Sharece Blakney is a first-generation college student, and grew up expecting to simply enter the workforce upon completing high school. Yet, she took to the academic life instantly. She is on her way to completing her third degree, with plans for a fourth.

College first began to factor in her thoughts when her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Quinn, asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. Sharece replied that she wanted to teach, and Mrs. Quinn said she could, as long as she worked hard in college. The idea was planted, but lay dormant for a long time until, with graduation approaching, she asked a guidance counselor about the seemingly-unrealistic idea of applying to colleges. That’s how she found out about the Rutgers–New Brunswick Education Opportunity Fund (EOF). The program offered, not just financial help, but counseling to walk her through the application process, and the lead-up to her first semester. As a first-generation student, this proved invaluable for her, since she had no family with the experience to help her. The EOF program and the proximity of the New Brunswick campus to her home in Plainfield made it financially possible for her to attend, and Sharece attained her first bachelor’s degree in Africana studies and sociology in 2007.

She had initially entered as a sociology student, but when she took the Intro to Africana Studies course to fulfill a humanities requirement, she loved it. The course gave her history in a way that was engaging, and the assigned readings from W.E.B. Dubois and James Baldwin “put my feelings on being black in America into words.” She began to think deeply about the society she lived in and what had shaped it. She took another course, and another, and another, until it became clear that it would be a waste of credits not to major in Africana studies.

Upon graduation, she got a job in accounting at a branch of NY Life Investment Management called Mainstay. It gradually became clear to her that she was in a rut, and she began to ask herself why she had gone to college “just to get up every day and do something I don’t love.” The final decision came during a conversation with a friend from Rutgers–New Brunswick who also worked at Mainstay. Both were dissatisfied, and their conversations led them to return to school.

Sharece began attending Kean University, and graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in history. Kean was a good fit for her because its schedule meshed well with her job at Mainstay, which she wasn’t ready to give up. She had already discovered an interest in, and passion for history during her previous degree, and Kean didn’t have an Africana or American studies program. So she went for a general history major, already intending to move on to Rutgers University–Camden for a master’s degree. Rutgers–Camden had caught her eyes because of its master’s degree program in American history, and she completes her degree this fall.

Even though college was not in her mind growing up, Sharece’s interest in history and Africana studies was born in grade-school, specifically, in the third grade. Her teacher, Mrs. Quinn, presented with a Central Jersey classroom comprised entirely of African-American and Hispanic children, made it a priority to teach them about their history. The textbook would cover slavery, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks, and then stop. Mrs. Quinn went beyond that, showing her students that there was more to their history. She showed them documentaries and movies such as Sounder, Roots, and Eyes on the Prize. This led Sharece to start asking her teacher questions, and Mrs. Quinn loaned her a biography of Malcolm X. In spite of her youth, that book sparked an interest in Sharece for following history and seeing its repeated patterns.

Moving into the present day, Sharece has become a true researcher. When her financial aid failed to cover the entirety of her school bills, she got a work-study job at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH). Among other thing, they run the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, and she is a research assistant for them. She has worked as a fact-checker on articles for the online Encyclopedia, researched and wrote an article on the Armstrong Association of Philadelphia for said Encyclopedia, and performed other tasks of the same kind.

In this, her final year, Sharece is taking a class on women in U.S. History run by history professors Dr. Charlene Mires and Dr. Janet Golden. The class spans two semesters. During the first half, the class was assigned research on women of color living on Cooper Street during particular periods of history. In the second half, each student had to narrow that general research to one research question and develop and argument.

Sharece stumbled upon the Jubilee sisters in the first semester during her research into African-American domestics in the Reconstruction era. They appeared in Camden at ages fourteen and fifteen, and she began wondering where they came from. She went back a generation and discovered that, though the sisters were born free, their mother wasn’t. One thing led to another, and she discovered an African-American woman in the records who had bought and freed sixteen slaves. Then she found another who had freed twenty-two slaves. When she found a third, it became a pattern, and her research for the class now revolves around methods of abolitionism, looking into women who were able, not only to free themselves, but to save, buy, and free other people of color.

In addition to all of this, Sharece is working with an artist on an interactive mural for the new location of the Philadelphia City Archives. The mural begins with abolition, and continues to the ‘60s, and will include QR codes which will provide information on the various periods covered. The goal is to inform and to start conversations, and Sharece is doing the research for these interactive snippets.

The experience of researching for three similar, but essentially different projects feels very hectic for her, but she finds it very fulfilling, saying that, “Even when I’m hungry, and I’m tired, and I’m feeling like I don’t have another word in my brain that I can type onto this page, I’m still happier than when I was working in finance.”

It is clear that Sharece has found her niche in life in the world of academe, but she doesn’t want to forget her roots. There is a great difference between history as the public sees it, and history as the academic community sees it. Any technical piece can be difficult for a layperson to understand, and academic historical works are no different. Sharece wants to blur the line until it becomes impossible to call her a “public historian” or an “academic historian” and she must simply be called “a historian.” The idea is to write works that bring accurate history to the people in ways that they can understand.

One of her future goals is to teach at the college level, and her ultimate dream is to run the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For now, she plans to continue working at MARCH after her graduation, and to pursue a Ph.D in American history. She intends to narrow the list over the summer, and begin the application process in the fall.

Written by Victoria Wroblewski