The Power of Reading: A Sixth-grader Reads Her Way to an NJIT Scholarship

Sixth-grader Michelle Ametekpor

Here’s a story about a girl whose love of books earned her a scholarship to NJIT.  It’s also story about an NJIT student who started a nonprofit group that gives children free books while also enabling them to feed the hungry. And it’s a story about a big-hearted woman who funded the girl’s scholarship, which allowed her to take a pre-college class this summer in aeronautical engineering.  

Let’s start with the girl: Her name is Michelle Ametekpor.  She is a sixth-grader at the University Middle School in Irvington, New Jersey, a district with a high poverty rate. Michelle’s parents come from Ghana, but she was born in America. She is a straight-A student who loves languages and math, computers and English, music and art. She is driven to excel, and her goal in life is to be either the first woman president or, if Hillary Clinton is elected, the first African-American woman president. But more than anything, she loves to read. She even has a reading mantra that she recites from memory. It goes like this:

The more you read the more you know

The more you know the smarter you grow

The smarter you grow the stronger your voice

When speaking your mind or making your choice

And it was her omnivorous reading that caught the eye of Tamer Marshood, the NJIT student who founded the nonprofit group, Feeding by Reading. Marshood distributes free books to the Irvington elementary schools and encourages the children to read while also helping them to feed the hungry. For each book a child reads, a sponsor can make a donation to the Feeding by Reading website -- money that funds a local food pantry.

Earlier this year, he had another idea: Feeding by Reading would offer a scholarship to the Irvington student who read the most books.  He distributed reading sheets to the school so that students could keep a reading log. He donated thousands of books to the elementary schools in the city so that students had books to own and read. 

Michelle killed it.

She read so many books and filled out so many sheets that at first Marshood thought something was awry.

“When I was tallying the reading sheets, I actually thought it was a mistake that Michelle had filled out so many,” said Marshood, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “It took me a bit by surprise. I was certainly not expecting to see the level of participation she displayed. Michelle wrote so much she had to attach additional sheets of paper!”

She won the scholarship to attend the Aeronautics Engineering class this summer, where she learned about engineering, math, communication and computer science.  She made friends with  like-minded children who love science and engineering and she had a blast.

 “The class was awesome,” said Michelle. “It exposed me to so much knowledge in so little time. I’m more interested than ever before in engineering. The teachers and the teacher assistants were awesome, and I’d recommend the class to anyone who wants to build a career in STEM. I’m also grateful to have received the scholarship.”

Michelle doesn’t know it, but her scholarship was endowed by a woman who has devoted her life to educating children in urban and suburban settings.

Her name is Jacqueline Cusack, and along with being executive director of the Center for Pre-College Programs, she is founder of a foundation called My Sister's Keeper. The foundation provides financial and mentoring support primarily to single, female-headed families in crisis and to female students who pursue post-secondary education. When earlier in the year she met Marshood and learned about the work he was doing in the Irvington schools, she immediately volunteered to support him.  She told Tamer that he was making the world “a better place,” and that she was happy to endow the scholarship that Michelle would later win.

Cusack, a former superintendent of schools, is a soft-spoken, eloquent woman who smiles easily and has a warm regard for people like Marshood, who devote their time to helping those in need.  Asked to explain why she funded Michelle’s scholarship, Cusack smiled broadly, and, in sotto voce, quoted from her favorite book: 

“I believe in the biblical adage: To whom much is given, much shall be required" (Luke 12:48).

By Robert Florida