Beating the Odds: Rutgers Future Scholar Student Attends White House Summit

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By Tom McLaughlin

For as long as she can recall, Sonjanit DeFrank’s dream was to attend college.

DeFrank, a Rutgers Future Scholar, flourished in the LEAP Academy University Charter School’s STEM High School in Camden, where her teachers continually pushed her to succeed – and succeed she did.

On Thursday, July 23, DeFrank was one of 130 college-bound students from across the country who were welcomed by first lady Michelle Obama at The White House to participate in the “Beating the Odds Summit.” President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance and greeted the guests.

“Sonjanit is an amazing student and we were extremely excited to have her selected to represent Rutgers Future Scholars and Camden at first lady Michelle Obama’s Beating the Odds Summit,” says Nyeema Watson, assistant chancellor for civic engagement at Rutgers University–Camden. “Her recognition by the first lady shows other scholars and students in Camden that, with discipline, preparation, perseverance, and support, students can overcome obstacles on their pathway to higher education.”

IMG_4141-copy2a-cropThe students, sponsored by a variety of nonprofit organizations, have all overcome substantial obstacles to persevere through high school and make it to college. The event focused on sharing tools and strategies that other students can use to transition successfully to college, as well as the resources that they will need to persevere and complete the next level of their education.

“Of course, going to The White House is an amazing experience, and I’ll have stories to tell for years to come, but sitting around with many students who have beaten the odds along with me is wonderful,” says DeFrank, a lifelong resident of Camden who will attend Villanova University in the fall. “For me, going to this summit proves that I beat the odds. I am not another stereotype or statistic.”

The daylong event included a panel, moderated by “E! News” host Terrence Jenkins, featuring First Lady Michelle Obama; U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Manuel Contreras, a rising senior at Brown University and co-founder of the Inter-Ivy, First-Generation College Student Network (1vyG); and musical artist Wale, who performed a concert for the students. In addition, students participated in workshops and panels led by representatives from the U.S. Department of Education; Jaime Casap, chief education evangelist for Google, Inc., and leaders in K-12 and postsecondary education.

IMG_4162Reflecting on her education at the LEAP Academy, DeFrank credits the expertise, guidance, and persistence of the charter school’s College Access Team for helping her to pursue a college degree.

“These guidance counselors do not give up on their kids,” says DeFrank. “Even when a dream school denies a student acceptance, the counselors strive to find them Plan B.”

DeFrank believes that her experiences – and the challenges that she overcame – at the LEAP Academy will continue to benefit her at Villanova University.

“The academics at the LEAP Academy pushed me to be a better and stronger student,” says DeFrank. “That alone will remind me off the tribulations that I have overcome, and now I know that the same can be done at Villanova and anywhere else.”

Upon earning her bachelor’s degree, DeFrank plans to continue her education and pursue a career as a pediatric physical therapist.

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