Two Franklin & Marshall College sophomores, Theresa Reese Lemke and Cheska Mae Perez, used earlier experiences in their lives to navigate their academic careers and inspire them to contribute to social good.
“I would love to get involved in civil rights law and maybe get involved in politics later down the road, but I know I want to be an active voice in civil rights engagement,” said Lemke, a double major in public policy and Africana studies with plans to attend law school.
Perez, a computer science and government double major who took two gap years before she enrolled at F&M, said, “What I’ve been thinking of the last five, six years is computer science for social good or public service.”
Since their arrival at F&M, Lemke and Perez have demonstrated exceptional academic and leadership capabilities that have earned them recognition as this year’s Rouse Scholars. Created from a generous endowment by Andrew Rouse ’49, the scholarship, awarded to two sophomores each year, covers the cost of tuition, books and other academic expenses for the duration of their College studies.
The students also have opportunities to design funded research and leadership projects. Perez, who works with local immigrant and refugee organizations in Lancaster, is already working on a scholarship program that includes financial aid guidelines.
“I want to make this online scholarship database for non-citizens because most scholarships across the nation require that you either be a permanent resident or a U.S. citizen,” she said. “I’m very passionate about that, being an immigrant myself.”
Before coming to F&M, Perez, aLas Vegas resident who is originally from the Philippines, worked on the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, first as a field organizer in Nevada in 2015, and then as deputy director of data for Colorado in 2016.
“I was able to apply my passion and my skills in technology and computer science,” said Perez, who began to code in third grade. “I found in the space of government how I could use data and programming to create more efficiency and to contribute to make something better.”
In her first semester, Perez organized a vigil for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting massacre, and continued her immigration efforts. Those include organizing a gathering at the Philadelphia Alumni Writers House for students, faculty and community members to share their stores about immigration, and Define American, a campus organization that expands on the initiative.
As one of two African American girls at the private school she attended on Philadelphia’s Main Line, Lemke recalled the racism she faced daily. “Many people thought racism disappeared with [former President Barack] Obama, but I was living racism every day, sitting in classrooms where people didn’t think I was good enough or smart enough. I had to prove myself every day,” she said.
Her perspective changed in high school. “I really started to realize that a lot of the hatred others had because of my skin color I started to put on myself,” she recalled. “I thought there was something wrong with me, but I discovered, ‘No, your curves are beautiful; your hair is beautiful; your skin tone is beautiful. These are things the world is telling you that are wrong about you, but they aren’t wrong about you.’ I started a Black Student Union in high school and when I came to F&M, I just wanted to keep the fire going.”
Lemke joined the College’s Black Student Union, where she served as vice president, led weekly meetings on racial diversity on campus, and pushed for activism and political action in Lancaster. In F&M’s Diversity Change Agents program, she runs weekly sessions for all student groups on the basics of diversity.
Asked how she discovered that racism was affecting how she felt about herself, Lemke said, “I began to read. My mom encouraged that at a very young age and it always stuck with me. In high school, I started reading books by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison and different people who looked like me and were giving stories from perspectives like mine that were eloquent and well-spoken.”
Lemke, whose mother was a first-generation college student, said, “My mom always wanted to keep me rooted in my blackness. She pushed me: ‘Theresa, keep reading, keep reading.’ And I read.”