Akilah Hughes ’10 came to Berea with dreams of becoming the next Oprah Winfrey. With appearances on HBO, MTV and Comedy Central, the prolific writer, comedian, YouTuber, podcaster and actress is well on her way to making that dream a reality.
Hughes grew up in northern Kentucky, near Cincinnati, in what she calls a good mixture of urban and suburban life. Money was tight in her single-parent household with four children, which limited the number of interests the kids could pursue.
For Akilah, one of those interests was theater, but special summer theater camps were cost prohibitive. Nevertheless, she and her siblings wrote their own stories and performed for each other, laying the foundation for Hughes’ future career.
“When it was about time for me to start thinking about going to college,” she said, “my biggest fear was not being able to pay for it. That was always weighing on me, this idea that I would be in debt, the family would have to struggle. And I didn’t know or think that it would be possible to do it any other way. It was going to be a ton of debt or no school at all. And, you know, that’s really hard for a teenager to sort of parse through.”
Her Advanced Placement English teacher happened to be a Berea alumnus and encouraged Hughes to apply.
“One of the best days of my life was getting a letter from Berea College that said you are going to be in the class of 2009-2010. It was very exciting. It was really like getting the golden ticket in Willy Wonka.”
Hughes majored in broadcasting and set up her own YouTube channel, recruiting fellow students the way she had recruited her siblings in years past to be in her online sketches. She was also able to sign up for those theater classes she missed out on as a kid.
“My vision for what I was going to do after Berea was always something very creative,” she remembered. “I wanted to do something that matched up my love of the Internet and the future of social media. I found this really great niche of being involved in political endeavors and writing news stories but also maintaining a very specific point of view and being able to perform.”
While at Berea, Hughes also was able to do an internship with the Disney College Program at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Berea College assisted her in this adventure with funding to address the living expenses associated with working in a theme park. When she graduated into a recession, Hughes was able to go back to Disney to work for a year while she figured out her next steps.
“You know, the jobs we were promised were not there, but I had the benefit of not being saddled with all this debt. I got to take some risks and take the time to find jobs that would have been more aligned with what I wanted to do. That was something I wish everyone could experience.”
While friends with student loan debt were enrolling in graduate school to defer their payments, Hughes saved her money to move to New York City, where she landed a scholarship for improvisation classes with the Upright Citizens Brigade, from which some alumni had gone on to work at “Saturday Night Live.” For Hughes, who continued to make YouTube videos in her spare time, it led to working for MTV.
“The value of free for me was freedom,” she said. “I was able to create a career path that objectively did not exist when I started college. If I was still paying off student loans, there’s no way I could have had the space to move to New York City and live there for eight years. And then to relocate to Los Angeles and stay afloat. It just can’t be overstated how important it was for me to not have that huge monkey on my back. I can’t thank Berea enough.”
In L.A., Hughes worked with the Sundance Institute and the MacArthur Foundation, and from there “it just snowballed.” In addition to a YouTube channel, “Akilah Obviously,” that draws about 150,000 subscribers, she has written a book, cohosted the award-winning Crooked Media podcast “What a Day,” reaching millions of listeners, and even did voice work on Fox’s animated series “Bob’s Burgers.” Her next adventure is writing and starring in a sketch-comedy show executive produced by “Key and Peele” star Keegan-Michael Key.
“Without Berea College,” she said, “I don’t think that I would have been able to go all over the world doing comedy, talking about my political beliefs, helping empower people who want to be involved locally. I think I would have been really, really stifled in all of my ambition.”