At 17, Drexel Student Pushes Ahead

Zakiya James at Drexel University's campus

When Zakiya James attended Woodrow Wilson High School in her native city of Washington D.C., she quickly exhausted the curriculum that was being offered to her there. Zakiya, 14 at the time, was not being challenged and her mother, Shawna Malone, could see that.

Malone attempted to enroll her daughter into higher-level courses at Woodrow, but the administration was not open to the idea. Malone was told by counselors that she should be glad that Zakiya was making A's and didn't need to be in more challenging classes.

Their thought, Malone said, was that more challenging classes could result in lower grades. Having attended Wilson herself, Malone knew that Zakiya was becoming bored and if she was not pushed more, she would become lazy and disinterested in school.

"It made me realize that if I was really going to be concerned about my daughter's education, that I would have to take matters into my own hands," Malone said. "So when the school wasn't receptive, the counselors were not open, and the principal was not receptive, then I started looking outside the school for other resources to educate her."

Zakiya is no stranger to not being given the adequate assistance she deserves at her neighboring schools. In an interview with the Washington Post, Malone told of when Zakiya attended Hardy Middle School and of a time when her math teacher there said that her daughter was "sweet, but not too smart."

There were times when Zakiya would be called to answer math problems and struggle to answer them. She could not understand why, she said, math had always been her favorite subject, so to receive that comment and then low grades was a shock to her.

"With some of my other classes, I found that I probably wasn't trying hard enough," Zakiya, now 17, said. "I didn't really push myself to pass and it was because I didn't care. I would have flunked out of the 6th grade if it was not for my mom. She has always known and still does know what I need and is a great guide for me. So with her help I was able to get myself back on track with school. She ended up transferring me to another school where I was able to excel."

Zakiya ended up at a private school before attending Woodrow Wilson. Malone was able to work after hours at the school to help fund her daughter's education. She did janitorial work and, after class, Zakiya would help her mother by cleaning floors and desks after her peers had all gone home.

When Zakiya left Woodrow, she started attending the University of the District of Columbia's community college campus. Originally she had planned to take college courses while still attending high school, but decided to attend UDC full time.

As Zakiya became more involved with her studies at UDC, it started to become clear to her that she wanted much more in her education.

"I enjoyed my time at the school, the friends I made and my studies," Zakiya, said. "As I got deeper into my major and became older, it became apparent to me that I wanted to transfer. I wanted to go to a school in the city, had lots of research opportunities and wasn't too far from home."

Last year, Zakiya attended a 10-week program at Duke University called the Research Experience for Undergrads. It was there that she was able to study the impact of nanoparticles on waste-water treatment.

This opportunity, she said, gave her the push to transfer.

"She struck me as a very bright undergrad student," Claudia Gunsch, an associate professor in Duke's civil and environmental engineering department, said. "I thought she was a regular junior from her university. She just shocked me as being very detail oriented, someone who was very bright."

Zakiya decided to transfer and apply for the spring term at Drexel University in Philadelphia soon after. Enrolling at the university gave her a chance to get out of her native city and she enjoyed what the school had to offer, including the research, the co-op term schedule and its location.

Despite a rigorous course schedule, Zakiya is on track to graduate in just two more years. However, there are a few hurdles that stand between her and reaching that goal. Since Zakiya is in Drexel's five-year co-op program, the average cost of her tuition there comes to $30,924.

Earlier in the year, Zakiya and her mother started a fundraising effort through the popular crowd-sourcing site, Gofundme, and was able to pay for part of her semester. Unfortunately, she'll have to take out loans to finish paying the rest.

So far, 301 donors have raised $28,905 towards Zakiya's goal of $55,000.

"I'm looking for scholarships, Zakiya said, "but I don't have time during the term to write the essays. I'm more focused on getting good grades."

Drexel did give Zakiya some money, Malone added, and she did receive some financial aid but it wasn't enough to completely pay out the tuition.

"Due to Zakiya's unorthodox path to college, paying for it has proven more difficult," Malone said. "She has taken out student loans to cover the additional cost."

Currently, Malone is unemployed. She was laid off this past June and has been working on completing college applications for Zakiya's brother, who will be graduating from high school this school year.

Zakiya's father manages a carryout restaurant and her grandparents used most of their savings paying for her tuition at UDC.

"I have some anxiety about the debt she will incur from attending Drexel," Malone said. "But I know that her opportunities for employment and graduate school will be better by graduating from Drexel."

When it comes to understanding the concept of college tuition, Zakiya believe that she is lacking in many areas. She has never really questioned why college is so expensive. She understands that once she has graduated, she will likely be in debt.

Zakiya would like to attend another university for her Masters Degree and attend somewhere on the west coast since she has never lived there before.

"I believe Drexel is an excellent school for anyone who wants to be an engineer. Besides the Co-op program that can jump start ones career there are many pros to going to Drexel," she said. " Drexel teaches its students to thin in a different way. I have had to learn to approach problems differently than I usually would. No one is going to hold my hand or leave rose petals for me to follow. I am truly learning in a different way and it's going to make me a better engineer in the future."