Ten years ago, Jay Banks was spending more time in the streets than he was in a high school classroom. With failing grades and limited school attendance, he had few college prospects. But a cross-country move, the love of a good woman and the right university changed all that. Banks will earn his degree this May in Geographical Information Sciences from North Carolina Central University with a 3.6 GPA.
The oldest of three children, Banks decided to stay in Portsmouth, Va., with his father when his parents divorced. His younger siblings moved with their mother to Chula Vista, Calif. It was then that things went downhill for Banks. “I just didn’t go to school,” he said. “And when I did go, I was so far behind it was pointless.” His father was in the Navy and, according to Banks, was not very involved in his life. “I didn’t go to school because there was no one there to make me,” he said.
Banks was a junior, and he realized he was approaching a crossroads. “I realized I had to do something,” he said. “I had to make some decisions.” He called his mother and asked to move to California. “I don’t think she was too excited about my coming home, but she said ‘OK.’’’
The move to southern California was the first of three good decisions Banks says he made in his life. “Things changed when I moved to Chula Vista,” Banks recalled. “I wanted to be a good role model for my brother and sister.” He started going to school on a regular basis, but by then the damage had been done — his grades and poor attendance would not allow him to attend college. He joined the military instead.
For the next six years he served in the Army, completing two tours of duty in Iraq and relief work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. While stationed in Fayetteville, N.C., he met the woman who would become his wife, Nina.
“My wife is the pivotal point that changed everything for me.” A fulltime student herself, she was completing her law degree at the NCCU School of Law. “She told me to come to NCCU and that we would find a way to make it work,” said Banks. He had taken courses at Durham Tech but says nothing prepared him for the challenge of coming to NCCU. “I’m not sure how I made it through, besides pulling my hair out and crying every night,” Banks said jokingly. “In reality, it was the amazing faculty in the GIS department that really helped. It is small enough that I know everyone, and all my professors know me.
Last year when Banks struggled in a course, his professors offered him additional support and words of encouragement. “They would stop me and ask me how the course was going. It helped a lot”
On May 11, Banks will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army’s engineering branch. His wife, who earned her law degree last December, is enrolled in Judge Advocate General training.
Despite receiving the N.C. Department of Transportation Scholarship as well as the highest performance by a senior in Geography, Banks says his greatest honor will be giving his wife a gift in return for all the support that she has given him. “I want to give her security and take care of her and her family,” he said. Earning his degree is the first step in the process.
James Rudd spent four years studying music theory with the goal of becoming an opera singer, but a chance encounter at the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnical Research Institute (BBRI) after graduation changed his career trajectory. He is graduating with a master’s degree in computer science with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Born in Chapel Hill, Rudd grew up in Boston and graduated from Boston Latin High School. After high school, he first enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., but transferred to NCCU to join the music department. “I am a second-generation Eagle,” he says. “Both parents are Eagles.”
Rudd graduated in 2006, and supported himself as a web programmer at BBRI as he explored options for pursuing an opera career. He soon began programming projects to support some of the Institute’s Bioinformatics research efforts. One project involved building a 16-node Linux cluster from parts that made it possible to accelerate molecular dynamic simulations. Over time, he found himself spending more time focused on computer science and less time auditioning for graduate music programs. “Cluster and bioinformatics projects began to dominate my work hours,” Rudd recalls. He decided to enroll in the graduate program in Computer and Information Sciences.
“I began collaborating with research personnel from other universities,” he says. As part of the collaboration, I was offered training opportunities off site and was able to bring new techniques and procedures to our laboratory. It was at one of these training sessions that I connected with Dr. Moore at Dartmouth College.”
As a graduate student and research specialist Rudd has focused on identifying genetic variants and how they can predict diseases (cancers, metabolic syndrome, etc.). To date, much of his research has attempted to associate singular genetic variants with disease by focusing on collections of variants and their interactions. His efforts have reduced the computation burden by enabling video cards to run the analysis in parallel, and he has developed methods to discover interactions between genetic variants, even when the sample size is small. The end goal of these projects is to identify changes in DNA that predispose people to disease.
“I don’t think I could have had a better experience anywhere else,” Rudd says. “The small class sizes allow instructors to give attention to each student. Research was integrated into almost every stage of my graduate education. My faculty mentors have been passionate about our work and about my future in the field.”
