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Leadership Roles Come Naturally for Aquilas Lokossou

Written by
Stephen Mease

September 28, 2022


Aquilas Lokossou, a psychology honors student from Burlington.

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- If you weren’t part of the 2022 graduating class at SUNY-Plattsburgh, or if you didn’t have a family member who was, you missed an excellent graduation speech by senior Aquilas Lokossou, a psychology honors student from Burlington.

The speech, which focused on the themes of change, challenge, leadership, and gratitude, was especially appropriate for a graduating class whose college experience was marred by the uncertainty of a global pandemic.

VSAC counselors and leaders, who got to know Aquilas during his years at Burlington High School, recently shared the link to that speech (start at 1:30:00)  -- several quotes from which, help tell the story of a humble and up-and-coming leader.

“We all know about plans. Plans change each and every day.”

No one knows this better than Aquilas’ parents, who emigrated to Burlington in 2004 from Benin, a small country along the coast of west Africa. The trans-oceanic move, Aquilas explains, was not borne of conflict or hardship, but rather, of a belief that their children’s upbringing would be better in America.

However, the move required his parents to leave a lot behind: a large extended family, many friends, a very closely held Christian community, and lucrative careers.

In Benin, Aquilas’ dad, Bernard – a carpenter and mechanic – was a successful business owner who spoke three languages: French, Ewe (Togo’s native language), and Fon (Benin’s native language). But he didn’t speak much English at the time of the move, so finding work in the US meant he had to make a change. Fortunately, he found a job as a personal care attendant counselor with HowardCenter, where he still works today. And his mom, Olga, who was a doctor, became a nurse for Cathedral Square after learning that she would have to go back to medical school to practice in the United States.

As far as the typical college student, Aquilas says, “A lot of us think we know what we want to do. But a lot of that changes over time.”

Aquilas himself, the psychology graduate, began his SUNY career as a nursing student. “Remember, I come from a healthcare background,” he says; his mom encouraged all her children – oldest daughter Priscille, Aquilas, and his younger sister Esther – to consider working in the medical field. But after his first year, Aquilas realized nursing wasn’t for him.

“You’re 18 years old and everyone’s asking you what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Things don’t always go as planned.”

While he didn’t end up following his mother’s wishes, he followed his parents’ example; he knew he wanted to stay in what he calls “a helping field.” So, at the start of his sophomore year, Aquilas switched his major to psychology.

And then, of course, there was COVID.

“COVID kept me from being able to do a lot of internships, so I had to find different opportunities.” Fortunately, he was asked to work as a research assistant and a teaching assistant for SUNY Plattsburgh’s psychology department. “Both were really good experiences,” he says.

During his junior and senior years, Aquilas worked on a research study and helped write the manuscript for the article, which was submitted for publication in School Psychology International this past May. “So, I have my own citation now, which is pretty cool,” he says. “Plus, it was a really important topic.”

The paper, Resilience to COVID-19 challenges: Disability status and parental predictors of stability and growth among rural elementary school students, examined the impact of COVID isolation on elementary school students. “The pandemic affected all of us, regardless of disability, ethnicity, income, and geography. Even some of the students from typically more privileged groups, who were doing well in school, lost focus during quarantine. It tested us as a country,” Aquilas says.

Now, as he starts a Master of Science program in counseling at the University of Vermont, one of Aquilas’ future career paths is working as a school counselor. Though, true to form, he is pursuing all opportunities and keeping his options open. Students in the program can choose to focus on clinical mental health or school counseling; Aquilas has chosen a dual track, where he gets credit for both.

“I’ve just finished week three, and I like it a lot. I love the approach, and I love the school. I also love being home,” he says. “This is my first fall back in Burlington in four years, and fall has always been my favorite season.”

“Follow your fears.”

After growing up in Burlington, Aquilas admits that his first few weeks across the lake were difficult.

“In high school, I was outgoing. I played sports and did theater. But college was a new environment, and I felt really shy.”

In his speech, he shared the story of a sign he encountered in a hallway on the first day of his freshman year, on the way to his Psych 101 class: “Follow Your Fears.”

Over the next few weeks, as he struggled to overcome his shyness, he remembered that sign.

“I took a deep breath, and I realized I just had to push myself outside my comfort zone. So, I went out of my way to talk to my professors. I worked hard to approach others and to be approachable myself.”

Aquilas says he ended up with a close circle of friends, as well as several leadership opportunities – from the unusual (and highly complementary) offer to work as a teaching assistant as an undergraduate, to serving as treasurer for Plattsburgh’s chapter of Psi Chi, the national psychology honor society.

“Become a leader in your communities. Take risks.”

Now back in his hometown, Aquilas continues to serve his community. In fact, three months before he graduated from SUNY, he successfully ran for a seat on the Burlington School Board.

“At first, I didn’t think it fit me. School board members are usually older,” says Aquilas with a laugh. But Clare Wool, the current board chair and a family friend, convinced him – emphasizing how crucial it is to have young people on the board and a diversity of voices. Wool knew that Aquilas was planning on coming back to Burlington for graduate work, and that school counseling was an interest of his.

“I’m really happy that I decided to run. I love it,” Aquilas says. While initially it was a challenge juggling long bi-weekly Zoom board meetings, stakeholder outreach, and a full college course load, he says his board service is now one of his passions.

Aquilas sees the November election – when Burlington voters will decide whether to pass a bond for construction of a new high school – as a significant decision point for the community. He says he hopes the city moves forward on construction, both because he believes it will strengthen the community, and (on a more personal note) because he hopes his younger sister Esther – who started her freshman year at BHS this fall in the old Macy’s – might be able to start her senior year at a new high school. But either way, he emphasized, “it’s just really important for everyone to vote.”

“Thank those in your lives who made sacrifices for your success.”

At the end of his speech, Aquilas encouraged his fellow graduates to express their appreciation for those who had supported them. It turns out, Aquilas had some particular people in his own mind and in his heart.

“I feel so loved within the community,” he says. “I’m especially appreciative of the counselors I worked with in middle and high school, as well as the close friends and their parents who made such a positive impact on my development.” 

“At Edmunds Elementary and Middle School, I was very close with the counselor, Ms. Pat Hulbert. She always looked out for me and for my family, and she pushed me to start college planning early.”

So Aquilas went to a VSAC information session, and during his high school years, he participated in VSAC’s GEAR UP program, which offers targeted college planning support to help low-income students pursue, and complete, higher education. “That program helped me out a lot, and the counselors helped me sort through where it made the most sense for me to go.”

“And, of course, my parents have done so much for me – starting with the decision to move our whole family to America,” Aquilas says. “They sacrificed their own careers back home to move us here. If not for them, I wouldn’t have completed my bachelor’s degree and be heading off to graduate school right away. I love them a lot.”