“I’ll go after any opportunity that I think can help me grow.” Such is the simple but effective philosophy of Najaah Daniels ’15C, a St. John’s University rhetoric and public address major who was one of only two students nationwide selected to participate in the First Generation (FirstGEN) Civil Rights Fellowship Program this past summer.
Sponsored by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan group that enlists the bar’s leadership and resources to combat racial discrimination, the fellowship provides civil rights and public advocacy experience for first-generation college students who demonstrate a commitment to furthering social justice. As part of her responsibilities, Daniels prepared policy briefs and statements that were published in The National Law Journal. “I gained invaluable writing, research, and legal training,” she said. “It was also exciting to meet senators, congressmen, and ambassadors.”
Daniels’ accomplishment is all the more impressive considering the challenges she faced as a child. Born in a drug- and crime-plagued neighborhood in the Bronx, Daniels was in the foster care system until she was seven. That was when she and her five younger sisters were adopted by relatives, who brought them to Rockland County, NY.
Daniels quickly began to demonstrate her potential. At 14, she was appointed a second vice president of the New York State Youth and College Division of the NAACP; at 16, she was elected president. In this capacity, Daniels organized state, regional, and national marches, as well as conventions and meetings for members ranging in age from seven to 25.
In her senior year of high school, Daniels won a highly competitive Gates Millennium Scholarship, which covers all expenses for four years of college and one year of graduate study at any university of her choice. After visiting the Queens Campus, that choice was St. John’s. “I was impressed by the diversity of the students and the University’s commitment to service,” she said. “The campus also appealed to me because it’s so beautiful, but also close to the center of New York City.”
At St. John’s, Daniels said, “I became part of a second family.” The support she has received from the University community helped her to take on a large number of leadership roles, including president of the Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society, secretary of Students for Global Justice, Campus Ministry service retreat leader and global ambassador. Beyond campus, as a New York Needs You Fellow, she participates in leadership training, develops relationships with business and community leaders, and takes part in all-day career development workshops.
“Najaah is very special,” said Joyce Lawlor, associate dean of information and records at St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “She is totally authentic and goes out of her way to take advantage of every opportunity the University offers. This is someone who will make a real contribution to the world.”
She has already begun to leave her mark. Through St. John’s R.I.S.E. Network, Daniels mentors black and Latino freshmen and, during her own freshman winter break, she taught English to elementary school students in Mexico. Not one to dream small, Daniels’s long-term goal is to hold political office in New York State and then, ultimately, to run for president. “I want to use my social engineering talents to advocate for civil rights and education equality for all,” she said. “The sky is the limit.”
In the more immediate future, Daniels hopes to earn a master’s degree in public policy at the London School of Economics. (She recently applied for a Marshall Scholarship, which finances young Americans of high ability to study for a graduate degree in the United Kingdom.) After that, Daniels has her eye on law school.
If she does choose to run for office, Daniels can count on getting the vote of John Greg, Ph.D. ’62C, associate professor of rhetoric and public address. “Najaah is such a decent human being,” said Greg. “Her attitude and manner bespeak integrity and concern for others, qualities that someone who wants to represent others should have in abundance.”