For Crystal Rosa Pagan-Perez, her first recollections of Rutgers University-Camden are intertwined with her earliest elementary-school memories.
She vividly remembers whining about a homework assignment to her parents, Jose Antonio Pagan and Carmen Rosa Perez, both proud Rutgers-Camden alumni, when her mother set the record straight.
“I asked my mom if college was going to be this hard,” recalls Pagan-Perez, a first-year student at Rutgers-Camden, where her mother graduated in 1988 and her father graduated the following year. “My mother told me, ‘It’s going to be much harder, but you are going to love it.’”
Today, the words still echo in her ears – albeit with a new sense of understanding and appreciation – as the Pennsauken resident pursues a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
While at first glance, Pagan-Perez may appear to be following in her parents’ footsteps, she is quick to note that she chose Rutgers-Camden on her own accord, deciding that she couldn’t pass up a golden opportunity to attend a major research institution right in her own backyard.
A self-professed “mad scientist” as a child, who enjoyed mixing up concoctions of her mom’s cosmetics, she is eager to gain hands-on experience conducting research – with a particular interest in abnormal psychology – in a lab setting.
“I’ve always had that inquisitive nature and the need to solve problems,” says the Honors College student at Rutgers–Camden. “That constant questioning of things is what’s going to keep my mind working. I am really looking forward to it.”
In addition to her studies, Pagan-Perez hopes to build on the considerable experience – and distinguished reputation – that she gained serving as a scholastic leader at Camden County College, where she graduated with a 3.9 grade-point average with an associate’s degree in psychology.
In two prolific years on campus, she served as president and vice president of the Camden County College chapter of Psi Beta, the national honor society in psychology for community and junior colleges. In that role, she made her mark organizing several key community-service initiatives, including a local Mental Health Awareness Movie Night to educate and promote the equal treatment of those with mental illness.
Pagan-Perez also served in several leadership roles – the majority of the time as president or vice president, in addition to stints as co-president and vice president of fellowship – of the college’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for two-year college students. Among her most notable achievements, she was the pioneering force and team leader for the 2014-15 Phi Theta Kappa and Camden County College Buddy Walk Team, an initiative to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with Down Syndrome, in association with the National Down Syndrome Society.While at the helm, the chapter earned several awards and commendations, including Phi Theta Kappa’s designation as a Middle States Gold Chapter and Five Star Chapter.
For her efforts, Pagan-Perez was a Camden County College nominee for the All-USA Community College Academic Team and was named by the New Jersey Council of County Colleges to the 2015 All-New Jersey Academic Team – one of only two students from the college to receive the honor.
She capped off her distinguished service by joining a virtual who’s who of student leaders throughout the country as a delegate at Phi Theta Kappa’s annual international convention in San Antonio.
Looking back now, the NJ STARS scholar says that she could have never dreamed that she would find success as a leader. As she tells it, she was simply trying to get involved and ended up learning a lot about herself.
“When I first arrived on campus, I didn’t think that I had what it took to be a leader,” she says. “I was just passionate about what I was doing and got other people onboard to join me in supporting these causes. Once I got into it, I saw what I could do, and how I could better myself and help others. I never looked back.”
While the past two years have been “a whirlwind,” Pagan-Perez looks forward to tapping into the world of new opportunities and resources that await her.
She’s already hit the ground running – and walking – pioneering and serving as team captain of the Rutgers University Honors College Buddy Walk Team at a walk held at Washington Lake Park in early October.
“I haven’t been able to stay away from service for long,” she says. “It’s always calling to me.”