Profiles in Diversity

BY MIKE ALLEGRA
Photographs by Paul Gargiul

The website WalletHub conducted an exhaustive study this year, mea-suring the ethno-racial, linguistic, and birthplace diversity of 500 cities across the nation. When the results were tabulated, Jersey City was named the most diverse city in America, hands down.

The NJCU campus reflects the diver-sity of the city that surrounds it. In 2016, U.S. News & World Report named the University the Best Public School in New Jersey for Ethnic Diversity. With the re-cent opening of the West Campus Village Residence Hall, international enrollment has also surged, attracting students from 41 countries—from Albania to Vietnam—with more than 20 making the journey from mainland China. NJCU’s diversity extends beyond ethnicity, too; the ages for NJCU undergraduates range from 16 to 72.

These impressive numbers also have practical merits. Decades of research by scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and demographers have proven that diverse environments make us smarter, more creative, harder working, and better at solving complex problems.

On the following pages, NJCU Maga-zine will introduce you to a few members of our diverse student body. They are, by no means, meant to represent a demo-graphic; they are only a much-too-small sample of the many unique individuals our school attracts. These and the thou-sands of others we educate, make us a better school and, in turn, help us build a better society.


Meter Man

Rashad Wright’s body of poetic work is so raw, so insightful, so powerful that one might think it was written by an older man—one who had more time to develop his abilities, acquire memories, and find the maturity needed to offer up insightful self-reflection.

But no. Wright is only 22.

 

Maybe people grow up faster in Jersey City. Maybe Wright is a rare amalgam of raw talent and persistent devotion to craft. Or maybe it is a bit of both.

“My poetry is almost always a direct reflection of myself,” he explains. “Whenever I read my poetry, it is always about something I wish someone would have told me. I guess I write my poetry to tell myself things I’ve always needed to hear.”

The desire to write came late to Wright, in his senior year of high school. Up to that point, he always imagined himself as being more of anactor, relishing the times he was on stage with the drama club. But another part of him found performing the scripts of others to be constricting. He tried his hand at writing his own stuff and it came out as poetry—often autobiographical and almost always reflecting the realities and challenges of black urban life.

Wright didn’t plan to attend college. “I thought I was going into the military straight out of high school because no one around me was going to college. College didn’t seem realistic to me.”

But his parents thought differently and Wright soon began sending out applications. Despite thinking higher education was an unrealistic goal, he was an appealing college prospect. In addition to his writing and drama abilities, he was a stellar athlete.

He was offered athletic scholarships but the schools he visited left him a little cold. “One college only saw me as a swimmer. Another only saw me as a fencer.”

NJCU, was a different story. “Here I was seen as a whole person. I showed up to an open house and thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’ I applied on the spot. The tuition turned out to be lower than anywhere else—even without scholarship money. So, I was all in.”

Wright was certain he found the right school but he still needed time to find his calling. His parents, in addition to wanting Wright to attend
college, also wanted him to get a “safe” degree, one that promised a financially stable future. For the next two years, Wright bounced from one major to the next; Psychology, Sociology, Business Administration, and Business Management.

“The whole time I was doing these things, I knew I wanted to study English, but no one told me I could study English,” Wright says.

What got him on the creative writing path was, ironically, the same thing that almost didn’t get him to college in the first place: the military. Three years ago—two years after enrolling at NJCU—he joined the National Guard. “They fund most of my schooling—and a military background looks great on a resumé. I felt that was enough to negotiate with my parents. I felt I could now explain that I didn’t need a ‘safe’ degree to move forward in life.”

His parents’ resistance fell away. Wright’s arrival in the English Department was like a homecoming.

Wright soon began competing in poetry slams, a fusion of poetry and theatre that was custom-made for his creative strengths. His performances are electrifying. In 2015, he became the Jersey City Grand Slam Champion with his poem “BLK Runner Boy,” which earned him a spot on the national team.

When he isn’t competing, he performs paid gigs and submits his work to publishers and poetry competitions.

And, of course, he keeps writing, continuing to tell himself things he needs to hear. “Like, ‘Rashad, you have more options,’” he says. “If someone had told me that, I might’ve turned out to be a different person.

“I love who I am, but I would’ve been different.”


