Chelsie Riche remembers playing school with her cousins as a child.
Only it wasn’t a game.
As one of the few children in her extended family who could afford to go to school in her native Haiti, it was Riche’s responsibility to pass on the lessons she learned to her many cousins when she returned home.
“I thought it was fun talking about what I learned,” said the Rutgers University-New Brunswick senior majoring in Africana studies and history with a minor in women’s gender studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.
Riche, 21, didn’t grasp the magnitude of the role she played in her cousins’ early education until recently.
“Most of my life has been about education. My mom and dad always told me the only way you can make it out is education, and they went through a lot to get me here to get an education,” she said of her mother and father, both of whom never graduated high school and worked as a street food vendor and in lawn maintenance respectively. “So I have a very strong passion for children to have access to quality education.”
Riche’s turned that passion into action at Rutgers – whether working as a teacher’s assistant, mentoring students, tutoring Rutgers athletes or advocating for improved childhood literacy in impoverished communities abroad.
But before she dedicated herself to helping others reach their full potential, Riche had to help herself.
“I did not know how to navigate through college because my dad could not help me,” said the Irvington resident, who moved to the United States in 2006 and is the first in her family to attend college. “I was trying to figure out everything on my own. I didn’t know when to reach out to people, and when I did it was too late.”
The frustrated first-year student was not sure how she was failing college chemistry – her major at the time – when she’d excelled in the subject at Irvington High School. The style and pace of instruction at Rutgers was far more rigorous than what she’d been accustomed to in Irvington, where she said students didn’t have adequate access to advanced instruction, or science labs. The experience made Riche realize that the same economic barriers to education she thought she’d escaped in Haiti exist in America.
“First generation immigrants, especially from the African diaspora, don’t understand how the American education system works – that everything is based on property values,” she said. “They just think, ‘You are in America, education is free’ and they don’t understand that education inequality in America stems from classism. They often don’t understand the limitations of these things.”
Riche understood that she’d started off college at a disadvantage, but instead of letting it define her, she reached out to her support system at Douglass Residential College for guidance – both academically and financially.
“Talking to other women, especially immigrants who have had that same experience, allowed me to reflect on myself,” said Riche, who has earned several grants and scholarships to finance her education.
Then she took Professor Edward Ramsamy’s “Black Experience in America” course, and it opened her eyes to a new academic path.
“That’s where I had my epiphany,” she said. “That’s the course that allowed me to make the decision to become an Africana studies major.”
Riche thrived in her new fields of study, which boosted her confidence, her GPA and desire to give back. She became a peer mentor for the Paul Robeson Living and Learning Community, a resident mentor with the School of Arts and Sciences’ Education Opportunity Fund Summer Institute Program and an undergraduate teacher’s assistant for Ramsamy, who is now her mentor.
“I think one of the joys of being a professor is encountering enthusiastic, bright, diligent students like Chelsie,” Ramsamy said. “She is that sort of innovative student who tries to link what she’s learning in the classroom to social and community concerns.”
As Riche unraveled the ways in which classism, racism and sexism has kept millions of children from receiving quality education, she sought out opportunities to challenge the status quo. She joined the United States Student Association, where she was instrumental in planning the first Student of Color Conference, and served as secretary and treasurer, and is the current president of the group Galvanizing and Organizing Youth Activism. Through GOYA, Riche presided over the project that provided school supplies and created libraries in Jamaica, Sierra Leone, South Africa and her native Haiti.
Last spring, Riche spent a semester abroad in South Africa through the Council on International Educational Exchange at the University of Cape Town Service Learning Program. There she volunteered in a high school, conducting research, implementing college readiness programs and organizing a senior class field trip to Robben Island, where anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. When Riche learned the students couldn’t afford to experience such a vital part of their history it compelled her to teach them how to fundraise for it and future events.
“It was something really simple, but to them it was not,” she said. “The educational disparity I experienced there was on par with what I’ve experienced in Haiti and America. I was able to see the global intersection of poverty and race and gender and class.”
Once she graduates in May, Riche hopes earn a graduate degree in education and African studies. Her ultimate goal is to attend law school. She wasn’t sure she could do both until this summer when she served as an intern for Senator Cory Booker. Riche had planned to work in Booker’s Newark office, until the Rutgers-Eagleton Washington Internship Award Program, which comes with a living stipend of $5,000, afforded her the chance to work in his Washington, D.C. office. There she watched the wheels of government up close.
“After that I realized I don’t have to give up on one or the other, I can do both,” she said. “My hope is to be able to teach and have some type of influence in education policy.”
By Lisa Intrabartola for Rutgers Today