Moonstruck Over Mahershala

Actor Mahershala Ali ’96 is having a breakout year, with critical acclaim and awards for his work and a new baby. Nevertheless, he made time to come home to Saint Mary’s.

On a sunny afternoon in March, about 30 High Potential (HP) students and Diversity Club members gathered in the College’s faculty-staff dining room. It was a cheerful occasion, with abundant smiles, laughter, and some nervous anticipation for the arrival of the guest of honor. Academy Award winner and former HP student Mahershala Ali ’96 was returning to Saint Mary’s for a special visit.

The Saint Mary’s alumnus had carved out time from an increasingly busy schedule to visit the SMC campus for an invitation-only screening of the Oscar-winning film Moonlight; a conversation in the LeFevre Theater with his first drama teacher, Performing Arts Professor Rebecca Engle; and a low-key reception—away from the media spotlight—recognizing students in the College’s High Potential program. Mahershala Ali '96 with President James Donahue and with students at a reception for the HP program.

It has been a whirlwind year for Ali, filled with recognition for his achievements in film and television. He won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Juan, a drug dealer who befriends and becomes a father figure to a gay African American boy growing up in a tough Miami neighborhood in Moonlight. His performance garnered best actor nominations from more than a dozen major associations. But he also received an Emmy nomination for his television role as political operative Remy Danton in Netflix’s House of Cards and received widespread acclaim for his portrayal of the villain Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in the network’s Marvel series Luke Cage.

Ali last visited the College in May 2016 to deliver the undergraduate commencement address. At that time he spoke with Engle about Moonlight, an exciting new independent project. Plans eventually took root for a campus screening of the film. With a successful awards season behind him—and before a well-earned vacation with his wife, Amatus Sami-Karim, and their new baby—Ali circled back to SMC to screen the film and say hello to some kindred students.

The side door to the dining room opened and the buzzing room grew quiet. Ali walked in, greeted the crowd with a broad smile now familiar to millions, and gave a warm embrace to Saint Mary’s President James Donahue, who referred to Ali as someone who exemplifies the very best qualities of a Saint Mary’s education. “We are extremely proud of your success and so happy to have you return for this special recognition of the High Potential program,” he said. When an unexpected lull came over the room, Ali asked the group why they were so quiet and jokingly reminded them that he was, after all, just another HP student like them. Laughter and applause filled the room.

“I really can’t describe the feeling of seeing all of those wonderful, beautiful faces and seeing them react to me being there. I still feel like one of those students. I do,” said Ali. “I still am just a kid from Hayward who was fortunate enough to be able to land here and to keep moving on from there.”

During the special reception, the College announced the establishment of a $30,000 Moonlight Scholarship, initiated by Ali’s visit and funded by private donors. The scholarship benefits four rising seniors and at least two incoming first-year students in the High Potential program. “Scholarship giving is one of the College’s most important financial priorities. We thank Mahershala for sharing his vision with us and inspiring donors to invest in students in the High Potential program,” said Lisa Moore ’96, vice president for Advancement.

Ali, who came to Saint Mary’s to play Division 1 basketball, was the first in his family to attend college. He hopes the Moonlight Scholarship will provide much-needed encouragement for talented but lowincome first-generation college African American and Latino students whose families have little knowledge about navigating higher education. “I guarantee that if you talk to a few of them, I am sure you’ll hear that they have family who have never gone to college or people who have never stepped foot on a college campus.”

The scholarship is also important to Ali because he recognizes that limited financial resources can often stress families of HP students. “Some of these kids are a car breakdown away from dropping out of school. That happens, that really happens. And so this scholarship is essentially rewarding [them] for the effort that [they] put in here. I want to be able to say thank you. Those kids don’t hear that enough.”

Mahershala Ali '96 performs in the SMC performance of Spunk.Students at the reception appreciated Ali’s words of support, hearing about his experience as an HP student, and sharing time with him, which included advice for life after college. He also addressed issues of inclusion and diversity while at the College. “I had a good experience coming to Saint Mary’s, I really did. But I also know that it is a little bit different being a minority student,” said Ali, who recalled that he came to Engle’s attention when he was part of a panel discussion on diversity issues. “And so, I am just really pleased to come back here and share Moonlight, which is a story and a film that reflects the communities that some of these students really come from.”

“Seeing how the students connected with Mahershala, beyond his status as a successful actor, but as an HP alum and as a mentor, was inspiring,” said HP Co-director Tarik Scott. “Yes, there was an obvious ‘wow’ factor. But it was as if he was as excited to meet them as they were to meet him. He spent the next hour or so hanging out, sharing stories, laughing, and connecting on a common experience.”

Ali’s ease with his fellow HP-ers prompted more than a few to take selfies with the Oscar winner. “Meeting Mahershala Ali was an unforgettable experience that gave me encouragement to be successful at an institution such as Saint Mary’s, where I often experience a sense of otherness,” said Tamarah Thompson ’18.

“As a first-generation college student, hearing of his experiences 20 years ago and comparing to my own put into perspective how the challenges have been very similar, but also how—for both Mahershala and me—they have pushed us forward,” said Ines Sosa ’17.

“It was surreal to see a very accomplished person in his own right take the time to talk with us. It gave me a sort of a confidence boost to stay hungry and reach the goals I set out in front of myself,” said Kidus Solomon ’18.

“When first-generation college students can see what success looks like with a role model like Ali, it makes all the difference in the world,” said HP Codirector and Counseling Professor Gloria Sosa. “Students can then envision that they have the strengths and resilience to make anything happen, and that is exactly the mission of the High Potential program.”

Mahershala Ali '96 and Professor Rebecca Engle discuss Moonlight after a special screening of the film.

Shortly after the reception, Ali joined Engle for the special screening of Moonlight, where a crowd of more than 350—performing arts and High Potential students, faculty, staff, donors, and friends of the College—gathered to watch the film.

Stepping out of the screening for a break, Ali said his takeaway from his remarkable year is to not focus on the awards, but to keep an unwavering commitment to his craft and to growing as an individual. “If you are not working on ways to improve yourself, you will find yourself stagnant as an artist. So, if anything, the award has reminded me to really do work towards being a better person, a better human being, a better artist, father, husband, and talent.”

After a standing ovation, the audience witnessed a lively postscreening conversation between Ali and Engle. The duo sat onstage and talked at length about the film, its authenticity as a portrait of urban life, how Ali related to the character of Juan, and his own journey as an artist.

Engle also offered questions from the audience. “What advice can you offer for beginning conversations about race, class, gender, sexuality across different generations?” asked Engle.

My advice is that you have to step into that space, whether it’s in your dorm room with your roommate or in a more official setting,” Ali said. “But everyone has to step into that space without arrogance. But it’s not an easy fix. People are pent-up and angry, you know? And feel unrecognized, disenfranchised, and so they need to talk about it. We want people to be able to feel like their voice is heard and really be supported. Because we are different. We’re different! It’s OK! But we’re all equal in that we are different and unique.”

Engle’s last audience question made Ali smile: “What is your most fun memory of Saint Mary’s?”

Spunk! Doing Spunk with you!” he said to his former professor. “It was like a world opened up. I wish you guys [pointing to the audience] could have seen it. It felt special, it really did.” As Engle and Ali embraced, the audience rose to their feet again in applause.