Rudd’s next step: In the fall, he’ll begin work on a doctorate in the Quantitative Biomedical Sciences program at Dartmouth College.
Jeremy Powe wears a pink bracelet with the phrase “Imagine life without breast cancer” every day. After he graduates this month, he will use his degree in public health education to bring awareness to this disease.
From the time he was young, Powe says, he has known about cancer, in particular breast cancer. His great-grandmother died from the disease, his aunt was recently diagnosed and his grandmother is a 24-year survivor. “I’m very close to my family,” he says, “and I feel so blessed to have so many people who support me. I feel like this is the least I can do”
In his freshman year, Powe switched his major from sociology to public health education. With his grandmother in mind, he begin to focus his efforts on beating breast cancer. Two years ago, he was completing an externship at the Susan G. Komen Foundation in Raleigh when he received a call from his aunt; she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “I immediately put together a packet of information and sent it to her,” he said. “It felt really good to be able to do that.”
As a member of Beta Nu Rho social service fellowship, he established Kickball for Breast Cancer, a yearly event held on the NCCU campus that supports the Komen Foundation. “Everybody remembers playing kickball as a kid,” said Powe. “It seemed like the perfect way to support a cause and have fun.” In its third year, the event has become a signature project of Beta Nu Rho.
Besides his work with breast cancer Powe tutors each Wednesday at Pine Knolls Learning Center in Chapel Hill and is a student organizer of the award-winning Eagle Pride Blood Drive on campus. His involvement in the blood drive earned him a spot as presenter at a national conference on student involvement in Baton Rouge, La. When Strengthening the Black Family, an area nonprofit, needed a new resources for individuals with diabetes, Powe created an exercise video for them. “I like to help whenever and wherever I can,” he said.
At this year’s Honors Convocation, Powe received the American Association for Health Education’s Outstanding Health Education Major award and the Award for Academic Excellence to the Graduating Senior with the highest GPA. Powe has a 3.52 GPA.
After graduation Powe will return to Baltimore and spend the summer helping his stepfather, the owner of an exterminating company, before going to graduate school. “I have three amazing parents,” Powe says. “They all get along.”
God has always put the right people in my path,” he adds, “people who believed in me and gave me an opportunity. They made sure I never took my eyes off of the prize.”
On graduation day, Powe says there will be more than 40 family members, friends and extended family there to support him. “With this type of support I feel like I can handle anything — except maybe the rats in Baltimore. They’re pretty big.”
Uyikhosa Idahor is the unofficial welcoming committee for North Carolina Central University. She says she has always been a social butterfly and never had a problem making friends, but her experience at NCCU taught her something else about herself: She is a leader. She will graduate in May with a degree in psychology and a minor in mass communications.
This High Point native came to NCCU four years ago in a skeptical frame of mind, intending to give the school just one semester to convince her to stay. Idahor began to change her mind the moment she entered Baynes Residence Hall. “My residence hall became like a second family to me,” she says. “I met a friend who will be in my wedding one day.”
By the end of her freshman year, Idahor knew she was at NCCU to stay, and looked for a program that would keep her on campus as much as possible. She found the Aspiring Eagles program, a five-week residential summer program that introduces incoming freshman to NCCU. Idahor signed up to be a mentor and was given three students. That was three years ago.
Since then, Idahor has served as a resident assistant and summer conference assistant and supervisor. She is president of 100 Black Women and plays an active role each year in class council. “Coming to NCCU, I realized I needed to grow up and become a role model,” Idahor says. “I’ve had to make decisions that would impact not just me but other people.”
Idahor is focused on helping others. Each summer she volunteers, and she has far exceeded her community service requirement of 120 hours. “I just don’t keep track of the hours,” she says. “I volunteer because I love it.” She has participated in the Million Meals Project, Make a Difference Day and the NAACP MLK March. She volunteers on a regular basis at Durham Recreation Centers.
During campus campaign season, Idahor is the go-to person for those looking to win. This year she managed the winning campaign of Harmony Cross for Miss NCCU.
Four years of service has certainly paid off for Idahor. This spring she was named the NCCU Outstanding Student Leader by Student Affairs and Enrollment Management.
“I redefined myself at NCCU,” Idahor says. In the fall, she will enter graduate school at UNC-Greensboro, working toward a master’s degree in public health.