Growing up in the inner city, Nyuma Waggeh and Kadeem Pratt acknowledge there were many times that it would have been much easier to give up than to pursue a higher education.
“We’ve both been able to overcome the odds and obstacles,” says Waggeh, an East Orange resident and sophomore English and psychology major with a minor in political science at Rutgers University–Camden.
However, Pratt is quick to note, he and his counterpart aren’t inspired by visions of their own success, but rather the thoughts of being in a position to help others who are less fortunate – others who are just like they were – achieve their goals.
“I realize that it’s bigger than me,” says Pratt, a Camden resident and sophomore art major with a minor in Africana Studies at Rutgers–Camden. “Since I was a child, I’ve believed that I can make an impact, and I am not going to stop until I do.”
The Rutgers–Camden students will now take a giant leap on their respective journeys, as they have been named scholars in the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. The highly competitive program, named for the late physicist McNair, the second African American astronaut in space and one of seven crew members to die in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, provides a supportive environment and the resources to assist and prepare students interested in pursuing a doctorate education. To be eligible, students must be a sophomore or junior; a low-income, first-generation college student or represent a group that has been historically underrepresented in graduate education; and maintain a cumulative grade-point average of no less than 3.2.
Pamela Clark, director of TRiO Student Support Services at Rutgers–Camden, praises the students, whom she has assisted through her program, as already being inspirations to their peers.
“We are extremely proud of their accomplishments,” says Clark. “It is my hope that other interested and eligible Rutgers–Camden students can see the possibility for themselves and aspire to this goal next year and in years to come.”
The pair will now gain invaluable, hands-on research experience, as they join 19 other Rutgers students – representing all three campuses – at an eight-week summer research institute at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Under the tutelage of faculty mentors, they will begin to develop the professional and academic skills necessary to become competitive applicants for graduate and doctoral programs.
The Rutgers–Camden students will focus their research on a self-designed project examining the effects of the environment on the performance and behaviors of students in urban communities. They plan to measure toxicity levels of lead and other known harmful chemicals in the soil, air, and water, and gauge various student-performance, motivation, and social-interaction indicators, in both urban and non-urban areas, and determine if a correlation exists.
“There is a lot of industrial activity in cities that can contribute to high levels of toxins, which have been shown to affect certain areas of the brain,” explains Pratt, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental studies. “If we prove that these toxins are affecting students’ performance, we can help find sustainable ways to reform education.”
After attending the research institute, the McNair scholars will continue to enjoy a variety of specialized services, including individual academic advising; additional funding, fellowship, and scholarship opportunities; and invitations to attend cultural events and excursions. They will also receive writing and tutoring support, presentation and public-speaking training, and assistance applying to graduate school.
Waggeh affirms that, in addition to rigorous research and training, the McNair program will be a test of their resilience. “It’s going to be intense, so you have to be able to stand the heat,” says Waggeh, whose career goal is to be an elementary- or middle-school English teacher.
Rest assured, however, the Rutgers–Camden students have never run from a challenge yet. Born and raised in East Orange, Waggeh recalls struggling with a speech impediment and behavioral issues, before heeding the advice of her father and focusing on her schoolwork. She soon developed a passion for reading and was encouraged to explore her talents and interests by teachers who made learning fun – a lesson that she continues to carry to this day.
“My teachers made me so happy about English that I want to be the same kind of teacher to others as they were to me,” says Waggeh, a Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar. “I also want students to know that they can make it. They might come from a similar background or are dealing with similar challenges as I did, but as long as they try, they will persevere.”
For Pratt, he recalls that growing up in Camden wasn’t always the ideal place to learn. Some teachers, he says, were more interested in “minimizing the violence,” rather than helping students prosper in the classroom. However, he says, he too benefited from a positive, guiding influence, recalling that his science teacher at Cooper B. Hatch Family School helped him to discover his passion for computers and technology.
“He would bring me to the computer lab, where I learned how computers worked,” says Pratt. “That love of science has grown with me to this day.”
Upon graduating from Camden High School, Pratt pursued a bachelor’s degree in engineering at Bloomfield College. He then focused his interests on contemporary and digital arts, studying at Essex County College and Camden County College, before enrolling at Rutgers–Camden in fall 2014.
In addition to his studies, Pratt has been an active volunteer on campus and in the surrounding community. At Rutgers–Camden, he is an Education Ambassador with the Office of Civic Engagement, helping to design and implement leadership and development workshops, and a member of the Office of Housing and Residence Life’s Green Team. He also serves on the Camden City Mayors Youth Council, a group dedicated to the improvement of youth services in the city.
Pratt now plans to combine his interests in digital arts, community service, and environment studies to redesign living, working, and learning spaces to have greater sustainability.