MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Albert Appouh very easily could have given up on his dreams of a higher education. The Maplewood resident has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and temporarily had to halt his college education twice in order to seek help for his illness. But Appouh never quit completely. Instead, upon starting at Rutgers University’s Newark campus, he positively thrived.
By the time the Mensa member graduated from Rutgers-Newark on May 15, Appouh had accumulated a grade-point average of 3.9 and thousands of dollars in scholarships. He had attained leadership positions in campus organizations and he had helped countless people through service work. Above all, he had overcome his obstacles to achieve his goal — and he could not be happier.
“It was really humbling,” Appouh, who double-majored in applied mathematics and economics with a minor in business administration, told The Villager in a May 19 phone interview. “I finally received my degree, and all the hard work and stress I went through to get it was worth it.”
It was a long road for Appouh, though — 11 years to be exact. After graduating from Columbia High School in 2006, the Maplewood resident entered Seton Hall University as an undergraduate. But his mental illness, coupled with his ADHD, made school difficult, to the point that he had to withdraw to seek treatment. He eventually went to Essex County College, where he made the decision to commit seriously to his studies. As a result, he graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average after just a year and a half, thereafter transferring to Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus.
Yet Appouh’s mental illness struck again at Rutgers and he withdrew to get help. Upon recovering two years later, he enrolled at Rutgers-Newark and quickly started racking up achievements. They included becoming president of the Golden Key Honor Society, where he helped create graduate and GRE/GMAT information sessions as well as resume-writing workshops. He also became involved with Rutgers’ LGBTQ student organization, RU Pride, by sharing his coming-out story at events and raising funds for those affected by the Orlando nightclub shooting.
One of Appouh’s biggest accomplishments was his work with the Garden State-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, an initiative dedicated to promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math careers to minorities. There, he taught math at Newark’s East Side High School and mentored students at Rutgers’ Academic Foundations Center. And through it all, he said he developed a passion for inspiring minorities to pursue STEM education.
“It’s very important to have a diverse work environment in STEM because having diversity means we get all these different viewpoints and perspectives and skills that will benefit the STEM field as a whole,” Appouh said. “Therefore, I’ve become very involved with increasing the number of minorities in STEM.”
Also as part of GS-LSAMP, Appouh worked as a research assistant for program director Alexander Gates’ project on how weather conditions affect radon in soil. Gates, a professor of Earth and environmental science, told The Villager that Appouh’s efforts analyzing data for trends were exemplary. But what really impressed him was the student’s selflessness. Appouh was always the first to volunteer for anything that would help GS-LSAMP, the professor said, and he even took it upon himself to present the project’s results at a black doctoral network conference in Philadelphia.
Knowing how Appouh excelled in the GS-LSAMP program, Gates recalled that he was shocked when his student told him about his disabilities. The fact that Appouh was able to overcome such major obstacles to excel in academia speaks to his character, the professor said.
“He’s an amazing guy,” Gates said in a May 19 phone interview. “I’ve been teaching at the college level for 31 years and I’ve never met anyone like him.”
GS-LSAMP undoubtedly required a major commitment from Appouh, yet the student always found time to do other service work. As president of Rutgers’ Student Outreach Council, he fundraised for the United Negro College Fund, organized students for the AIDS Walk and coordinated a program in which students created Christmas cards for terminally ill children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, among many other initiatives. He even launched Newark Cares, a website dedicated to raising awareness for the city’s charities. And this fall, he plans to start giving out a $1,000 scholarship to Rutgers students who are either part of the LGBTQ community, have disabilities, are war veterans or are otherwise nontraditional students.
All this philanthropy has not gone unnoticed. Last year Appouh received the New Jersey Governor’s Against All Odds Jefferson Award after being nominated by one of his math professors, Robert Puhak. To Puhak, Appouh was an excellent candidate considering how committed he was to helping others while also overcoming his own hurdles. He said his student certainly deserved to be recognized.
“He was someone who was very conscious about giving back,” Puhak told The Villager in a May 19 phone interview. “He’s just a real gentleman. He was someone who, to me, stood out.”
The Jefferson Award is far from the only distinction Appouh earned during his undergraduate career. He earned more than 30 scholarships, including the Buick Achievers Scholarship, an annually renewable $25,000 award he used to help pay for the final three years of the five he spent at Rutgers-Newark. He most recently won the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship to fund his pursuit of a master’s degree at Columbia University, where he plans to study math education. From there, he said he would like to earn a doctoral degree en route to eventually teaching high school math.
Appouh’s professors believe he will make an excellent teacher, and Puhak particularly cited Appouh’s compassion, patience and perseverance as qualities all educators should possess. But, whatever Appouh decides to do, they said he will surely excel.
And as for anyone who wants to follow in Appouh’s footsteps, he said his advice would simply be to never give up.
“I would encourage them to keep striving for their dreams,” Appouh said. “Even though you may face adversity along the way, it’s very important to maintain perseverance and not give up when things get tough. In the end, it’s worth it.”