.’”
Yet there was Green, walking out the door of Mariucci Arena with the rest of the Class of 2017, stepping out into the post-thunderstorm sunshine and finding his friends and family—a group that included a mother who had flown across the Atlantic to be there.
“Her 20 years that she waited, it was for a reason,” he says, “and it’s happening right here.”