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Student Speaker Pursues Global Ambitions

On Wednesday, May 18, Madeleine Ramos "Maddie" (NCAS ’16) delivered her commencement speech to approximately 2,275 of her peers as this year’s student speaker.

“We committed ourselves to our community,” she said in her address.

In her time at Rutgers University–Newark (RU-N), Ramos has demonstrated her commitment to the university through her immersion in student life. As a student, Ramos has traveled to four countries with International Service Learning (ISL) programs and the International Leadership Exchange (ILE), was named Miss Rutgers University-Newark (2014), represented Rutgers at the United Nations, served as a resident assistant, helped in rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, and touched the lives of students, faculty, and staff alike.

Ramos’s activities distinguished her as a leader and a natural choice as the student speaker. But her journey has not been easy, and for years the smile for which Ramos is recognized has masked the pain and uncertainty of what she calls her “dark days.”

Ramos joined RU-N as a nursing student in 2010, but soon found herself struggling financially, mentally, and emotionally after moving out of her family's house at the age of 19 to ensure that her mother could support herself and Ramos's younger brother. Ramos worked various jobs to pay for her education.

“I was sleeping on a broken bed, and I had an American Red Cross blanket...that’s how my life was, and nobody knew this,” Ramos recalled. “There were days when I didn’t have three meals to eat.”

The college demands on Ramos, combined with her financial hardships and lack of stability, resulted in Ramos failing to meet her nursing requirements and being dismissed from the program. Ramos was still enrolled at the school, but faced an uncertain future without a major. She was devastated.

However, she found a glimmer of hope in 2013, when she had the opportunity to participate in international opportunities that shaped her future goals. She participated in her first service trip to Brazil and attended a United Nations Youth Assenbly. Ramos says that she began to embrace a passion for global connections that began during her first visit to UN Headquarters when she was 13-years-old. 

Her epiphany was bolstered by a dean and mentor who encouraged her to study anthropology, and Ramos enrolled in the Newark College and Arts and Sciences with an anthropology major. This began a new chapter in her life in the form of university support, employment with the Office of the Dean of Student Life, a position as a resident assistant, and continued travels.

Ramos began to flourish and her involvement in various aspects of student life made her a well-known figure on campus, and she developed a strong and supportive network.

This network flocked to her aid in staggering numbers when Ramos sought to win an international contest called Global Degree in February, in which she could travel to every country in the world and earn a "global degree" from those experiences. Ramos garnered hundreds of votes from friends, family, and acquaintances in more than 30 countries, who sought to help her with her dream.

Ramos did not win the contest, but was undeterred as she will seek to keep a "life promise" to herself by pursuing her own global journey after graduation, traveling to South Africa in June 2016 for two weeks, backpacking across Europe, and then expanding her global footprint in her attempt to become one of the first women to travel to all 193 countries in the United Nations over the next ten years. 

“My trips to South Africa and Europe are just to get my feet wet,” she said. “This is the test run…is this for me? Am I going to be able to handle this mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually?”

Ramos will be alone for her travels and wants to serve as an example of successful solo travel in a time when such trips, especially for women, are discouraged as too dangerous.

Ramos hopes to eventually launch a social enterprise called “Her Travels” that empowers women and youth by promoting gender equality through solo travel.

She says that some may see her dreams as unconventional, but she cannot let people’s doubts or even self-doubt keep her from trying to achieve them.

“If it is meant to be, then it shall be,” she said.