Mahershala Ali ’96: Inspiring SMC Students to Reach Their Full Potential

After taking home two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor for his performances in Moonlight and Green Book, Mahershala Ali ’96 starred in his first lead role in director Benjamin Cleary’s sci-fi drama Swan Song, now streaming on Apple TV+. In the midst of his success, Ali always takes the time to support Saint Mary’s students. In 2017, the College announced the establishment of the Moonlight Scholarship, created by Ali and private donors. Most recently, Ali joined Saint Mary’s students, staff, and faculty on a February afternoon for a private screening of Swan Song in LeFevre Theatre. In a Q&A facilitated by Business Administration major and Moonlight Scholar Anahi Albertoni ’22, the award-winning actor discussed what the film means to him, and how his experience at Saint Mary’s helped him realize his version of success. 

Set in the near future where artificial intelligence is a part of everyday human life, Ali portrays Cameron Turner, a loving father who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and struggles with the decision to accept his fate or replicate himself with his clone, Jack, also played by Ali. 

“Our reality is that we don't have an option to clone ourselves,” shared Ali, “but I believe that each and every one of us has a Jack, has a potential that is ready to be manifested, has a better self, has a self that takes full advantage of the opportunities and the moments that life has to offer us all.”

“For me, it’s about considering the fact that we all have a greater self, a higher self, great potential, and for us to right now—in this moment—begin to make the choices that we need to make in order to be our best self.”

Ali’s portrayal of not just one but two main characters demonstrates his talent and versatility as an artist. “It was an amazing experience. It’s the experience I’ve always wanted to have really since I did my first play here on this stage in 1993,” said Ali. 

Ali remains true to his beginnings as a first-generation student at Saint Mary’s College, where he entered as a Division I basketball player and discovered his passion for acting and the arts. After the Q&A, Ali visited the Museum of Art for a reception to celebrate Moonlight Scholarship recipients and joined High Potential students in the Intercultural Center for a personal conversation about the first-generation experience at Saint Mary’s.

“The words he said at the Q&A made me feel like he believes in me,” shared Moonlight Scholar Maleena Guido ’22. “He’s rooting for me, even though he doesn’t know me. Just being a High Potential Program student, I already feel like he’s rooting for me and everyone else like me who hasn’t even met him.”

Inspired by Ali’s work, the Moonlight Scholarship provides financial support to incoming first-year students and rising seniors in the High Potential Program. Guido, who is set to graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential in special education, shared how the Moonlight Scholarship has made an impact on her: “This scholarship really saved me. It kept me able to graduate from Saint Mary’s and to make it through. It gave me the support to follow the passion for what I really want to do this school year but still be able to have financial support to make it happen.” 

“It kept me coming to Saint Mary’s,” said Moonlight Scholar and student leader Andrea Diaz-Garcia ’22. “My family has been going through a lot, and that’s why this year has been especially hard emotionally and psychologically. So, him offering the help when I really needed it was—I literally cried because it was a lot, and my family was really grateful. I was able to finish off and graduate, thankfully.”

As the first Black actor to win two Academy Awards in the same category, and the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar, Ali has certainly established himself in the entertainment industry. Still, success for him is not measured by awards or money, but living a balanced life, a lesson he said he learned at Saint Mary’s. “I think I would admit being successful is being whole, being fulfilled, being proud. And in my time here, I think that’s when I started really paying more attention to that. I was writing poetry a lot and doing music and having a radio show,” said Ali. “There was something to being more bold. Like just this idea of, I’m not just a basketball player. I’m not trying to just be a basketball player. That’s amazing, but that’s not what I am. Even now, I love acting. It’s amazing. I love doing it, but I’m not just that. I don’t want to do it all my life.”

“You are focused on career here, but it is so much about the person you are. It’s not just what you do. It’s about how you do it, so be conscious of that. This is the time. This is a really, really important time in your life,” added Ali. 

Ali’s main takeaway for students was to take full advantage of an education at Saint Mary’s to reach their highest potential. “Just keep listening,” said Ali. “Keep trusting your instincts. Don’t be afraid to lose. You fall on your face and get up. Go again. Everybody’s afraid. Everybody’s scared. Some people just keep marching on and figure it out at a certain point. And some of us stop because the thought of moving forward is just too terrifying for us, so we stop, and then that’s where our progress will stop. But our real potential, our real growth, our real inner Jack is out there being forced to step up.”