BY Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

MOUNT LAUREL – While many people are familiar with the devastation Hurricane Maria leveled on Puerto Rico in 2017, the deadly Category 5 storm first hit D’Jana Wyllis homeland of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles.

Wyllis was just weeks into her first semester at Rowan College at Burlington County, living with relatives in Mount Holly and had lost all contact with family there for several days. She still vividly remembers how long and hard those days were living in a strange country not knowing the fate of loved ones.

“My father had to travel to help my grandmother rebuild her house,” said Wyllis, who graduated with honors this spring from RCBC and is now enrolling in Columbia University. “It was a very emotional time and I just wanted to be there with my family during that time, but I tried my best to remain focused.

“During that time, I hardly had friends in New Jersey and I wasn’t in touch with most of my family. However, during their process of rebuilding and as communication was restored, I saw how motivated my people were to make the most of a bad situation. Their dedication and how they never lost hope, motivated me to make the most of my opportunities at RCBC. My family has been very supportive in everything I do throughout the journey – especially my parents,” she said.

D’Jana Wyllis flanked by her parents from Dominica, father Desmond Wyllis (left) and mother Jacqueline Charles, during graduation from Rowan College at Burlington County May 17. Photo courtesy of D’Jana Wyllis

When Wyllis graduated, she had her parents by her side, with RCBC giving her the springboard she needed to take the next step into her career interest of chemical engineering. Through that tragedy, she became one of the school’s top scholars.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation named Wyllis as a semifinalist for its prestigious Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, one of less than 600 students to reach this level out of nearly 1,500 applicants from 369 schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

“I was searching for a school that offered my major and an environment that would open a door of opportunities that I could explore while earning my degree,” Wyllis told Front Runner New “My brother and I were at the same point so we started RCBC together. He’s currently enrolled in its 3+1 program in his junior year.

“I knew RCBC was the affordable, accessible option, but it proved to be so much more. I was engaged in academic research, I held a leadership role in our chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa honors society, along with a range of extracurricular activities. All of which made my college experience amazing,” she said.

Wyllis took part in the school’s Undergraduate Research program where she worked with a small group of students that performed chemical analysis of over-the-counter cannabidiol (CBD) products.

“I wanted to finish community college with not just a degree, but a school where I could develop my interests in chemical engineering as well as exploring other options,” Wyllis said. “I grew up with a love of sciences and math. My love for chemistry developed when I got to high school and started to learn the chemistry behind everyday products. I had always been interested in the way things work and finding more efficient ways to make less harmful products.”

Wyllis said she decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree at Columbia because of the research opportunities there and its academic reputation. She said although she did not make the finals for the Cook scholarship, the experience was incredibly beneficial.

“Being a semi-finalist has allowed me to network with great people,” Wyllis said. “Even if I didn’t receive the scholarship, I still benefited greatly from the experience. After graduation from Columbia, I plan on moving on to graduate school.

“I’m interested in chemical engineering with a concentration in pharmaceuticals and as I progress in my education, I eventually plan on getting on a research team where I can apply my acquired skills and experience to make a valuable contribution to a good cause,” she said.

With all of her accomplishments at such a young age, Wyllis said she is still surprised to find that many people see her as a role model, especially with students of color.

“From a young age, my peers always considered me their role model and I never understood how important that was until I got a bit older,” Wyllis said. “My younger cousins wrote a composition ‘someone I look up to’ and chose me as the subject.

“I think it’s important to have someone to look up to especially in trying times. Especially for women of color, having people who defied the odds and made the most out of their opportunities, despite being part of the minority population and dealing with the hardships that come with it – this is what really motivates people to say, ‘I can too,’ and move on to do great things. To be such an important figure in somebody’s life means a lot to me, and I try my best to be just that and keep in touch with people who see me as their role model,” she continued.

Who inspires Wyllis? She said plenty of people, starting with those closest to her.

“I’m really inspired by women in STEM, generally,” she said. “Every time a new article pops up with some new finding or interesting invention, I get excited to see when a woman played a major role in the research.

“I’m also inspired by my parents who have worked hard and supported me through everything. They had seen the potential in me from a young age, and helped me to see that and develop it and I am grateful. There have been a few teachers along the way who I’ve had such meaningful and inspiring conversations with, but I choose not to mention.”

Now Wyllis will get a chance to continue to inspire others, from Mount Laurel to New York City.

Feature photo courtesy of Rowan College at Burlington County

Second photo courtesy of D’Jana Wyllis

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