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Rutgers Student Tapped for First Group of NeXXT Scholars
U.S. State Department initiative nurturing a generation of Muslim women in the sciences
Oluwatoyosi Ipaye, a first-year student in Rutgers School of Engineering, is the university’s first participant in a pioneering program designed to engage the next generation of women engineers and scientists, specifically women from nations with a Muslim-majority population.
The U.S. State Department, the New York Academy of Sciences and 38 universities nationwide are partnering in the project, dubbed the NeXXt Scholars Initiative. It is designed to counter a shortage of women in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.
Launched last December, on the day the Nobel Prizes were announced, the initiative was endorsed by Hilary Clinton. “Today’s next Madame Curie could be sitting in a high school classroom in Cairo, Jakarta or Mogadishu, yearning for opportunities to explore her potential,” the secretary of state noted at a ceremony introducing the program.
Indeed, Ipaye spent her last year before coming to Rutgers in such a classroom in her home city of Lagos, Nigeria – 5,300 miles from New Brunswick – hoping for a crack at an American education.
“As I matured, I decided what I wanted to be and I weighed my options. I decided America is where I want to be,” says Ipaye, daughter of an educational administrator mother and a civil engineer father. “I wanted a different perspective on health care, plus I liked the way the education in medical school runs here.”
The NeXXt Scholars Initiative – the double X’s represent the X chromosomes in women – reached out to Douglass Residential College and other universities last fall, says Elaine Zundl, dean of the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science and Engineering.
Among the colleges and universities currently playing host to NeXXt scholars are Barnard, Columbia, Smith and Wellesley. The inaugural group’s 12 international participants represent such countries as Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Pakistan, as well as the Palestinian territories.
“The organizers were looking to encourage and empower younger women from predominantly Muslim countries, to build a network of women scientists and engineers,” Zundl says. “There are a lot of barriers for these women, and not enough educational opportunities for them back home.”
What sets the DRC apart in its participation, she adds, is that it is the only women’s residential college within a huge research university, making it rich in resources for a future scientist.
For the young Nigerian known to family and friends as Toyosi, the initiative offers access to internship and research posts, an environment with high-tech equipment in an atmosphere focused on women, and five years of membership in the New York Academy of Sciences.
It also means having a STEM-Sister, another student to provide morale support and help in navigating a culture that can be bewildering and unfamiliar. At Rutgers, that would be Veronica Gerlach, a first-year DRC student from Trenton who is combining studies in pre-medicine and biomedical engineering.
“We have a lot of our classes together, and we live in the same dorm – the Bunting Cobb Living and Learning Community,” Gerlach says, referring to the residence hall thought to be the first in the country designated for women pursuing majors in the STEM fields. “We recently had the same exams, and it’s nice to go through that experience together.”
In addition to adjusting to different foods and a climate that differs from the tropical temperatures of her West African home, Ipaye grapples with customs that sometimes confound her. “Timing. That’s one of the biggest changes for me – people are always on time here,” she says. “It freaks me out sometimes!”
Her coursework at Rutgers has been challenging, but it’s a challenge she welcomes. Ipaye has her eyes on a very specific prize: returning to Nigeria to train a new set of eyes to the country’s hospital system.
In the country of her birth, the career path she’s chosen might have been somewhat more difficult. Although Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities in Africa, there’s still a gender gap in the hard sciences, with many women raised with the notion that their role is to keep house and maintain the family.
The NeXXt Scholars program pairs participants with mentors from the New York Academy of Sciences, who complement academic learning with field experience. Mentors, all young female professionals in STEM-related fields, include a malaria specialist with the United Nations Children’s Fund and a PhD in chemistry who also holds an MBA and has started her own research company.
NeXXt scholars are nominated through State Department-supported Education USA advising centers, which provide educational advising and support to international students interested in studying in this country.
Media Contact: Fredda Sacharow
732-932-7084 Ext. 610