It was a few days before he began classes at Colby College that Vasiki Konneh, born and reared in Woodside, Queens, joined other members of his class for a three-day wilderness trip in the Maine woods. The natural beauty surrounding him struck Vasiki, and so did the pleasure of his first campfire. But it was the heavens at night, without urban light pollution, that really amazed him, including the sight of his first shooting star. He remembers, "it felt like the sky was choking on stars."
Now midway through his first year, Vasiki continues to enjoy the discovery and adaptation to a new world. Despite some bumps along the way, he is thriving at Colby.
Outgoing and gregarious, Vasiki found that in his first college weeks he missed his large group of friends from high school, and worried that he was sometimes eating alone. This concern faded when two upperclassmen told him that this was natural, that the makeup of groups of freshmen eating together had to do mostly with class schedules, and that as the semester went on new friendships would fall into place. That proved to be the case, and as Vasiki's social life got better, so did his academic performance.
The two courses that challenged him most were physics and french. His struggles with physics recalled a similar situation he faced in engineering class his junior year at Queens Vocational Technical High School. As with the earlier difficulties, he overcame the current ones.
French was a new challenge – although he is fluent in Mandingo, the West African language his parents spoke in Guinea – since he had never taken a foreign language class. Many of his french classmates at Colby, he came to realize, had already studied the language in high school. But, Vasiki said, an "amazing" teacher helped get him on track because she saw how hard he worked, especially when he repeatedly sought help during the professor's office hours.
Vasiki found one aspect of student life at Colby that he expected, and one that he did not. While there are, he said, "hardly any people of color" on campus, this is a challenge to which the school is rising, and his class is the most diverse yet. The surprise was how international the student body is, with students in his Class of 2020 from 67 countries.
On his January break from Colby, Vasiki was invited to return to WNYC, where he interned through Scholarship Plus last summer. He once again work for Jami Floyd, both on her segments as the New York host of "All Things Considered" on weekday afternoons and on a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day program at the Apollo Theater. Vasiki participated in "huddles" where broadcasters and producers plan coverage on the fly. He also learned how to use sophisticated new technologies such as NewsBoss, a radio newsroom automation program, and DigaSystems, which stores and archives audio from reporters during interviews.
February 1st marked Vasiki's return to the Colby campus. He continues to be struck by the beauty of his new state, "Maine in general is gorgeous," he said. "Even the winter is really beautiful."
Lab work and a big research paper about mosquitos are a major focus of Philomina Kane's senior year at Princeton. She gathered thousands of mosquito eggs for the study while on a trip to Ghana last summer.
This is all part of her major, ecological biology, which she defines as "the interaction of animals, including humans, with the environment," Philomina specializes in vector-borne diseases, infections spread by animals or insects. This category includes dengue fever, Lyme disease and the newly threatening Zika virus.
She has a clear goal: after getting a master's degree in public health, she intends to become a "business-savvy epidemiologist/entrepreneur," a "public servant with public outreach."
Philomina has already exercised some entrepreneurial muscle. Her YouTube channel, Naturally Philo!, was created in 2014 and and has 40,000 subscribers and 2.5 million page views. The show focuses on natural hair for women of color. She had taken her own hair from curly to straight in earlier years. At college she decided to cut it off and "let my hair grow without chemicals."
The channel started as an irreverent mix of tips on techniques, styles and products. She explains: "As time went on, I saw a new vision for this channel and that is a community. It's time to not just share but inspire."
The channel's popularity means that she is sometimes recognized by strangers. The first time, Philomina said, was when a cashier at Sephora, the cosmetics chain, "came up and asked, 'Naturally Philo?'-- l was ecstatic." Philomina welcomes such reactions because they "show my channel is going somewhere."
Reflecting on what has helped her come so far, Philomina mentions "the people at Scholarship Plus, who are always texting me, who have my back."
She has deep appreciation for her Ghanaian culture and gratitude to her parents for their love and support and for instilling their values. "My culture has made me who I am."
As a young girl she lived for several years with her grandmother in Ghana, and still speaks Twi, the national language – which helped her in Accra last summer doing research and meeting family.
She is the first of her mother's children to go to college, and says she feels good that her siblings, 16 and 19 have someone to look up to.