NCSSM-Durham was not the summer camp Jabbar Bennett thought he had applied to as a high school sophomore.
Jabbar R. Bennett ’92 still remembers the first communication he ever received from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics when he was an East Forsyth High School sophomore. It arrived unsolicited in the Winston-Salem native’s mailbox one Saturday afternoon just after he had returned home from a track meet.
Bennett had always done very well in school (constantly encouraged by both parents who attended HBCUs) and stayed on the go – track and field, Scouts, March of Dimes, school band, and summer enrichment camps and school leadership programs – so the mailbox was constantly stuffed with mailers trying to pique his interest in a new activity. A quick glance at the piece he’d received from NCSSM looked like more of the same. Always up for something new to do, he filled it out and sent it off, thinking he had applied to an NCSSM summer program.
A few weeks later, another letter from NCSSM arrived. Bennett and his parents were invited to an NCSSM regional testing and information session in nearby Greensboro. Only then did it dawn on Bennett that what he had so casually applied to was an academically intensive, two-year residential school 80 miles away in Durham. Plans were made for a short road trip.
In Greensboro his parents chatted up NCSSM admissions folks about the school while Bennett and other NCSSM hopefuls gathered in a testing room. One of the test’s elements, Bennett vividly recalls, was a writing assignment based on an image of a water faucet that had been turned off, a drip of water suspended between spout and ground.
“That got me intrigued,” Bennett says of the moment that still figures prominently in his memory. “I thought about my approach to answering that question. And then it made me curious about what other innovative and provocative ways that education might take place on that campus.” After completing the application and testing process, Bennett was offered admission.
The NCSSM campus was to become a geographical touchstone throughout his adult life. Bennett has remained continually involved in the school since he graduated over three decades ago, having been recognized as an outstanding alumni volunteer, participating on the school’s strategic planning committee, and now finishing his term as the chair of NCSSM’s Board of Trustees. And on Saturday, May 27, Bennett – Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for Michigan State University – will return to the Durham campus to be the keynote speaker at NCSSM’s 42nd commencement ceremony.
Science and Math was an “eye-opening experience, especially in the sciences,” he says. “I’m now a trained biomedical scientist, and I gravitated more toward science than math in school … and I was excited by all the opportunities and equipment that I saw that would help with facilitating experiments. [NCSSM] opened my mind to possibilities I had not considered, to things I could do, to questions I could ask and explore at the high school level.”
New students soon find that there’s far more to NCSSM than just academics. It’s not uncommon for many Science and Math students to say that at their home schools they felt a little “different” or “odd” based on their broad-ranging curricular and co-curricular interests. Bennett felt the same. At NCSSM, he finally felt at ease, surrounded by other students who enjoyed a scientific hypothesis as much as a practical joke. For all of them, he says, NCSSM offered an opportunity for renewal. “Science and Math was and still is a place for these really curious and inquisitive and weird and peculiar kids. They can show up and be themselves every day in class and in the dorms.”
In the years since leaving NCSSM, Bennett has put together a remarkable curriculum vitae. A B.S. degree in biology and minor in Spanish from North Carolina A&T State University was the first milestone, followed by a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from Meharry Medical College. Bennett has also been a fellow at Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, and Northeastern University and has held academic and professional appointments at places such as Brown University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, among others. His CV runs 37 pages.
That level of success, he says, is due in part to NCSSM providing him and others the opportunity to fully embrace and explore their interests. And it’s why he’s remained so engaged with the school in volunteer and leadership capacities. “I care about the school and acknowledge everything it did for me,” Bennett says. “NCSSM helped bolster my confidence and allowed me to practice this leadership ability that I believe I’ve had, and to hone some skills that I’ve been able to leverage throughout the rest of my life and career. And for all of us, it helped us articulate our own ways of contributing towards the issues and causes that mattered to us, nurtured us and provided a safe space for us to express ourselves both academically and socially.”
Though still considering his commencement remarks, Bennett is certain that he wants to encourage the newest class of graduates the same way he and his classmates were encouraged by the faculty and staff at NCSSM.
“I will tell the students not only what I wish I knew when I was an NCSSM student, but I want to tell them what I know now. I hope they’ll see in my experience that I believe they have access to every opportunity or desire imaginable. They just need a plan, and they need the right people around them, and they need to discern which things are going to help move them along and which aren’t.”
Because usually, a leaky faucet is a problem. But sometimes, it just might be an opportunity, too.