Wenonah High School grad is author, mentor, world traveler. And he’s only 21.

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Kenneth McQueen (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)
Kenneth McQueen (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)

Growing up in Birmingham, Kenneth McQueen knew there was only one direction for him.

“Coming up in school I was always a smart kid and diligent worker, it was like I knew I could be more, but I didn’t see more; I didn’t see black lawyers and doctors,” he said. “I knew they existed, but what you can’t see you can’t be.”

The advanced honors student from Wenonah High School has already self-published his first book, The Only Way to Go Is Up.

“I offer stories about people who have amassed success by simply changing the way they think and having the discipline to sacrifice temporary pleasures,” said McQueen, 21, a student at Berea College in Kentucky.

Attending a predominantly white institution was a culture shock, McQueen said.

“I was going from a place that was predominantly black to a place that was very racially diverse,” he said. “Fortunately, I was able to adapt and it didn’t take me long to become interested in sharing my culture with other people.”

At Berea, McQueen used his background to help with a course, Model and Mentors for Success, which is for all African American male students. He used his book to help teach a freshman class of African American males to “help them realize their potential, and recognize how tough it can be coming from these urban environments,” he said.

“Being in that position motivates me to want to give back in a massive way,” said McQueen, who was a teaching assistant for the class.

He also had the students write weekly journals.

“A lot of them said that the things I wrote about in the book really helped them,” he said. “One student would come by my office on Friday because he was so inspired by what I put in the book that he wanted to follow up and have a deeper conversation about the principles in the book.”

In 2014 McQueen took a semester at the University of Ghana, in Ghana, West Africa, where he studied music and culture.

“It was a great experience, being in the motherland being able to tear down a lot of stereotypes that are perpetuated through television about Africa,” he said. “It’s not a jungle with people running around with bones hanging out. It’s nothing like that. It’s cities and great food, and culture there.”

McQueen also went on a mission trip to Lima, Peru in 2015, where he was in the Indies Mountains, helping the villages get access to clean water and food.

“My experience in Peru was phenomenal,” he said. “It was also very humbling. I met a lot of great people while there.”

Those trips have helped make him a better person, McQueen said.

“These things prepared me, and helped me change my character,” he said. “I didn’t go [to college] to play, I came here with a purpose and that’s to be educated.”

McQueen said being a black man he already knew of the challenges that were stacked against him.

“Coming from a community like Birmingham, a lot people are expected to fail, and I want to change that perception by changing the mind of the younger generations,” he said.

McQueen received a full scholarship to Berea, once he graduates he won’t have one problem to worry about.

“I get to graduate in May 2017 debt-free, thank God,” he said.

This fall, McQueen hopes to enroll in the University of Alabama School of Law.