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In Time of Need, Students Urged to Come Home

New Jersey Scholar Corps brings NJ students home for studies and service

Posted in: Admissions, Homepage News, University

Gihani Dugganna Walawwe Pahalawela
Gihani Dugganna Walawwe Pahalawela

Union City resident Gihani Dugganna Walawwe Pahalawela was planning to study in New York this fall. But then she heard about the New Jersey Scholar Corps, a higher education partnership formed in response to the economic impacts and public health toll of the COVID-19 crisis.

“As a New Jersey scholar, I will be able to participate in volunteer service activities to serve my local communities while gaining valuable experience,” says Dugganna Walawwe Pahalawela. “Not only that, I can also get real learning experience applying the work I am doing in my degree program.”

The partnership invites students attending school out-of-state to come home to continue their studies, with the added incentive of participating in service programs modeled after the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps to help rebuild the state’s economy and social services.

Dugganna Walawwe Pahalawela was personally affected by COVID-19, falling ill and then diagnosed with the disease. Like her own, she recognizes that New Jersey’s road to recovery will not be an easy one, and she is grateful for the chance Montclair State offers to play both a role serving communities in need while working on a master’s degree in the vital STEM field of Applied Mathematics.

The New Jersey Scholar Corps is leading the country in developing ways to engage students in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. New Jersey was hard hit and educational leaders say it will take all the talent the state can find to help it rebuild.

At Montclair State, “participants will have the opportunity to be part of something bigger, be part of the solution, without compromising their education and career goals,” says Katia Paz Goldfarb, assistant vice president for Hispanic Serving Initiatives.

The new program, also called “NJ Come Home,” additionally seeks to remedy the longstanding problem of students leaving the state and not returning – known as out-migration and “brain drain.”

“We absolutely have to do better in being able to enroll and retain students because those students will eventually help develop New Jersey,” says Blanca E. Vega, assistant professor of Higher Education at Montclair State.

By offering a college education at a reasonable price, the program appeals to the financial realities of families who have suffered a reduced income due to job losses or illness. “We lose about 43% of our college-going population to other states,” Vega says. “This is a good time to really demonstrate to those students that we’re not going to put them in debt.”

”If we have the privilege of recruiting students from our most vulnerable communities, the positive impact is even stronger,” adds Goldfarb. “They will be the perfect role models for our younger generations, of what is possible while advancing your education and lifting our families and communities.”

The first class of New Jersey Scholar Corps students will include Dugganna Walawwe Pahalawela. A native of Sri Lanka, she was able to specialize and complete a diploma in teaching mathematics at a college of education. After moving to the United States and attending community college, she earned an Associate of Science degree in the same subject.

She looks forward to continuing her education at Montclair State. She plans to study Applied Mathematics (MS) at The Graduate School. “There are more opportunities, including working closely with faculty and meeting professionals in my field,” she says. “Montclair is a beautiful campus. The view of the mountains and NYC skyline are amazing.”

Celine Santiago of Elizabeth, New Jersey, will be an English major and plans on applying to the teaching program. With stay-at-home orders, she has yet to visit campus but says the wide range of options for classes and the service component led to her decision, a change from the narrow focus of cartooning she studied in New York City her freshman  year. “Even though I didn’t go far for school, I missed New Jersey when I was gone.”

Tim Carey, who spent his freshman year at small private college in Massachusetts studying psychology, says costs and the ongoing pandemic factored into his decision. “If there’s another outbreak, it will be better to be closer to home,” says Carey who lives in Monroe Township.

The New Jersey Scholar Corps program is open to all New Jersey students currently studying at an accredited four-year, out-of-state university or college. It provides an easy transfer process, promising to accept all credits with a C grade or better.

Students will be matched with a community engagement opportunity that fits with their major and career goals, says Jeffrey Gant, director of Undergraduate Admissions. For education majors, that could include working at K-12 schools to enhance the skills of students who fell behind when schools closed during the pandemic, or business majors with an entrepreneurship focus who reach out to communities to help restart small businesses.

“It’s important for the University to be a leader in the process of rebuilding the state and the economy because of the vital role that we play, not only as a major employer for the area, but as a huge generator of successful alumni,” Gant says. “We owe it to that group and to the larger, state and regional economies to be an active participant and not be a passive observer.”

Story by Staff Writers Marilyn Joyce Lehren and Mary Barr Mann.

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