Justina Brusacoram knows that the words you choose to tell your own story can make all the difference in the next chapters of your life. She hopes to help local high school students discover the power of their own voices.
Not only is Brusacoram '17 the first person in her family to graduate from high school; through the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program, she also became the first to earn a college degree. In May 2013, she received an associate of science degree in applied psychology from Itasca Community College.
"One of my family members said, 'You accomplished what we never thought was possible,'" said Brusacoram, now a psychology major at St. Scholastica with an interest in health care policy, advocacy and research.
Despite having earned an associate's degree, coming to St. Scholastica as a first-generation student from a low-income, single-parent household was intimidating.
"I have a perpetual feeling of 'imposter syndrome,'" she said. Her background and high school experience made her feel like she didn't "measure up" to her peers. "I never felt like I had a place. I didn't feel the same as the other students."
The McNair Scholars program made her feel more at home, and showed her the potential of what she could achieve by giving her chances to network with professionals and by sending her to visit graduate schools and academic conferences around the country. McNair is a graduate school preparatory program focusing on students who are underrepresented in graduate studies, as well as motivated and academically ready to prepare for doctoral studies.
"McNair does a great job of equaling out the academic field. Being a first-generation college student, you don't realize the opportunities you have to go beyond college."
The program's administrators offered moral support to get her through "really large moments of doubt," she said.
"Sometimes you don't see how capable you are of doing something. The McNair program is very empowering. I can't describe the gratitude I feel for what it has done for me."
A TED (technology, entertainment and design) Talk that she gave in November 2014 was a turning point in her own narrative.
"Once I was on that stage and I was able to share my story, I felt incredible validation," she said.
The power of that experience stuck with Brusacoram, and now she wants to pay it forward with help from a $16,500 Phillips Scholarship. Phillips Scholars are required to design and implement an eight-week community service project during the summer before their senior year. Brusacoram selected a cause with a profound personal connection: youth empowerment.
She's creating a new local organization, Duluth Youth Speak. It will team up with TRIO Upward Bound programs to allow high school students to develop and give their own TED talks.
"The project's goal is to target younger high school-age students to provide a motivational platform for personal growth and empowerment," Brusacoram explained.
At the end of a series of trainings and workshops, the students will create presentations to submit to the TED organization. Brusacoram hopes the TEDxDuluthYouthSpeak event will not only benefit the students giving the presentations, but also inspire everyone else who hears them.
"I would like to see a snowball effect."
The McNair Scholars program is a graduate school preparatory program. Programs focus on scholars who are low-income and first-generation and underrepresented in graduate studies, who are motivated and academically ready to prepare for doctoral studies.
The Jay and Rose Phillips Foundation awards $16,500 scholarships to outstanding students at Minnesota's private colleges who intend to dedicate a portion of their lives to community service. Phillips Scholars are required to design and implement an 8-week community service project during the summer before their senior year.