Zion Utsey, an accomplished high school graduate with a rich array of interests and talents, was told by a local university that his homeschool diploma just wasn’t good enough.
Earlier this summer, University of the District of Columbia (UDC) officials informed 19-year-old Zion, who has already taken courses at the school’s open-enrollment community college, that he would have to pass a high school equivalency exam to be accepted into a four-year degree program.
Longtime members of Home School Legal Defense Association, the Utseys contacted us for help. Their request really ended up benefiting us, as we got to know a vibrant family whose homeschool program has encompassed so much more than simply getting an education. Their program has also helped them cope with tragedy and explore their heritage.
Monica Utsey and her husband, Eric, decided early on to homeschool because they wanted their two sons to obtain a broad understanding of what it means to be descended from Africans.
For Zion, this cultural exploration quickly merged with a love of music—especially drumming.
“My aunt bought me my first drum set,” he recalled. “I played that till it broke.”
Zion has studied piano as well, but since he was 8, one of his chief musical passions has been drumming in the West African style. He’s played with several ensembles, studying under master drummer Mahiri-Fadjimba Keita.
Drumming is so much a part Zion’s life, Monica noted, that she feels it helped provide him the emotional resilience to endure a supreme tragedy that struck the family in 2013. That was the year that Eric died, leaving Zion and his brother, Ayinde, fatherless, and Monica a widow.
Homeschooling proved a comfort during that time as well. Monica said that, with the aid of family and friends, they “were able to grieve in a safe environment—school did not get in the way. We were able to take a break, and it did not affect the boys academically.”
This year, even in Eric’s absence, the Utseys enjoyed an experience that served as a sort of culmination to their family aspirations.
At the end of February, the three traveled to Ghana to participate in the Back2Africa festival, which marked the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in what would become the United States. As part of the Farafina Kan ensemble (whose name means “sounds of Africa”), Zion and 13-year-old Ayinde performed at a number of venues.
Zion said the most poignant performance occurred at a former slave trading post, where he and fellow members of Farafina Kan saw the infamous “door of no return.” This was the final portal that individuals passed through before being shipped off to lives of servitude.
“Before the concert,” he recalled, “we went through the slave dungeon, so we could feel that energy.”
Monica also found visiting Ghana with her sons inspiring.
“I had dreamed of going to Africa,” she said. “It was a wonderful way to not only affirm what they’ve been learning, but to showcase to Africans on the continent how Africans in the diaspora have been able to stay connected to their roots.”
So Much to Do
Since the trip, the Utseys have reverted to their busy schedules.
Over the summer Zion has been balancing a quartet of responsibilities: pool lifeguard, counselor with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington (where he is current president of the Keystone Club), a job at a shopping mall, and coordinating sessions at a recording studio.
The latter is gaining him experience in the career he hopes to pursue—audio engineering.
“I was studying civil and mechanical engineering,” said Zion. “And then my passion for music went into overload.”
He explained that UDC has an agreement which would allow him to take courses at American University, “which has one of the top five audio engineering programs in the country.”
Zion’s high school transcripts also reflect his stellar personal development. Not only did Monica’s son earn good grades taking advanced courses, Zion’s extracurricular activities show he’s a well-rounded student who is willing to try new things—and excel at them.
In addition to his musical interests, Zion has played baseball, basketball, tennis and chess, and competed on a local swim team. Through the D.C.-based Swaliga Foundation, he earned a scholarship to travel to South Africa and participate in a service project installing solar-powered lights for neighborhoods without electricity.
He recently received the Right Direction Award as well, chosen as one of 27 D.C. youth recognized by the Office of the Attorney General for succeeding despite adversity.
Monica attributes her sons’ varied interests to her educational approach, in which she adapts schooling to the things her boys like—not the other way around.
“I embrace the concept that there’s learning in everything,” said Monica. “Allowing them to focus on what they love has helped them find what they love in life. Anything they show an interest in I can develop teaching around.”
Zion agreed, with a single caveat:
“At the end of the day,” he added, “you’re the person that has to put in the work.”
The Adventure Continues
When it comes to college, Zion is more than ready for the hard work ahead. However, UDC has thrown an obstacle in his path by insisting he take the GED—a hurdle that Monica can’t help but characterize as “silly.”
Dan Beasley, HSLDA’s attorney for the District of Columbia, sent a letter to UDC’s admissions office on Zion’s behalf, urging them to reconsider their policy.
Zion told us he has since heard from the school, and it appears officials there are still insisting that he take the GED.
But even though he must weigh his options for moving forward, Zion said he intends to continue pursuing his passion of nearly a dozen years.
“I don’t know exactly where it will take me,” said Zion, musing over his decision to master recording what he loves to create. “But I make music, so why not acquire the skill that’s going to help?”