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From Camden to Caldwell: Grad says caring educators helped him earn degree, love Shakespeare

Chabwera Phillips Holding Graduation Certificate

Chabwera Phillips is leaving the Caldwell University English Department with a passion for literature and a thirst for bringing that zeal to middle school and high school students. His advisor, Dr. Trish Verrone, showed him masterpieces of Western literature. Dr. Mary Lindroth made Shakespeare come alive. “Nothing can replace the experiences I had in class. Now I read Shakespeare for enjoyment,” he says.

During his college career, faculty in the Education Division also gave him support and guidance. “Dr. Chernobilsky, Dr. Moriarty, Dr. Jasmine, and Dr. Rosado have served as mentors for me. When I struggled and almost gave up, they helped me regain focus. They helped me remember that failure was not an option. Words cannot explain how much these people mean to me.”

Phillips knows the difference a good teacher can make in a student’s life. He grew up in New Jersey’s poorest city, Camden, but two teachers helped him believe in himself and created opportunities for him to grow. Danielle Montague, his fifth-grade teacher, and Josephine Parr, his high school English teacher, have always been there for him whether it was taking him to visit colleges or picking up the phone when he needed answers. On May 15 at Caldwell’s graduation, when he walked across the stage to receive his bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education from President Nancy Blattner, Montague and Parr were there to witness it. “I would not be graduating without them,” he says.

Montague and Parr knew what it took for Phillips to get there. At 17, he was kicked out of his house by his mother and had no male role model to show him how he could reach further in life. Despite many obstacles he achieved his dream of earning a college degree and received the Leadership in Ministry Award at Caldwell’s honors convocation.

Phillips worked all through college in off-campus and on-campus jobs. One of those positions was as a resident assistant in the community service wing of Rosary Hall where he led students in ministry projects including one that hit close to home. They collected school supplies for the fifth-grade class at Holy Name Catholic School in Camden. Unless you are from Camden you can’t understand how much that means, he explains.  “In Camden, everyone is struggling.” Giving back has always been a part of his life. Graduating from MetEast High School, a magnet school in Camden, he had “something like 150 community service hours … my grandma used to say, ‘No point in making it to the top if you’re alone.’”

As a resident assistant, Phillips says, he was able to help students through rough times. And the Caldwell community was there for him sophomore year when tragedy hit—he learned a lifelong friend from Camden had been shot and killed.  He was sitting at the desk at Dominican Hall when the call came in. “Many people came to support me and check on my well-being.”

The experience changed his views on life. Phillips started appreciating every day and every moment. “You can be pulled away from life any day … it taught me to take advantage of any opportunity,” he says.

And some of those opportunities begin this fall when he starts his teaching career at Essex County Technical School in West Caldwell and begins working toward his master’s in special education at Caldwell. He wants to work with inner-city middle school or high school students to show them that they can do great things—whether pursuing a career, falling in love with literature  or becoming a great writer. “We have to start caring about our neighbors. I made it out. I did not have a male role model … I want them to realize their true potential.”