Faculty Step Up to Help Rising Stars
by Sam Anderson
For many faculty members, the dedication to their students is part of their social justice commitment, worth achieving by contributing in any way they can.
When President Jeremy Travis in 2013 raised the issue of getting faculty to participate in a campaign to raise much-needed funds for a new fellowship, anthropology Professor Alisse Waterston admits that she was puzzled. To say the least, asking her colleagues to donate money in addition to the time and effort they already put in—“blood, sweat, and tears,” in her words—would be a challenge. Yet Waterston also knew that they truly believed in John Jay’s students and CUNY’s pivotal role in public higher education.
“For me personally, part of that larger social justice mission is to understand the sources and consequences of inequality as it affects our students, and doing whatever it takes to address them,” said Waterston. “We teach them, we mentor and nurture them, and sometimes, if we are able, we contribute financially.”
In this context, inequality means that many John Jay students are unable to take on unpaid internships, research opportunities, or study-abroad experiences due to lack of funds and the need to prioritize paid employment. For John Jay students, the choice between work and educational experiences is often not a choice at all.
“A large portion of our undergraduates are students of color, new immigrants, and from working-class backgrounds,” Waterston said, “and John Jay has really flourished over the past 10 years in terms of building different opportunities for students, but they can’t always take advantage of these opportunities. Why? Because they have to work.”
Andrene Wright transferred to John Jay from Michigan State University because her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and lost her job. Working 40 hours per week and still unable to pay the out-of-state tuition, Wright headed home to Long Island. “I was taking one day at a time because life came at me fast,” she said. “But I always believed in the power of momentum.”
At John Jay, Wright was able to continue her education but the idea of studying abroad seemed just out of reach. Professor Waterston, whom Wright had met through the John Jay-Vera Fellows program, thought otherwise.
“Why not create a funding opportunity, the Rising Star Fellowship, where students can accept opportunities that can make big differences in their lives and their future in terms of personal development, social development, and professional development?” Waterston pondered.
She and her faculty colleagues began the fundraising process, setting the goal at $100,000. While they haven’t quite met that goal, they got close enough to start awarding the fellowships. Now in its second year, the Rising Star Fellowship has been awarded to six students, each of whom received $3,000 to help them pursue and accept opportunities that otherwise might have remained elusive. Waterston has big dreams for the future of the Fellowship program, hoping that more faculty will be inspired to give and that an outside patron will be inspired to match the faculty fund.
For Wright, the Rising Star Fellowship has meant an all-expenses-paid trip to study and work in Senegal. “The biggest takeaway was breaking away from the assumptions of what I thought was going to happen,” she said. “I study Africana Studies, but I had no idea how rich in resources and culture Senegal was, and how their value system differs from ours. It’s more than just infrastructure that makes them rich.”
Wright stayed with a host family in Dakar and traveled to a rural community to help build an eco-village, a community in which “human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development, and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”
“There was no bathroom, we showered with buckets, we made our own food, and we ate with our hands,” Wright said. “I didn’t think of myself as poor because people were so happy and we lived in such harmony. To run away from the idea that the world revolves around money was so different…I wasn’t used to thinking that way.”
Wright says she never would have had this experience without Rising Star, adding that, unlike other scholarships for which she had to navigate endless red tape to secure the funds, Rising Star funding was there exactly when and where she needed it.
“Professor Waterston has been my savior for a whole year,” Wright said. “She went up to bat for me and she does that for all of her Fellows. She’s an amazing human and I can’t begin to express how thankful I am for her.”
Rabia Javed, an international student from Pakistan in the Honors Program, also used her Rising Star Fellowship to travel abroad. A Forensic Science major, she conducted ethnobotanical research in Morocco, where she studied the therapeutic properties of medicinal plants. “Eucalyptus, lemon verbena, and rosemary have certain properties,” she said, “and what we did was analyze the pharmacological potential of these essential oils by conducting experiments on mice and locusts.”
Javed found that when injected with rosemary oil, locusts died instantly, opening the door for a potentially innovative approach to making insecticides that would not be harmful to people. Javed is also looking into whether essential oils have therapeutic value to humans, and if they can potentially slow the effects of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.
“I was glad I got accepted because if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have been able to conduct research last summer,” said Javed. “Just paying college tuition, I’m hardly able to manage. So I’m really grateful for the Rising Star opportunity, otherwise I would have had to give up on the research.”
Javed has continued to move forward with her research and is currently analyzing the therapeutic properties of black cumin with her faculty mentor, Dr. Shu Yuan Cheng. She noted that Rising Star was particularly important to her because as an international student, she is not eligible for a lot of scholarship and fellowship opportunities.
“I’ve been working at least two jobs throughout my undergraduate career and I always have to make a choice: Do I work or do I study? That’s an extremely hard decision to make,” Javed said, “but with Rising Star, as long as you’re a student they will help you.”
Said Waterston, “If there’s any testament to the value of what we’re doing with this project, it’s hearing from the young people about their experiences and what they got out of it. The Rising Star Fellowship is fulfilling the role we imagined it would fulfill. It’s really happening, and it’s having a transformative effect.”