Written by Mike Savona
By any measure, Abdullah Muhammad is a successful young man. Born in North Philadelphia, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2019, winning the Robert J. Stonebraker Scholarship for Economics. He continued his education at IUP, obtaining a scholarship from the School of Graduate Studies to complete his MBA in 2021. After finishing his MBA he accepted a position at First Commonwealth Bank in Indiana, Pennsylvania, has already been promoted and has a promising career ahead of him in banking and finance. He is member of the National Black MBA Association and has begun giving back to the community, speaking to hundreds of students at Wissahickon Charter School during Black History Month and volunteering with a local YMCA to organize youth events. But despite his personal and professional achievements, Abdullah’s path has not been an easy one.
Abdullah and his brother were raised by his father, who Abdullah describes as not having a big influence on him growing up. “My father worked construction and he was never at home when I was growing up. He just wasn’t around to have much influence on me,” he explains. His home life was also anything but stable. Growing up he moved from Germantown to North Philly to 29th & Oxford and 29th & Jefferson, ultimately spending his 7th-8th grade year with his father and brother in a homeless shelter at 49th & Haverford. He describes this period as the lowest point of his life.
The instability Abdullah experienced at home had a dramatic impact on his performance in school. His early education was spent at the Wissahickon Charter School, where he performed well until his 7th grade year – the year he spent in the shelter. “They gave me many chances, but I was messing up badly. I just didn’t do my work, didn’t care and didn’t have the right attitude” he explains. “The school tried but they eventually had no choice but to kick me out.” After being forced to leave Wissahickon, Abdullah attended Alan Locke Elementary in West Philly. “I had a rough time at Alan Locke,” he says. “I got jumped, it was bad.”
Abdullah describes this time as the darkest of his life. “Living in the shelter it was me my brother and my father all living in one room,” he explains. “We had to eat what the shelter offered, when they offered it and live under their rules. I realized how bad things were when I couldn’t even eat what I wanted to or when I wanted to.” At the same time, at school he began to realize that the behavior that lead to his being kicked out of Wissahickon was leading him nowhere. “I looked around and saw how the rest of the kids carried themselves and behaved and realized I was doing the same thing. They were going nowhere and so was I,” he says. “That’s when I realized I needed to turn my life around.”
Abdullah enrolled at West Philadelphia High School in his 9th grade year and embarked on a dramatic turn-around of his academic life. “Realizing I had to turn myself around lead me to work hard and focus on school.” His efforts were remarkable. Although he was failing and kicked out of Wissahickon in his 7th grade year, he finished 9th grade with a 3.76 GPA. On the home front, things began to improve as well, as his family left the shelter and moved to West Oak Lane. And importantly, a former teacher at Wissahickon, who was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, connected Abdullah with the Upward Bound program at Penn during his 9th grade year. The connection with Upward Bound would prove the most significant development in Abdullah’s academic life. Even though his path through high school was marked by multiple school closures, resulting in him spending each year of high school at a different school, the one constant he maintained throughout was his connection to the University of Pennsylvania. “I spent every summer living on campus at Penn and taking classes to prepare me for what was coming in the next year of high school,” he explains. “It was a very big influence on me.”
The Upward Bound program nurtured and sustained Abdullah’s academic progress, helping him to graduate from Delaware Valley Charter High School with a 3.57 GPA in 2015. That, in turn, lead to his acceptance at multiple colleges and his ultimate matriculation at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
His life experience and the turmoil that he lived through – personally and educationally – are not lost on Abdullah. On the contrary, he has chosen to focus on bringing his story to others as a means to combat the “negativity” that he finds to be pervasive in Philadelphia. “I want people to see that there is another way – a different way – out of their current circumstances. I’ve lived through rough circumstances and my life could have gone a very different way if I hadn’t found a different path,” he says. “I think I have unique credibility to show people that life can be better if they want it to. There is a way out and I want to help others find their way,” he explains. “I know the way that I grew up is not the way that I want others to grow up.”
When asked what inspires him to pursue his goals, Abdullah explains that the dark times of his youth – life in the shelter, getting kicked out of Wissahickon – inspires him to continue to work to succeed. Currently, he is focused on developing a non-profit that will focus on educating people about personal financial choices that have a long-range impact on their future. “There are people who don’t even know what a 401(k) is and I want to show how they can use this type of financial choice to avoid all of the bad things that come from economic disadvantage.”
He continues to be inspired and motivated to action by the darkest times of his youth. “Getting kicked out of school taught me there are consequences to my actions and the value of an education,” he says. “It inspired me and motivated me to better myself. I want to share that message with others.”
When asked how he defines success, not surprisingly Abdullah says that providing for yourself and your family are highest on his list. In that way, he views success as a journey and not a destination. “You always have to be working toward making things better – toward making good choices and helping others. It doesn’t stop.”