Theatre and Theorems

Irley Vallejo dual majors in Musical Theatre and Math. When the NJCU junior volunteers this information, she is usually greeted by a familiar response: a look of confusion, a furrowed brow, and an incredulous “Really?”

“Yes, really!” she says with a laugh.

It’s an uncommon dual major, but if anyone can simultaneously work both halves of her brain, it’s Vallejo. Originally from Ecuador, she came to the U.S. when she was 4 years old and—to listen to he

r parents explain it—one day she spoke
Spanish and the next she began conversing in fluent English.

That ability to absorb knowledge like a sponge followed Vallejo throughout her childhood. An honors student in West New York, she earned pretty much every math credit her school offered—and she did so while also earning college math credits at Hudson County Community
College and taking sociology classes and other college courses through the Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA) Program.

As for performing arts, Vallejo taught dance to young girls at Amarily’s Academy and served as the choreographer at her school’s Glee Club.

A teenager armed with such an impressive and varied resume would make just about any admissions officer sit up and take notice. Notice they did; Vallejo received acceptance letters from a long list of colleges. But when she expressed her desire for majors in math and musical theatre, few schools were eager to accommodate such an eccentric academic schedule. NJCU, on the other hand, was happy to oblige—and gave Vallejo a full scholarship to boot.

Vallejo considers her decision to attend NJCU to be a wise one. “The music program here is a hidden

 gem,” she says. “I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. The faculty here, in both math and music, are just ncredible. They are so knowledgeable and supportive.”

Her schedule is now even busier than it was in high school. On top of her academic workload, Vallejo has joined the cast of a number of University productions (she most recently appeared in the NJCU musical Side Show) and still subs as a dance teacher at Next Step Broadway in Jersey City, LA Dance Academy in Newark, and elsewhere. She belonged to the Urban Dance League and took classes at the Joffrey Ballet
School. Vallejo also occasionally puts in time as a model, walking the runway at New Jersey Fashion Week. Most recently, she modeled a fashionable pair of NJCU socks for the University’s website.

As for her future career, Vallejo admits that her love of performing has a slight edge over a more numbers-oriented career on Wall Street. She has governed herself accordingly. This past spring, she and a number of other drama students from around the country headed to the Southeast Theatre Conference (SETC), an open call audition for promising actors to land spots in equity theatre companies.

Each actor had only 90 seconds to impress the artistic directors in attendance. “In that time, we had to do both a monologue and a song,” Vallejo explains.

But she made an impact and received several job offers. In the end, Vallejo decided to accept a summer position at the Flat Rock Playhouse, the State Theatre of North Carolina. If Vallejo’s work ethic continues apace, her tenure at Flat Rock will no doubt be the first step towards her inevitable debut on The Great White Way.


The Doctor Is In

Education has always played a significant role in Olubunmi Oyeronke Fatoki’s life. “The value of education in Nigeria,” she says, “is very well respected, especially by middle-class families.” This was certainly true in her family; Fatoki’s parents are college-educated professionals. Her mother was a science teacher and her father, a food technologist, managed a department in a pharmaceutical company. “Both of my parents
understood,” she says, “that if I ever needed to leave the country, my education will speak for me wherever I go.”

But it was Fatoki’s uncle, a doctor who treated patients in a small, private, medical clinic, who made the greatest impact on her.“My uncle was visited by people who were in pain, or wounded, or helpless, or sometimes hopeless,” she remembers. “They often left the clinic joyous and healed. To me, his abilities seemed almost godlike. Seeing him work inspired me to learn more about the human body so I could follow in his footsteps.”

She has never wavered in this goal.

Fatoki’s education has been a long and winding road. At the age of 10, she scored well enough on her exams to attend Federal Government Girl’s College, a secondary school in the Igbo region of the country.

This reflected the Nigerian government’s effort to cultivate cross-cultural exchanges of students. Although Nigeria’s national language is English, the country has three main tribes that speak different languages: the Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest—the tribe to which Fatoki belongs—and the Igbo in the south.

It was quite an adjustment for Fatoki; the boarding school was many miles away from everything comforting and familiar—and she was being taught in a language she didn’t understand.

