Zaire Sanders, SEBS Class of 2020 and Exercise Science major, plans to become a doctor. That’s been his dream. He’s always understood he’d need to put in additional years of intense study following his graduation from Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) before he could complete medical school and don that coveted white coat. That was his path and he was confident in his path to success. After all, he’s always considered himself a motivated and focused individual. All things being equal, he felt sure nothing could deter him from his dream, and definitely not the pressure and demands of medical school.
Well, things are not always equal. Of all the unimaginable tragedies in Zaire’s young life, his father passed away during his sophomore year. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the path to his dream of medical school was no longer so clear. He gave serious thought to dropping out.
His becoming a doctor – his dream and his father’s – no longer felt inevitable. He needed to learn new coping strategies, lean on others outside of his usual self-reliant nature, to get a deeper understanding about what it takes to bounce back from such tragedy and heartbreak. He needed to learn to be resilient.
The SEBS Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), which was established in 1969 and serves low-income, first-generation and historically underrepresented students, played a big part in that process and helped keep him focused on his goal. Reflecting the central mission of SEBS EOF, described as “focused on access, academic excellence, and research” and cultivating “student capacity to make adaptive changes in their educational development and overcome historic socioeconomic factors that challenge their potential for success,” Zaire discovered the beating heart of the support network of advisors and staff that anchored him firmly to his goal. He, like so many others before and to come, experiences SEBS EOF, in action.
He also learned that self-sufficiency has its limits as, more and more, he learned to lean into the value of the collective community, gaining a rich experience afforded the entire student body through meaningful student life and campus activities. Zaire joined a couple of Rutgers-New Brunswick undergraduate organizations comprised of students who self-identify as being a part of the African Diaspora, like the Black Men’s Collective and The Organization for African Students and Friends of Africa (TWESE). In addition, he ensured that he tapped into the benefits of the support offered by the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students (MAPS).
He thrived. He won several achievement awards from the Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences (ODASIS), which supports underrepresented and disadvantaged students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He landed on the Dean’s List “a few times,” he says, in modesty. An enriching internship at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University gave him deeper insight into the demands of medical school, and still undeterred, provided him with a closer glimpse into his future as a doctor.
A newly minted Rutgers alumnus, first-generation college graduate Zaire Sanders agreed to share firsthand his thoughts about the challenges of the Spring 2020 semester that was largely disrupted by the global coronavirus pandemic and what has been his singular motivation to succeed.
How are you coping with the new reality of online instruction only?
With the suddenly abrupt transition to all classes and instruction being online, the adjustment took some time. During the academic year before this pandemic, I was able to make a consistent schedule that was consistent from week to week. Now since everything is remote, most of my teachers have allowed students to make their own schedules of when they want to watch the recorded lectures but expect that the quiz and test schedules remained consistent. At first, it was hard adjusting because I’m now at home with family and tend to care and help them and have to do schoolwork around that. I think this new reality of online instruction is all about building a consistent schedule and sticking to it, in order to be successful.
Are there significant ways in which COVID-19 has impacted you and your family?
COVID-19 has cost many of my friends and family members their jobs. Many of the men in my family make a living doing the fireproofing side of construction. With many businesses and operations closing, this has left them jobless. Many of my family members have been struggling as time progressed since unemployment is barely paying anything compared to their normal salaries and bills have begun piling as this pandemic goes on.
Were there any challenges you had to overcome to get to the final stretch to graduate? Coming into college, I didn’t know how I was going to afford it or if I was going to get any help from my family to even be able to go. For the first years, I got some help from my father but during my sophomore year, he passed away. This was an event I never knew whether I would ever recover from. I thought about and almost withdrew from school and said I wasn’t going back. After a little time and some hard thinking, I knew that wasn’t in the best interests of my dad, who I knew was so proud that I wanted to become a doctor. This has been my motivation propelling me from reaching my dreams and helped me get to where I am right now.
What made you choose SEBS?
I chose SEBS because I originally felt my degree would hold more weight compared to SAS and thought I would get the opportunity to take a variety of different types of environmental classes. I knew I was going to come into college focusing on the pre-medicine classes (mainly science), so I was looking forward to taking and experiencing classes outside of what I had to be exposed to.
Why did you choose this major?
I chose Exercise Science because I knew many of the classes I would have to take were classes I was actually interested in. I’m interested in the body and solving and curing many of the underlying issues associated with the body so I looked at learning about every part and movement about the body and associated parts as important.
What do you find the most interesting about your major?
I enjoy the fact that I’m learning about the physiological aspects of the human body than the effects of exercise and aging in other classes. Many of the classes I’ve taken interconnect. Learning and understanding the human body will help me to become a more educated and knowledgeable physician as I have learned this information through my undergraduate studies.
What was the most significant life lesson that you learned here at SEBS?
I learned that if you want something, you have to show dedication and take the steps towards achieving it; be your own help. No one will help you if you can’t help yourself and you don’t speak up about what you truly want.
Is there one particular thing you credit with motivating you during your time at Rutgers?
Using my father and how proud he was of me has motivated me to be here today.
We acknowledge the resiliency shown by Zaire and his fellow proud graduates in the SEBS Class of 2020. Congratulations!