Rutgers–Camden Honors Student Awarded International Social Justice Fellowship

By Sam Starnes

Melani Cruz Stokes, a Rutgers University–Camden criminal justice major, has been named among 135 international scholars selected for a prestigious Humanity in Action Fellowship.

In her first two years at Rutgers–Camden, Cruz Stokes has pursued numerous opportunities to help others: she is president of the Rutgers–Camden chapter of Define American, a national organization that advocates for undocumented students; she has volunteered for the Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project, a Rutgers Law School program to provide immigration legal services to Rutgers students; and she participated on the Camden County Juvenile Conference Committee, an organization that works with the courts to help first-time juvenile offenders.

From left, Cruz Stokes with fellow Rutgers–Camden students Ana Reyes, Sam Tuero, and Tania Martinez at the Supreme Court during the DACA hearings in November 2019.

Cruz Stokes developed her passion for working on immigration issues at Rutgers–Camden when she learned about the growing challenges facing undocumented immigrant students. “I always thought that being a double minority—being Black and Latina—and being a woman that I didn’t have privilege, but I now understand that I have privileges that other people don’t, such as U.S. citizenship,” says the recipient of this international social justice fellowship. “I want to be able to share the opportunity that I was born with with other people.”

A 2018 graduate of Cherry Hill West High School, Cruz Stokes is on track to earn her bachelor’s degree in 2021 after only three years of study. She was selected in the spring as a fellow by Humanity in Action, an international organization based in New York that is committed to social justice causes. The yearlong fellowship allows honorees to learn with and from global leaders and to examine the historical and contemporary challenges to human rights.

Before the pandemic, she had planned to spend the month of June in Warsaw, Poland, learning about and working on social justice issues there. Due to travel restrictions, she fulfilled the assignment virtually, meeting online for about five hours each day with a cohort of fellows from around the world. “I met people from Poland, the Ukraine, Germany, and other parts of the world,” she says. “It was very enlightening to get different people’s perspectives on social justice issues and learn about their passions and what has shaped them as global advocates.”

Her next step in the Humanity in Action fellowship is to take what she learned over the summer and work to develop a social justice campaign that will impact her local community. She is working out her ideas and plans to launch the project by December.

From left, Rutgers–Camden Define American chapter board members James Gonshery, Martinez, Reyes, Cruz Stokes, and Tuero.

Cruz Stokes’ work as president of the Rutgers–Camden Define American chapter includes advocating for more resources for undocumented students on campus, including supporting those who are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, setting up a website with information about resources, and raising funds to establish a scholarship and emergency funds for undocumented students. “I fell in love with this club and how it takes a stand for people whose voices go unheard,” she says.

In addition to her work with Define American, she has worked on projects for the law school’s Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project, which helps students with visa applications, DACA renewals, and family-based petitions.

In the summer after she finished high school, she began working with the Camden County Juvenile Conference Committee, a volunteer effort through the Family Division of the Camden County Superior Court that strives to keep youth from becoming repeat offenders. “I work very closely with Camden youth,” says the Rutgers–Camden student, noting that her work on the project is on hold during the pandemic. “The experience is very rewarding. I feel that I am an agent of change and I am trying to help youth turn their lives around and be successful in the future. It’s inspiring to know that I may make a difference in one person’s life. It makes me want to continue this work for the rest of my life.”

Stokes says her inspiration for serving others began in her home. “Both of my parents are in the social work field,” Cruz Stokes says, noting that father, Melvin Stokes, is an administrator of substance abuse programs, and her mother, Nelly Cruz, is a behavioral therapist for youth. “I have always been inspired by how they have been agents of change and their ideal of service above self.”

Laura Collins, assistant dean of the Rutgers–Camden Honors College and director of the Office of Scholar Development and Fellowship Advising, serves as Cruz Stokes’ adviser and mentored her on the Humanity in Action application. “Since my earliest meeting with Melani, her commitment to human rights was evident,” Collins says. “With this fellowship experience on her resume, I’m certain more big things are ahead for this promising Rutgers–Camden student.”

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