But it wasn’t that bad, she says. Yes, it was sometimes intimidating, often confusing, but not bad. Even at that young age, Fatoki liked to challenge herself, and welcomed new and different environments. By the time she had become an upperclassman, she had learned a great deal about the Igbo culture. In fact, she had adapted so well to the school and was so well regarded among her peers, she was elected to the position of Health Prefect. A health prefect is basically a first responder when a fellow student falls ill, is injured, or suffers from a psychological ailment. Fatoki was constantly on call after school hours, always ready to send students to the infirmary or, when necessary, offer a shoulder to cry upon. It was exhausting work but challenging, so Fatoki liked it.

 

Upon graduation, Fatoki was given the opportunity to continue her education in London, first at West London College and later, Lambeth College. She stayed with a host family originally from Nigeria, a welcome touch of familiarity in an environment that was wildly different from anything she had ever experienced.

“Fortunately, I got to know so many different kindsof people in school and at the supermarket where I worked. I didn’t feel like an outsider. But it was different,” she laughs.

 

To acquire her Doctor of Medicine credentials, Fatoki enrolled at Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, Romania, where, again, she had to earn a degree while simultaneously learning a language she didn’t know.

Though certified to practice medicine, Fatoki’s education isn’t quite over, yet. She now has her eye on a Master of Science in Health Administration at NJCU. The reason? It’s a challenge. Fatoki doesn’t just want to be a doctor in a clinic, she wants to also run her own clinic—perhaps a series of clinics throughout Nigeria. In so doing, she believes she can ensure efficiency, affordability, and consistency of care.

“Medical and health insurance in Nigeria is in a primitive and chaotic state,” she explains. “Many of the people in my community cannot access primary healthcare or afford to see a doctor because doctors charge at the time of service. I want to help change that.

“After I graduate from NJCU,” she continues, “my real professional life will begin.”


Georgia on My Mind

Vakhtang Kiziriya grew up in Moscow during the tail end of the Cold War. He was not immune to the political and violent upheaval that swirled around him.

As a student at Moscow State University, he witnessed the August Putsch, the 1991 coup d’état that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. A year later, while visiting his extended family in the Republic of Georgia, he found himself in the middle of the Abkhazian Conflict, where Russian-backed troops supporting Abkhaz separatists inflicted brutal acts of violence against Georgian citizens.

As if that weren’t enough, Kiziriya was in Moscow in 1993 just in time to witness a Constitutional crisis—a political standoff between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Parliament, which resulted in the parliamentary building getting shelled by tanks.

 

So Kiziriya could be forgiven for deciding that the political instability was just too much to bear.

He first traveled to the United States in 1997. One of his first stops was to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he was enchanted by what he saw. More significantly, he was delighted by his level of access. In the U.S.S.R., every request for information required stacks of paperwork and government approvals (and most such requests were ignored). In the U.S., Kiziriya could learn whatever he wanted; the only prerequisite was a desire to learn. Since childhood, Kiziriya had a desire to learn about edged weapons—a subject of cultural and political importance to Georgia.

Georgians have historically used hand-crafted swords in defense of the region. In a tradition that has lasted centuries, Georgians cherish and hand down edged weapons from one generation to the next, both to honor the dead and to keep alive Georgian fencing traditions.

 

Georgian fencing was not like the fencing we know today. It does not include the masks, protective suits, blunt-tipped foils, and other safeguards. “No,” Kiziriya says. “The elders are covered with scars. One of the aged fencers I spoke with during the expedition told me that there was a time when fencing was so common one couldn’t place a finger on a man’s body without encountering a scar.”

In addition to absorbing everything he could read about edged weapons, Kiziriya also gained knowledge by being a social scientist, traveling to Georgia, conversing with the elders, and even receiving a few fencing lessons. (And, yes, in the spirit of tradition, some blood was shed.) the very museum that gave him so much pleasure on his first visit to the U.S. in 1997.

Kiziriya moved to the U.S. in 1999. Despite his education abroad, he had trouble finding work. “I only landed menial jobs in construction and restaurants,” he notes. “However, I never gave up on my interests in politics and history.” He discovered NJCU due to a lucky conversation with Michelle Mello ’01, an alumna and former NJCU adjunct professor. Kiziriya applied in fall 2016 and was awarded a full scholarship.

