Honors Graduate, a Champion of Immigrants, Committed to Public Service

Melani Cruz Stokes with her parents, Nelly Cruz and Melvin Stokes.

By Sam Starnes

Melani Cruz Stokes—who graduates this spring with numerous honors from Rutgers University–Camden—accomplished much in her abbreviated time on campus: She completed her criminal justice degree in only three years while earning a perfect 4.00 grade point average; served as president of a campus organization supporting undocumented immigrant students; and participated in a prestigious international fellowship devoted to human rights.

In her final year at Rutgers–Camden, Cruz Stokes, a 2018 graduate of Cherry Hill West High School who lives in Stratford, led an effort to raise $5,000 that supported undocumented and international Rutgers–Camden students who were not eligible for federal COVID-19 aid. She also worked with the Chancellor’s Office to help establish a task force to support undocumented students, among other advocacy and community efforts.

What motivated her to accomplish so much in a short time as a student in Rutgers–Camden’s Honors College?

“It’s the feeling I get when I know that I’ve helped someone or made a difference in someone’s life,” Cruz Stokes says. “That’s why I’m so passionate about public service and giving back to my community and participating in advocacy work on campus and in my community. Just giving back means so much to me.”

Cruz Stokes says her desire to help others began at home. Her 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,” says Cruz Stokes, who added that a second motivating factor driving her is that she wants to be a good role model for younger relatives.

Cruz Stokes says she cherishes the support she received from Rutgers–Camden faculty in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice and that conducting undergraduate research on COVID-19 responses in immigrant detention centers under the guidance of Sara Tosh, an assistant professor, was transformative. “She really opened my eyes to the different possibilities of combining my academics with my interest in law and my passion for immigrants’ rights advocacy,” Cruz Stokes says.

As a student, Cruz Stokes served as president of the Rutgers–Camden chapter of Define American, a national organization that advocates for undocumented students; she 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.

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,” she says. “I want to be able to create and share the opportunities that I was born with with other people.”

In 2020, she was one of 135 scholars worldwide selected 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.

Her fellowship projects included creation of the fund to help undocumented students and a short documentary exploring the term “Afro-Latinidad,” a term used by people in the Latinx community who acknowledge their African ancestry. “The documentary brings awareness that there is no one definitive way to define Afro-Latinidad, and also not everyone in the Latinx community is accepting of their African ancestry,” she says.

Cruz Stokes plans to work full-time for a year before attending law school. Since February 2019, she has worked at the Trimble & Register law firm in Turnersville, and she credits partner Katrina Register as being a supportive mentor. Another mentor who has helped guide her since high school is attorney Shelia Ellington.

Ultimately, Cruz Stokes says she wants to become a prosecutor. “I feel as though the prosecutor has the most discretion within the criminal justice system, and they have the ability to affect change in the community,” Cruz Stokes says. “I aspire to use my privilege and power as a prosecutor to work in the best interest of the community and to give back.”

Posted in: Student Achievement

Comments are closed.