Camden Rising

Rutgers University–Camden students Michelle Obasi, left, and Bielka Gonzalez on the Ben Franklin Bridge. Both have roots in Camden and exemplify the university’s role in Camden’s resurgence.

Rutgers Students, Faculty, Alumni, and Staff Embrace the City’s Resurgence

By Sam Starnes

Bielka Gonzalez’s family settled in Camden when she was only a toddler.

Soon after, she enrolled at the LEAP Academy University Charter School, the school founded by Rutgers University Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, one block from the university’s campus. “I started there in pre-school,” said Gonzalez, whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic before she was born.

Fifteen years later, Gonzalez, a 2016 high school graduate of the LEAP Academy, is a sophomore in the Rutgers–Camden Honors College. In her first year, she completed two internships in Center City Philadelphia with Pricewaterhouse­Coopers that the Rutgers School of Business–Camden and the Career Center helped her find. “I couldn’t imagine being anywhere other than Rutgers–Camden,” said Gonzalez, who is planning a career as an accountant. “I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to associate with people I never thought I would have met.”

But Gonzalez, whose family moved from the Fairview section of Camden to Pennsauken when she was 11, hasn’t forgotten her roots. She volunteers each semester with Jumpstart, a Rutgers–Camden program for college students tutoring Camden preschoolers. “I love the children—I was in their shoes before,” she said, adding that she will continue to volunteer after she graduates. “I want to give back to my community.”

Gonzalez exemplifies the civic engagement spirit of Rutgers’ role in Camden Rising, a multifaceted effort to promote growth and progress in the city. “I am the future,” said Gonzalez. “And the children are the future. You have to give back to your community and help it to grow and expand.”

Gonzalez, who lived on campus in Rutgers–Camden residence halls in her first year, keeps an eye on the buzz of construction on the riverfront and near City Hall, including the new 106,735-square-foot Rutgers–Camden Nursing and Science Building that opened in fall 2017. “The more buildings that are coming, the more companies are coming. It’s nice to know that the city is expanding. That’s really cool.”

While most see the “cool” transfor­mation of the city’s skyline, Rutgers–Camden Chancellor Phoebe A. Haddon said Camden Rising is a much larger movement that will uplift families and communities. “Camden Rising is a vast public-private partnership that will bring jobs, community resources, and ultimately, increased prosperity to the city,” Haddon said. “As a state university and an anchor institution in the city of Camden, Rutgers–Camden is fully and enthusiastically committed to this cause. While we certainly are growing our campus and expanding our physical footprint in the city with wonderful new facilities, this is ultimately about the university’s efforts to serve our students, the residents of Camden, and all of South Jersey.”

Nyeema Watson

Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement

A City Engaged

Nyeema Watson, who has lived all her life at a Camden address, has witnessed previous projects that worked to improve her hometown. This time, however, is different, said Watson, Rutgers–Camden’s associate chancellor for civic engagement. “Camden Rising is a more intentional focus,” Watson said. “In the past, some efforts have just focused on businesses or economic redevelopment, some focused on trying to transform the K-12 school landscape, and some focused on crime and policing. With Camden Rising, we are focusing collectively on all of these things that affect the city. It’s a new and multifaceted approach to full-scale redevelopment for Camden.”

Watson grew up in East Camden, attended Rutgers–Camden as an undergraduate, earning a degree in psychology and African American studies in 2000. After earning a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, she returned to work at Rutgers–Camden in 2004 and earned a doctorate in childhood studies. She has worked for the university’s Office of Civic Engagement since its inception in 2010 and has headed it since 2014. Initiatives by the office include providing after-school care to more than 400 children in North Camden, establishment of a Future Scholars program, and the creation of the Hill Family Center for Educational Access, founded by two alumni from Camden— twin brothers Washington C. Hill CCAS’61, a prominent perinatologist, and George C. Hill CCAS’61, a renowned biomedical scientist. The office also has helped to create more than 140 community-engaged classes that allow students to earn credit while working on projects beneficial to the city.

The civic engagement efforts not only benefit Camden, she said, but offer educational opportunities to students to get hands-on, real-world experience. “We want to do this for the community, but we also use it for an opportunity for our students to learn,” Watson said.

