The 18-year-old graduate of Malcolm X Shabazz High School, pushes back her brown hair hanging a few inches over a T-shirt that reads: “Straight off to Cambridge, MA.”
Boerrigter is going to Harvard University this fall — on a full scholarship.
“Now the days leading up to it, it’s starting to hit me,” Boerrigter said. “It’s mix of excitement and just being really grateful to have this world-class education and I don’t have to break any bank accounts to get it.”
She was the valedictorian of her class with a 4.2 GPA, presented novel enzyme research at the largest earth and space science conference in the world and is an avid reader of Edgar Allen Poe.
But she admits she loves playing video games, too, and geeked out when parts of the Harvard campus resembled the Great Dining Hall from Harry Potter.
“They had stained-glass in the freshman dining hall,” she said. “And like chandeliers.”
In the months since her Harvard acceptance, Boerrigter has received an outpouring of support from the city: Municipal resolutions supporting her achievements, widespread congratulations on Facebook and a $2,500 donation from a stranger whose mother was a Newark teacher.
“Once it hit me, that the whole, literally the whole city was coming together over this, I thought it was really the most wonderful thing,” she said. “Usually the whole neighborhood comes together for candlelight vigils at Penn Station when god forbid something bad happens but now that I could be the reason for the whole neighborhood coming together and it’s a good thing — my heart skipped a beat.”
‘Science is life’
Born in Germany, Boerrigter came to Newark when she was 3 years old and was raised by her mother. Her father is Nigerian but not involved. She said she knew she wanted to be a forensic pathologist since she was 12 (she watched a lot of NCIS).
“I’ve always had an interest in all my science classes,” she said. “It’s fascinating to me, the fact that we are here and the planets exist, that life exists the way it does, that all these conditions are so perfect to the point that we could be having these conversations right here and the very fabric that we’re made of not being ripped apart, science is life.”
For Boerrigter, perseverance is everything. She’s kept up her German and is fluent, and convinced her mother to let her live a year in Germany with her grandmother when she was in the third grade. At Shabazz, she spent nearly two hours every other day seeking more knowledge from her math teacher Patrick Murray during his planning periods. He helped her conceptualize math and how to apply it to science.
“When I’m in class and I don’t understand something, it bothers me to not know,” she said. “I don’t just want the A, I want to know how I got it and what I need to do to get it.”
Murray said Boerrigter was instrumental in the school’s Bio-Geo-Chemistry Team that traveled to the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco to present their cutting-edge enzyme research. Andrew Steen, a professor at the University of Tennessee, is publishing a manuscript using much of the novel data, Murray said.
“She’s doing graduate level science without all the coursework,” he said. “She’s going to be the one who writes the protocol (forensic pathologists) use … she’s going to shake this stuff up.”
Boerrigter leaves Tuesday for her freshman orientation and says she’ll miss the city she grew up in, including her favorite staples: Vonda’s Kitchen and Sabor Unido.
She sees her career path, though, as one that could one day have an impact on communities like Newark. She hopes to major in human evolutionary biology, go to medical school and advance the field of forensics to help bring closure to families who have lost loved ones.
“I see it as a public service and it’s something I can give back to people,” she said. “Many of my friends have been to more funerals than they should have at the age of 18 and so when you don’t even see some of your peers being able to graduate from high school … that’s some closure that people will never get.”
‘It worked out nice’
About 5-10 Newark students are accepted into Ivy League schools every year, the school district said, but some can’t afford to go.
Boerrigter said she’s lucky for the opportunity. Without the scholarships she couldn’t afford Harvard’s $65,000 tuition. Her mother often works 12-hour shifts as a home health aide.
“Me coming from traditionally environments where people don’t seem to have the availability of resources, I just find it amazing that I’ll be able to do all these great programs and not have to worry about where the next meal in school is coming from,” she said.
She applied to 22 schools and was accepted to other prestigious universities like Johns Hopkins.
Harvard wasn’t always on her mind. In fact, Boerrigter said it wasn’t until some family friends suggested she apply that she decided to try.
“It worked out nice,” she laughs.