Whenever anyone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, young Daniel Fordjour’s answer never changed: “Happy.”
Kind of a brilliant answer when you think of it, because who doesn’t want to be happy? Jobs and aspirations change, as do situations, friendships, hobbies and tastes. Happiness, the desire to be happy — that’s the shared hope of every human on the planet. And 29-year-old Daniel? He’s pretty happy.
His fiancé, Aramis, and his yorkie, Paxton, make Daniel happy. He loves to travel; he’s been to Mexico, all over the Caribbean and he’s got a vacation in Southeast Asia coming up. A few months ago, he graduated with his master’s in social work. After six years of working in a social services agency in support of African immigrant women and their families, he’s excited to have just started a new position offering counseling, crisis intervention and resource referrals for “over-age, under-credited” students in the city’s Young Adult Borough Centers. “I’ve always wanted to do social work in a school setting. I really get to ‘pay it forward’ now,” he said, his eyes sparkling.
Daniel and his four siblings moved to New York with their parents from Ghana. He was 8, and like other immigrant children in the DOE, he was placed back a grade to catch up. Except he didn’t. Even though he spoke Twi and some English, he didn’t know his ABC’s. He got an IEP and a diagnosis: dyslexia. And for the rest of elementary school, he was in a special education classroom with mostly the same 13 other kids. He figured he’d go to school as long as he had to and then, as soon as he was old enough, quit.
High school came, and anticipating more of the same, Daniel braced for failure. “I was walking around with a lot of shame. With a learning disorder, nobody really expects anything of you. I felt very small.” But, situations change. He was placed in integrated classes and, for the first time, got to be with “the gen ed kids” most of the day. It was a change that made all the difference for Daniel.
He started to build momentum, and with the help of “amazing” high school social workers, counselors and teachers, started planning a future that he couldn’t quite imagine. Of one thing, he was certain: In order to get there, it would involve a college degree — not something his family had ever considered possible for him. In 2014, he enrolled at Guttman in an afternoon house.
“It was terrifying, I’ll admit that,” he said. “I remember sitting in my SSA’s cubicle that first semester, overwhelmed by all my negative thoughts like: ‘You’re not meant to be in college. You think you’re better than the rest of your family?’ Shame is a great self-sabotager.” Almost every first week of a new semester, he’d have to push through that familiar anxiety and endure the dreaded panic attacks.
Despite recurring bouts of imposter syndrome, Daniel actually never thought about hiding the fact that he had an IEP before college. He connected with Guttman’s Office of AccessABILITY to get the accommodations he knew he needed: time-and-a-half and a quiet room. He explained, “I knew that to do what I wanted and become a school social worker, I needed to graduate. So there was no other path for me.”
He also decided he wouldn’t hide the fact that he was gay, either. “I came out my senior year of high school. It was kind of a practical decision,” he says. “In order to build a life I wanted, I reasoned that I’d need to go forward with my whole identity. And that worked out for me,” he said with a huge smile. “Aramis was in my cohort at Guttman. And now, years later, we’re engaged.”
Graduating from Guttman in 2016 with an associate degree in Human Services, Daniel would go on to study Sociology at Stony Brook University for a year, then work as a quality assurance specialist with the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women, Inc. After two years, he transferred to Lehman College, where he earned a bachelor’s in sociology in 2020 while continuing to work and getting promoted to an improvement and compliance position with his employer. With his goal of doing school-based social work growing ever clearer, Daniel knew that only a graduate degree would get him there. He was accepted into Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, completed a clinical internship with women who’ve experienced domestic violence, and this past May, earned his master’s degree in social work. Two months later, he landed his “dream job” helping older adolescents finish high school and plan their futures.
“I’ve worked hard,” he said. “And with my experience and my degrees, I know I’m doing what I’m meant to do.” You can bet he asks his students what will make them happy when they grow up.