Colin Sheehan, a Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar

Colin Sheehan, a Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar

A Suburban Advocate

Colin Sheehan, a senior at Rutgers– Camden from Gibbsboro, New Jersey, who is working on degrees in political science and law, will never forget his introduction to Camden neighborhoods. As a Civic Scholar, a program run by the Office of Civic Engagement that requires students to complete 300 hours of community service work each year, he and other students were assigned to survey residents in East Camden. “We stood on a street corner and we had to ask people about their dreams for the city,” he said. The input received ranged from very positive dreams to negative feedback from those who had given up hope. “That was a very eye-opening experience for me,” he said.

Sheehan, who went on to be in­volved in many community projects such as working with homeless shelters and charter schools, said the experience shaped both his studies and how he has approached civic engagement. “If there is going to be change in the city, it needs to start with the people who live here,” he said. “It can’t just be people like me who are coming in and saying ‘Oh, I know how to fix the city.’ We need to listen to people.”

A 2014 graduate of Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees who is on course to earn a Rutgers Law degree in 2020, Sheehan spent this past summer as a public policy intern on Capitol Hill for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Prior to becoming a Rutgers–Camden student, he knew very little about the city. “Even though I lived so close, the only time I would ever go through Camden was to go over the Ben Franklin Bridge or to go to the aquarium. I had never really been in the city, and because of that, I had the idea, which I think many people have, that it’s a scary place. When I talk to people who have that idea, I defend the city. While it has challenges, there are many great things about it.”

Hometown Perspective

Michelle Obasi, a Camden resident who attended St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral School in East Camden and Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, had planned to go away for college. But when her father died during the summer after she finished high school, she decided to stay at home and commute to Rutgers–Camden. In her first three years, she has been a basketball standout and is on pace to be one of the program’s all-time leading rebounders and scorers.

A senior biology major with a minor in Africana studies who plans to pursue a doctorate in physical therapy, she is excited to be studying in the new Nursing and Science Building. “The new building is a great asset to the city of Camden,” she said. “Not only does it aid in the education of many students, it will enhance my education in my last year.”

Obasi, however, is cautiously optimistic about the changes in her hometown. “I love some of the things in Camden I’m seeing, such as the increasing care for the city and early and higher education being more of a priority,” she said. “I don’t like to call what is going on in the city an upsurge, though, until the concrete evidence of helping the citizens of Camden is evident.”

Watson said such civic engagement work will remain a cornerstone for Rutgers–Camden faculty and students. “This commitment on behalf of the university to be really closely aligned with the priorities of the city is something that will not change,” she said. “It will prove successful, not only for the goals we have for ourselves as a higher education institution, but will assist the city in achieving the goals it has for itself more quickly by aligning Rutgers–Camden with Camden Rising.”

Business professor Oscar Holmes IV with student Kelly Kennedy and children in the Fellowship House program.

Engaging the Community

Helping the citizens of Camden is a primary goal of Rutgers–Camden’s civic engagement effort, which has the mission “to build a bridge between the campus and the community,” Watson said.

One organization helping Camden residents that has benefited from the work of Rutgers–Camden students and faculty is the Fellowship House of South Camden, a nonprofit that hosts academic, social, and athletic activities for children. “We work with a lot of Rutgers students who help us,” said Richelle Todd-Yamoah GSC’15, a graduate of Rutgers–Camden’s master of public administration program who is the executive director of the Fellowship House.

Students in business professor Oscar Holmes IV’s Organizational Behavior class in the spring 2017 semester analyzed the Fellowship House’s fundraising plans, gave advice on social media strategies, and helped create a fundraising guide. “They really help fill some of the gaps we have,” Todd-Yamoah said. “We have a limited capacity with a small staff. It has been very helpful.”

Kelly Kennedy, a student in Holmes’ class from Browns Mill, New Jersey, worked with Fellowship House staff to plan a 5K run as a fundraiser. Kennedy, a health sciences/public administration dual major, said she learned a great deal about fundraising through the project but also found the work very rewarding. “Places like Fellowship House fill an important need for the children of Camden,” said Kennedy, whose daughter is a student at Rutgers–New Brunswick. “As a mother and a student, I want to help.”

