Fulbright work just a step in young Newark woman’s efforts to excel

Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger | Email the author | Follow on Twitter

Akirah Crawford, center, of Newark is a Fulbright scholar, who is teaching English to high school students in Malaysia. She is a graduate of Science Park High School in Newark and Virginia State University. (Akirah Crawford) Photo courtesy of Star-Ledger

Akirah Crawford, center, of Newark is a Fulbright scholar, who is teaching English to high school students in Malaysia. She is a graduate of Science Park High School in Newark and Virginia State University. (Akirah Crawford)

Akirah Crawford was sitting by herself in the middle of books piled high, flipping page after page, enthralled with exploration.

The rest of her kindergarten classmates were on the other side of the room with the teacher – a sight that disturbed Akirah’s mother, Denise Crawford, when she visited the Newark elementary school.

“I thought she was being disciplined,” Crawford says.

Not hardly, and you’ll see where this is going. Akirah was a bright child, who needed to be challenged after she routinely completed her assignments ahead of other pupils.

“I remember being excited about school,” she says. “I would finish my work fast, then I would try to finish the other students work. She (the teacher) would pull me aside and give me extra work.”

This story, one that mother and daughter haven’t forgotten, began Akirah’s trail of learning and achievement. It is a tale that will bring a smile to your face as I tell you that she is now a James William Fulbright scholar, recipient of a grant from one of the most prestigious academic award programs in the world.

Akirah, whom friends and family say has always been driven to succeed, is in another time zone now. And depending upon the hour you’re reading this, she has either turned in for the night or she’s up helping Malaysian high school kids learn English.

Under the Fulbright Program, which is an international educational exchange program, Akirah is a teacher’s assistant for the next 10 months in Lenggong, a small village in Perak, Malaysia, where she’s also learning how to speak Bahasa, the language of the people.

As much as this honor and opportunity is about individual accomplishment, Akirah says it’s a message to Newark youth that they, too, can attain this level of scholarship, regardless of skepticism leveled by naysayers critical of urban education.

“You can do anything you set your mind to,” the 23-year-old says. “I’m living testament that you can.”

And so are three of her close girlfriends – Tanasha Driver, Erica Roberts and Vanetta Richmond – who, along with Akirah, made a pact to be successful when they were students at Science Park High School in Newark.

The promise to keep each other on track is similar to “The Three Doctors” – Sampson Davis, Rameck Hunt and George Jenkins. They are Newark natives whose story was first told in The Star-Ledger in 1999 and detailed three years later in their book, “The Pact,” which chronicles their pledge to stick together and become doctors. Davis and Hunt are physicians and Jenkins is a dentist.

These young ladies place no ceiling on their potential and continue to push each other, even though they’re studying in different places. Driver is in the master’s of social work program at New York University; Roberts is working on a master’s in urban education at The College of New Jersey; and Richmond is studying forensic science at Union County College.

They feel as if they’ve won the Fulbright award, too.

“Akirah makes me think that’s nothing is impossible,” says Roberts, who has known her since third grade.

“All of us have always wanted to reach new heights,” Driver says.

The city of Newark didn’t let Akirah’s achievement go unnoticed, either. A week before she left for Malaysia last month, Mayor Ras Baraka gave Akirah a letter of commendation and the city’s bronze medallion.

“She’s an example of the excellence of our city’s youth, and stands as a role model to them and to the entire world of who Newark is and what Newark can do,” Baraka says.

Akirah’s decision to travel 9,358 miles from home had to be made rather quickly since the Fulbright scholarship board notified her of her selection in November. At the time, she was two months into a four-year program to earn a master’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan.

“I was conflicted about what I should do,” she says. “It was one of those opportunities that you can’t pass up.”

She hasn’t let much, if anything, get in the way of her educational pursuits. As a junior at Virginia State University, the historically black institution where she applied to the Fulbright Program, Akirah received the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study in South Africa. While there, she delved into politics, social and economic issues of the day and taught life skills to youths in prison.

Studying overseas was one of her collegiate goals, one she did at the expense of giving up opportunities to play volleyball and basketball.

“She said, ‘I’ve got things to do,’ ” Crawford says.

Her focus was sharp and crisp, an edge unexpectedly tested when she returned from South Africa. Akirah needed surgery to remove a mass on her brain that affected her vision and palate. She couldn’t see well nor could she taste anything. The loss, although temporary, was sobering.

“The procedure put things into perspective,” she says. “It gave me better purpose, even though I knew my purpose.”

And that is to excel and do well. In doing so, Akirah hopes others kids from Newark will follow.

She graduated last year from Virginia State, with a psychology degree- and yet another honor. The White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities named Akirah as one of 75 students to be in its first HBCU class of academic all-stars.

When she leaves Malaysia in November, Akirah’s adventures don’t stop. She returns to the University of Michigan to resume her graduate work, which includes two years in the Philippines with the Peace Corps.

After that, she’s not quite sure where she’ll end up. Whatever she decides, I doubt she’ll have a problem getting there.

View the story on nj.com