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‘There’s no success without failure,’ actor and alum Boris Kodjoe tells VCU grads

5/19/2018, 3:14 p.m.
Actor Boris Kodjoe inspired Virginia Commonwealth University graduates to find the courage to see failure as a friend, instead of ...
Nursing school graduates throw handfuls of confetti and glitter in celebration after Virginia Commonwealth University announces their degrees are conferred during Saturday’s ceremony at the Richmond Coliseum.

By Leah Hobbs

Actor Boris Kodjoe inspired Virginia Commonwealth University graduates to find the courage to see failure as a friend, instead of something to be feared along the road to success.

There’s no success without failure because there’s no triumph without adversity, no diploma without a lesson learned,” the VCU alumnus said during his address Saturday at the commencement ceremony at the Richmond Coliseum. “Have faith that when you fall and get up again, you will win.”

Mr. Kodjoe, whose hopes to play tennis on the professional circuit were dashed when he was diagnosed with a rare spinal deficiency, attended VCU on a tennis scholarship.

“I thought I was a failure and that I had disappointed every single person who believed in me,” he said. “The truth is, more than being frustrated, I was afraid of the future. My plan had been destroyed and I was scared to make a new one.”

Actor Boris Kodjoe, a Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus and athletics hall of famer, receives an honorary degree after delivering the commencement speech during Saturday’s ceremony.

Photos by Ava Reaves

Actor Boris Kodjoe, a Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus and athletics hall of famer, receives an honorary degree after delivering the commencement speech during Saturday’s ceremony.

He talked about growing up in Germany. His mother, a German psychologist, and his father, a Ghanaian physician, divorced when he was 5. Raised by a single mother who took classes every day and worked night shifts, he was teased by other kids because he was different, he said. He subconsciously chose tennis as a way to externalize the post-traumatic stress of his parents’ divorce, he told the audience.

“The hitting of the tennis balls helped me release some of that frustration that I had built up inside and gave me a feeling of normalcy and security that I was yearning for,” he said. “The rhythmic sounds of the ball hitting cement drowned out some of the chatter that was circulating in my head.”

Tennis gave him confidence.

“Back then, the confidence I felt was a very basic level of comfort that gave me the ability to just barely consider the possibility that a tall, skinny Afro-German boy — who could hit a tennis ball better than most grown men, but who was told daily by other children at school or on the playground that he looked weird, had ugly hair and must never be touched because your black skin is contagious — that a boy like me would find his place in the world without feeling the need to apologize for it.”

After graduating from VCU with a degree in marketing, Mr. Kodjoe was discovered by a modeling agency in New York and started getting paid for the same reason that he was bullied years earlier — his looks.

In 2000, Mr. Kodjoe landed a role on the television series, “Soul Food: The Series,” where he met his wife, actress Nicole Ari Parker. He currently stars in the CBS drama, “Code Black,” as Dr. Will Campbell and co-stars on BET’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood.”

In 2008, he and his wife launched Sophie’s Voice Foundation to raise awareness about and research funding into spina bifida, a congenital birth defect involving the incomplete development of a baby’s spinal cord that can affect a child’s ability to walk and other functions. Their daughter, Sophie, was born with spina bifida. The Atlanta-based foundation supports global health and wellness initiatives in multicultural communities.