Holmes, an assistant professor of management whose classes have helped to raise more than $30,000 for nonprofits, said the fundraising projects for students gives them exceptional learning oppor­tunities. “Raising money teaches students so much about themselves,” he said.

Holmes added that it also fulfills an important objective of serving Camden. “It is important for us to give back to a city that has given so much,” he said.

Rutgers–Camden’s support of Fellowship House extends beyond Holmes’ class. Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, a professor of marketing, is a board member, as is Anne Mallgrave RLAW’88, a supervising attorney with the Rutgers Law School Civil Practice Clinic.

Like Holmes, Kaufman-Scarborough often assigns students to work with nonprofit organizations in Camden. In her fall 2016 class Marketing in the Social Media Age, students developed online marketing plans for five organizations in the city. “There’s a transformation that comes over a student when they apply the knowledge they’ve learned to a project,” she said.

The benefits, Kaufman-Scarborough said, run both ways. “It helps the Camden community because it was able to create strength for an organization. It also enriches us as a campus.”

Watson said such civic engagement work will remain a cornerstone for Rutgers–Camden faculty and students. “This commitment on behalf of the university to be really closely aligned with the priorities of the city is something that will not change,” she said. “It will prove successful, not only for the goals we have for ourselves as a higher education institution, but will assist the city in achieving the goals it has for itself more quickly by aligning Rutgers–Camden with Camden Rising.”

Camden Mayor Dana Redd SBC’96

Camden Mayor Dana Redd SBC’96

Three elected officials, all Rutgers University–Camden alumni, on Camden Rising and Rutgers’ role:

Camden Mayor Dana Redd SBC’96: “Camden has experienced some difficult times, but we are truly turning the corner and there are much brighter days ahead…Rutgers–Camden has become the front door to the new and rapidly improving waterfront, and has developed a beautiful urban downtown campus. I think what makes me so proud to call myself an alumna is that the university remains community-conscious as the faculty, alumni, and student body continue to be impactful throughout Camden by embracing their role as a community partner. This has an immeasurable effect on the community, leaving a rich legacy and inspiring future Rutgers students to engage with Camden residents for years to come.”

New Jersey Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones CCAS’94: “The current work to see Camden City and its residents regain their leadership role economically, educationally, and socially—after numerous past efforts—is now moving substantially toward success. As a major research facility, Rutgers–Camden has become an integral player in Camden Rising.”

Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. RLAW’87: “What’s being done in the city right now is historically unprec­edented and is going to have a tangible impact for residents far beyond the next five to 10 years… This won’t be done by corporations alone, but by the growth of the small business community, nonprofits, and public partners like Rutgers…It would be impossible to replace what the university is bringing to the table.”

Map of Campus

Rutgers–Camden Rising: New and Proposed Facilities

From a gleaming building newly opened next to City Hall to future hopes for expansion, Rutgers–Camden seeks to build a gateway to growth in Camden, expanding the university’s footprint to serve both students and South Jersey residents. Here is a look at a range of projects:

Four new buildings will establish the “Eds and Meds” corridor connecting Cooper University Hospital to Rutgers–Camden.
1. Nursing and Science Building
The 106,735-square-foot building opened in the fall and is home to the School of Nursing, the physics department, and a wide range of classes across disciplines.
The Joint Health Sciences Center2. The Joint Health Sciences Center
A collaboration of the Rowan University/Rutgers University–Camden Board of Governors (RURCBOG), this building is under construction and scheduled to open in 2019. Rutgers, Rowan, and Camden County College will share the space.
3.Rutgers Health Sciences Building
This proposed building will expand research opportunities for faculty and students and will promote collaborations with Camden organizations.
School of Business4. School of Business Building This envisioned 100,000-square-foot facility will sit across Fifth Street from City Hall. It will include retail and office space as well as provide space for the School of Business–Camden.
330 Cooper Street Dormitory5. 330 Cooper Street
This 12-story residence hall that features a mix of apartments and retail opened in 2012.

Alumni House6. Welcome Center and Alumni House
The Welcome Center at 330 Cooper Street opened in Spring 2017; the Alumni House at 312 Cooper opened in fall 2016.

Writers House

7.Writers House
Conversion of the 1885 Henry Genet Taylor House into the Writers House was completed in 2015. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Posted in: 2017 FALL

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