His life now has never been busier; in addition to his double major in History and Political Science, Kiziriya worked as a translator and researcher for New York-based Narikala Publications, and now occupies his every spare moment as a freelance editor and translator.

 

But he wouldn’t give up his schedule for the world. Kiziriya achieved a 4.0 GPA in the fall and is impressed by the knowledge his professors possess. “The professors here are wonderful,” he asserts. “And the student body is so diverse. There are so many opportunities to learn about different cultures firsthand. Everyone here brings something valuable that wasn’t here before.”

Then Kiziriya smiles. “I bring something valuable, too.”


Outside the Comfort Zone

Hagar Moustafa, the middle of three children and the only girl, spent her adolescence under the watchful eyes of her protective parents. Their protectiveness was a big reason why Moustafa decided to attend NJCU.

“I wasn’t driving after high school and my parents didn’t really want me to take the train unless I went with a friend,” she says. “And they weren’t big on dorm living, either. So it was pretty much NJCU.”

She planned to transfer after getting her driver’s license but by that time, she had developed a love for the place. “I got really involved in campus life and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m staying!’”

She found NJCU to be a wonderful, welcoming environment and, once she got settled, she did more than her fair share to make others feel welcome, too. She is a student ambassador, leading tours and answering questions from potential students; an orientation leader, helping new freshman acclimate to college life; and a senior member of the Sword and Shield Society, a leadership program designed to teach students how to put their best foot forward upon graduation. It was while working in these programs that Moustafa earned the affectionate—if inexplicable—nickname: “H-Money.”

“It’s not like I have any,” she says with a laugh. Moustafa, now an NJCU senior majoring in Public Health, commutes to campus, but the days of her mom’s and dad’s overprotectiveness is long gone. She has spent her college years making up for lost time.

“My friends and I like to stray outside of our comfort zones,” she says. “Whitewater rafting, snowboarding, hiking, parasailing. And, well, my
friends and I get a lot of confused looks.”

The reason for those looks is the hijab. One might assume the stares are the result of the incongruity of a headscarf with a physical activity such as rock climbing—another pastime of Moustafa’s. Perhaps the looks are simply curious, such as when Moustafa wraps the scarf around her head like a turban to keep it from falling off while dangling from silks in her aerial class. (Yes, she does that, too.)

But that reasoning doesn’t explain the stares she gets in stores, on trains, and pretty much everywhere else. Sometimes, the stares are accompanied by murmuring. In a few cases, she is on the receiving end of open and aggressive hostility. During a John Bellion concert, for example, Moustafa and her friends—one of whom, Rayan Mashal, is a fellow NJCU student who also wears a hijab—were harassed by another
audience member who took their picture, hurled obscenities, and called security to demand that their bags be searched for weapons.

Moustafa’s parents are originally from Egypt but Moustafa was born and raised in Jersey City. As a child, she attended a local Islamic school where the hijab was required. When she became a teenager, her mother asked if she still wanted to wear it.

“The decision to wear the hijab was always my choice,” she explains. “My dad wasn’t a part of the conversation at all. And my mom was up front about it. She explained that if I said, ‘Yes,’ I’d have to wear it all the time. It was an easy decision. I was used to wearing it at school and it was part of my religion, so I said, ‘Sure.’”

Her decision might have been a no-brainer, but it has subtly affected the way Moustafa approaches the world. “I have to be very smiley,” she explains. “Because the first thing people see, right off the bat, is the scarf. I have to be like, ‘I’m not a threat. There’s only food in my backpack.’

“I’m always focused on making sure the Muslim stereotype is not real. I try to hold my anger when someone makes rude comments. If I react the way they want me to, I play into the stereotype.”

At NJCU, however, it’s a different story. On campus, people don’t bat an eye at a hijab. Moustafa isn’t someone to stare at, she’s a fellow student. A friend. A colleague. An active participant in campus life. She’s good ol’ H-Money. And she hopes that her presence on campus will encourage more Muslims to attend.

“I’m the only orientation leader in a scarf. So, I guess I am opening doors for other girls who wear the scarf. I want them to see me and think, ‘Hey, I can do this, too.’” NJCU