Raphael Keele, ‘22, majors in English and computer science at Lehigh. He grew up in Philadelphia and became a foster child by the age of 14. (Courtesy of Raphael Keele)

1 in 6,593: Raphael Keele overcomes challenging childhood

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Raphael Keele, ‘22, is majoring in computer science and English and identifies as non-binary or Black and queer. 

He grew up in Philadelphia and became a foster child at the age of 14. Keele lived with four siblings: two younger sisters, an older sister and an older brother. 

One of Keele’s younger sisters passed away when she was 11. He said he was mad at his birth mother for not taking her to the hospital since she had been sick for months. 

“I was also mad at her for not trying to do anything when they were threatening to take us away, so I’m just always going to be mad at her,” Keele said.

When social workers came to the house, they discovered that Keele’s mother was struggling with a hoarding problem and gave her a set amount of time to clean up the house. She didn’t comply, and Keele and his other younger sister were taken away and placed in foster care. 

Keele said he doesn’t think the relationship with his mother will ever be the same.  

Keele was able to stay with his sister in a nearby foster home, and he didn’t start speaking with his mother again until he was accepted to Lehigh years later. He is still in contact with his younger sister, who remains in foster care, but have not seen her in about three years. 

Keele said he has spent some holidays with his older sister but prefers to stay at Lehigh. He will be spending this Thanksgiving in his off-campus home. 

In high school, Keele was part of a program that partners with Lehigh called “Philadelphia Futures” that helps low income first-generation students apply, get accepted to and progress through college. 

Era Shuaipi, ‘22, who went to high school and is house mates with Keele and his sister, was also a part of this program. 

After going on a tour of Lehigh their junior year of high school, Keele decided to apply. Being accepted into the Diversity Achievers Program, or DAP, moved Lehigh to the top of Keele’s list. 

“I was like, ‘I want to come to Lehigh, I don’t want to go anywhere else,’” he said. 

However, Keele said DAP made Lehigh appear misleadingly more diverse and would have enjoyed it if he was more mentally prepared for the diversity reality on Lehigh’s campus.  

He said it seemed like the program was an attempt to get diverse students to commit to attend Lehigh without letting them know what the real environment was actually like. 

Keele said he found Lehigh to be his home when he participated in the Lehigh University Student Scholars Institute, or LUSSI, summer program, where he met Daniel John, ‘22. 

“After LUSSI, I ran away from my foster home because they weren’t treating me well, because they were a little queer-phobic … not a little, a lot queer-phobic,” Keele said. “Lehigh was the only place that I had to go, so I do feel like it’s a home because if I wasn’t at Lehigh, I don’t think I would have anywhere else to go.” 

John said LUSSI was one of the biggest support systems that he’s had at Lehigh. 

“I feel like that was one of the main reasons why I felt like I had a place that I belonged,” John said. “Without LUSSI, I honestly do not feel like I would be here.”

Keele said Lehigh needs to focus on not only increasing diversity, but also getting rid of some of the racist policies that exist in areas like financial aid. He said financial aid is only covered for four years, which Lehigh’s policy also states, despite the fact that it takes most first-generation students longer to complete their degree on average. 

He said students under financial aid only get funding for summer classes when they’re behind, which makes it increasingly difficult to get ahead.

Shuaipi said Keele not only has to worry about financial aid and finding a house, but also racial incidents and diversity issues on campus. 

Keele has been involved in making petitions for Lehigh Police during the Black Lives Matter movement and is still in contact with the police chief. 

“I can see it takes a toll on him because he is not just a student, but he’s also an advocate for himself and other Black students or people of color at Lehigh,” Shuaipi said.

John agreed Lehigh can be doing more to support diversity on campus and that the LUSSI program is different now than when he participated. 

“I feel like Lehigh only does things in terms of diversity when it comes to being performative,” John said.  

Shuaipi said Keele always has acrylic nails on and is androgynous with his gender expression.

She said he always tells her how he is treated differently since he’s feminine and sees his professors in his computer science classes differently.

Shuaipi described Keele as compassionate, smart and true to himself. 

“I can relate (to Keele) because I noticed that femininity is looked down upon in the engineering school, but, especially when you’re feminine and queer, that’s more difficult,” Shuaipi said. “I feel like Raphael has to do twice the work that his peers do to be recognized or to be considered as smart in a class. People doubt him first because of his appearances, and then they realize just how smart and brilliant he is.”

Keele lives off campus at Lehigh year round and chose to stay throughout quarantine. He used the refunds he received from Lehigh to pay for living expenses and rent at the start of COVID-19.

Over the summer, Keele had a remote research internship through Lehigh where he developed an app that would test social media interactions. However, Keele said he dreams of becoming a writer. 

John said Keele is smart, hardworking and kind and feels like people don’t recognize that. 

“I don’t know, you’d just think that a person who’s not had much given to them from the world would not have so much love to give back,” John said. “But he’s honestly one of the most genuine people I know.”

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