Desmond Jagmohan (photo by Amy Rowland)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

When Desmond Jagmohan went to high school in the Edgewater community of Chicago, it was no sure thing that he one day would attend college. Now he doesn’t want to leave.

From his birth in Guyana and education in the Chicago Public Schools system to a stint in the U.S. Army Reserves and eventual academic career in Ivy League schools, Jagmohan followed an unlikely path to success. That path first came into focus at Northeastern Illinois University, where he was inspired by the faculty and captivated by the study of philosophy and history.

“I was captain of my football team in high school, which is kind of weird,” Jagmohan recalled. “I was just so, at times, seemingly antithetical toward taking an academic path. I guess it’s one of my contradictions.”

You can say that again. Jagmohan now is a political theorist at Princeton University, essentially a post-doctoral fellow who will become an assistant professor of politics in 2016.

When Jagmohan entered Nicholas Senn High School after moving to Chicago from Guyana at the age of 16, it didn’t exactly have the best environment for learning.

“I went to Senn High School in the early ’90s where you found yourself often caught between gang violence and, at times, general neglect,” he said. “For me, coming from Guyana, it was an incredibly shocking experience.”

Jagmohan was at Senn long enough to see the environment improve under a new principal, but the next step in his academic career was still several years away. He served in the Army Reserves from 1995-2002, with multiple stints of active duty, ultimately working in special operations—specifically psychological operations.

Jagmohan decided to attend Northeastern largely because of the flexible class schedule. He took classes at night because he needed to work.

“Even though I was on the G.I. Bill, it was still not enough to essentially support me because I had to support myself,” Jagmohan said. “My mom worked in the kitchen of a hospital; she made very little money, and I didn’t have much support beyond that.”

Jagmohan said Northeastern “provided an environment that was actually welcoming and conducive to non-traditional students.”

While at Northeastern, Jagmohan was recruited into the University Honors Program. It was there he connected with three “great, great friends who pushed me intellectually, and I was much better for it. The Honors Program was vital.”

It was also at Northeastern where Jagmohan said he “fell in love” with political philosophy.

“Desmond’s story is really Northeastern’s story,” said John Patrick Casey, associate professor of philosophy. “It’s a pretty impressive chain of events. He came to Northeastern on the G.I. Bill, and he came into contact with professor Sarah Hoagland, who’s now retired, and she was a profound influence on him.”

Jagmohan said the faculty support he received at Northeastern was “wonderful.” He raved about a number of different influential professors, many of whom still teach at Northeastern, including Sophia Mihic, Zachary Schiffman and Casey, along with “Sarah Hoagland, who was my mentor. To this day I’m still wrestling with Sarah’s thoughts, and I could not be at Princeton without her.”

After graduating summa cum laude in 2005, Jagmohan earned his Master of Arts at Cornell University in 2011 and will earn his Ph.D. from Cornell in January.

Jagmohan has two primary goals at Princeton: Be a productive researcher and a good teacher.

“I study the history of American political thought and, in particular, African-American political thought, and essentially I write about the politics of the disenfranchised, the oppressed,” he said. “I don’t want to be a productive researcher just for the sake of it, but I think the reason it’s important to write and publish on what I do is that it’s a story not often told. I feel a certain ethical obligation to get that work out there.”

Casey said there are lessons to be learned from Jagmohan’s story.

“One thing Desmond did is he really took advantage of Northeastern’s faculty—they were there for him,” Casey said. “And the faculty offer themselves as mentors. We’re here for the students to take advantage of in that way—take advantage of our expertise, our commitment to their success.”

Casey calls Jagmohan’s position at Princeton “a pretty impressive result, all told. Once he got into Cornell, I thought, ‘He can go to the big-time here.’ ”

If Princeton is indeed the “big time,” Jagmohan believes it’s the type of goal within reach of Northeastern students.

“You get the education out of Northeastern that you put into it,” he said. “If you’re the sort of person that’s going to open the library and close it, there are professors on campus that are hungry for you. They’ll seek you out, and you should seek them out."

-story written by Travis Truitt