When Ma’isha Aziz enrolled at Rutgers–Camden in 1990 at age 16, she was one of the youngest students on campus. Her grandmother, Winifred Barbee—then in her mid-60s and working toward her master’s degree—was among the oldest. At the same time, Michele Baqi-Aziz, who is Ma’isha’s mother and Winifred’s daughter, was taking night classes there, while working as a school nurse during the day.
“It was really nice to have that feeling of being on campus with my mother and my daughter,” Baqi-Aziz says. “The only thing missing was the three of us skipping across the campus holding hands.”
While the women represented three generations, they shared a great deal of commonalities while on campus. Each was a nontraditional student who went on to earn advanced degrees. More importantly, they all found a welcoming safe haven in the diverse and inclusive Rutgers–Camden community. Their story is a testament to the power of family supporting family, women supporting women, and alumni supporting alumni.
Driven to succeed
It all started with Barbee, who was working as a nurse and had an associate’s degree in psychology from Camden County College when her husband passed away. When she decided to go back to school for her bachelor’s degree in psychology, it was Baqi-Aziz who took her to check out the Rutgers–Camden campus. “It took us a while to figure out where [it] was!” says Baqi-Aziz of that first visit. Once they got there, it was love at first sight for Barbee. “It was close to home, [and] she was able to work as a nurse and still go to school,” says Baqi-Aziz. Barbee applied and was quickly accepted.
Inspired by her mother, Baqi-Aziz enrolled the following year to continue her nursing career (receiving her registered nurse diploma) and pursue her bachelor’s degree. “I always told my mom, all of this is her fault,” she says, laughing. At the time of Michele’s start date, her daughter Ma’isha was on track to finish high school two years early. It was no surprise to anyone when, after graduation, she went straight to Rutgers to pursue a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
Degrees of inspiration
Barbee graduated from Rutgers with her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1987 and her master’s in clinical social work four years later. Eventually, at age 81, she earned her doctorate in psychoanalytic social work at Union Institute and University. “She really flourished on the Rutgers campus,” Baqi-Aziz says. “She was able to be with professors who really ignited in her a feeling of wanting to be in the field of mental health.” Before her passing in 2017, Barbee had run a successful private practice in psychoanalytic social work in Voorhees, New Jersey, for a decade and authored a book titled Coming Aware of Our Multiraciality: The Politics of Skin Color (Outskirts Press, 2006).
For her part, Baqi-Aziz earned her BSN while working and raising four young children. In 1989, she helped form the Rutgers Minority Alumni Council—the precursor to the Rutgers African American Alumni Alliance, which strives to foster unity and community among members of African ancestry. She also assisted in starting a chapter of Chi Eta Phi sorority, a professional nursing organization, in Lawnside, New Jersey. By 1996, she had added a double master’s in Community Health and Maternal Child nursing to her list of credentials, and she parlayed her master’s thesis (a federal grant–writing project) into a job with the Trenton city health department. In 2014, Baqi-Aziz returned to Rutgers once more, this time as a nursing lecturer at Rutgers–Blackwood—a position she holds to this day.
During Ma’isha Aziz’s time at Rutgers, she tutored Camden children and was an active member of the Black Student Union, which is a sanctuary for all people of the African diaspora. Aziz also started the Muslim Student Association to help students of any faith learn more about Islam (Aziz served as its first president), and she was a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a sisterhood of Black college-educated women. After earning her law degree from Temple University, Aziz launched her own practice, which specializes in estate planning and real estate. For a time, she even shared office space with her psychoanalyst grandmother.
Though the three women’s Rutgers–Camden careers overlapped for only one year, it serves as a source of connection and pride. “Though it wasn’t done the traditional way,” Aziz says, “it’s still three generations of Rutgers degrees.”
Baqi-Aziz agrees: “We [made] education a family affair,” she says. “Rutgers–Camden really was home to all three of us.”