Fatimoh: Demonstrating the values of the Ophelia J. Berry Excellence Award

Empathy, active concern and caring for others? Check. Commitment to excellence and willingness to work hard to meet and exceed high standards? Check.

It’s the eve of her high school graduation and inside her Newark home, Fatimoh is visibly and busily demonstrating just about every value associated with the Ophelia J. Berry Excellence Award she just earned, while cradling, cuddling, cajoling and coaxing her 3-year-old little sister into cooperating while she answers questions in a Zoom interview.

Empathy, active concern and caring for others? Check.

In between one response and another, Fatimoh lifts her active sister up to her shoulder to hug her.

Commitment to excellence and willingness to work hard to meet and exceed high standards? Check.

Who’s more demanding of anyone than a restless toddler? Fatimoh rises to meet the moment, patiently reassuring her little sister that she has her undivided attention.

And through the moment, Fatimoh is displaying a willingness to teach and lead, loving learning how to fine tune her childcare game and showing a generous spirit with her love.

Yet Fatimoh, who has routinely won awards for her prose reading at regional and national competitions and this fall will enter New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) on a full-ride, four-year scholarship, says she was surprised to have been chosen as the recipient of the highest individual honor at Pathways to College.

“I was at the awards ceremony and when they called my name, I was shocked,” Fatimoh begins, gradually revealing her bright smile. “This award is different. I’ve usually won awards while competing against other people. This one shows my growth and leadership credentials. To be the only one to win is special.”

Fatimoh, who spent part of her childhood in her native Nigeria before immigrating to the United States, quickly distinguished herself in high school with her prowess in prose and scientific and mathematical aptitude. While she was starring as a member of the school’s speech and debate team, Fatimoh advanced to taking college courses and as early as her junior year, enrolling in and completing a criminal justice class at Essex County Community College. In her senior year at Central, Fatimoh was taking a challenging math course at NJIT.

Juggling both high school and undergraduate academic loads was a heavy burden for Fatimoh, one that she says that at times in her 11th grade year, made her feel as if she were failing to earn the high grades she sought, in both the high school and undergraduate realms. That feeling, in part, inspired her to write an original poem, published in the 2021 edition of Scholar Voices, the official annual publication that showcases Scholars’ best written and artistic works.

In that poem, “Dear Ms. Bishop,” Fatimoh writes: “The art of losing is hard to master/In order to learn you have to lose/If you don’t lose you may not gain.”

“Failure can sometimes be success,” she explains. “The fact that you actually tried to do something is an achievement — to start and finish something. The winning is having been through adversity. There’s always a bright side to hard experiences.”

It would be hard to imagine any harder experience for a child to be born into slavery and then endure that atrocity as an adult, yet Fatimoh recently chose to powerfully give voice to that reality at a national prose reading competition. Fatimoh recited an excerpt of the Dorothy Sterling book, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, featuring the harrowing experiences of a woman in bondage.

She so stirringly rendered it that judges honored her by naming her a top-10 performer of prose reading. But even more meaningful to Fatimoh, her performance moved a 14-year-old competitor to tears and to approach her afterward.

“Hundreds of people besides me spoke that day,” Fatimoh says. “But that freshman came up to me to talk, so for her to be so into what I was reading was moving. I read it emotionally. When it’s dead silent in the room and your voice is the only sound you can hear, the emotions start to come into it.”

Fatimoh’s newest fan is far from the only person to recognize her as a leader. She also earned a leadership award for her work in her school’s junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. While Fatimoh is keenly interested in studying biology and medicine at NJIT, she also harbors interest in one day serving in the US Army, perhaps as a scientist, medical professional, or mass communications specialist.

For all her successes, Fatimoh is grateful for her family’s support — not just her biological one.

“Pathways has provided a lifelong family for me,” she says. “It has a safe space you have to have for support when you’re in high school and gives you a top-tier family relationship you want and need.”