A Two-Way Street
You’ve probably heard this idea so many times that it feels cliché: Higher education can change lives. But sometimes clichés exist for a reason—and Amanda Ebokosia NCAS’08 is living proof. Ebokosia’s time at Rutgers University–Newark forever transformed her life trajectory. And her university involvement as an alumna continues to inform her work, life, and purpose while shaping the alumni experience at Rutgers.
Back in 2005, Ebokosia enrolled at Rutgers–Newark as a biology major on track for medical school. Then a series of events unfolded to shift her course permanently. During her sophomore year, she learned her mother needed to undergo treatment for breast cancer. She began researching how breast cancer affects young people, and she wanted to raise awareness about what she’d learned. “I didn’t want to create a breast cancer organization because that already exists,” Ebokosia says. “But I wanted to inform my peers…about how [the illness] could impact them.”
So she took a creative approach. She conceptualized a public art project for which people would participate in a photoshoot. In the pictures, participants would hold cards stating facts about breast cancer. Then the photos would be enlarged to life size and posted on campus. The project came to fruition in 2006 with help from dozens of Ebokosia’s peers at Rutgers, and the photos were displayed in Rutgers–Newark’s Paul Robeson Galleries. The exhibit made a big splash on campus.
“It made me feel like this was something that could go on beyond this issue,” Ebokosia says. “That’s a feeling I will always cherish.”
After the exhibit’s success, Ebokosia developed various other educational projects and workshops that resonated with her peers. That’s how she found herself creating a nonprofit she never set out to start—before she’d even graduated.
More than 15 years later, that nonprofit is called The Gem Project. The organization champions on-time graduation for Newark-area high school and college students through peer mentoring, youth organizing, employment, and service-learning initiatives. Since its inception, the Gem Project has impacted the lives of more than 2,000 area youth and young adults. The organization has been honored by Barack Obama’s administration, Forbes, Atlantic Media, and many other outlets.
Ebokosia is quick to credit her nonprofit’s success to the friends she made along the way. “So many people helped significantly to teach me a lot of valuable lessons,” she says. “A lot of people at Rutgers were huge supporters.” Today, six of the eight members of the Gem Project’s board are Rutgers alumni.
As much as Ebokosia receives from the Rutgers community, she gives back—and then some. She’s long volunteered at Rutgers, and five years ago she became a member of the Rutgers University Alumni Association’s (RUAA) Board of Directors. She completed her three-year term, then stepped into the role of vice chair. In her time with RUAA, she has also served as a member of the Alumni Leaders Council, the nominating committee, and the awards and recognition working group. “It ultimately was one of the best leadership experiences I’ve had,” she says.
Ebokosia encourages other alumni to stay involved with the university. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to join the board,” she says. “There are so many other opportunities.” Beyond her board commitments, Ebokosia has also mentored students, supported the Rutgers Alumnae Women’s Professional Network, and shared her expertise as a speaker at several Rutgers events, among other activities. Pursuing any of the varied options for getting involved at Rutgers could be a tipping point for a graduate’s life. “When you rise to the occasion with these opportunities, Rutgers will give back to you in many ways,” she says. “It goes beyond networking; it’s all about relationship building. And one of the most valuable things you can gain in life is relationships.”
Ebokosia would know. The relationships she formed at Rutgers—combined with her talent, vision, and drive—undergird her nonprofit’s success, which is a far cry from medical school. “Rutgers has changed my life,” she says. “I remember having a roommate who said that the Gem Project could be my life, and I thought she was crazy. When you start something and it comes to fruition, that is an amazing feeling.”