Jen-I Costosa '13 is undaunted.
A Brooklyn native and a graduate, with honors, from Brooklyn College's Children and Youth Studies Program, Costosa has overcome circumstances unimaginable to many.
"My father died in 1989; my mom died in 1996. They both died of AIDS. So they were pretty much both gone before I graduated high school."
Orphaned at 16, and receiving only tangential support from other family members, Costosa was determined to complete her studies at Brooklyn Technical High School, where she also played basketball, and to eventually pursue a college education. She understood that was part of a large population of young people, particularly those of color (Costosa's mother was African American; her father was Filipino and Jewish), who lack community and institutional support and often slip through the cracks.
Following high school, she held a string of entry-level jobs to support herself until she found employment at Head Start, a program that provides early educational opportunities to children from low-income families — and one in which Costosa, herself, was enrolled as a child. There, Costosa's academic promise was recognized, leading the program director to suggest that she enroll in college.
It was not until she had made her way to Brooklyn College — a school she chose because she was impressed by its high standards for admission and its rigorous curriculum — that she found community and ongoing support. Her mentor, Assistant Professor Katherine Hejtmanek, from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, and the Children and Youth Studies Program, suggested that she take advantage of some of the opportunities the college offered — possibilities Costosa had never considered.
"Every time these opportunities came up, Professor Hejtmanek would say, 'You should apply.' But I was working full time, and I didn't think I was that caliber of student. So I never even thought about it, not to mention trying to get time off of work to do these things."
But Costosa would later get the chance to pursue these opportunities.
"The summer before senior year was a tough one. I had four deaths in my family back to back, followed by losing my full-time job. But then I had the opportunity to apply for a study-abroad program offered by the Office of International Education and Global Engagement."
Another faculty member she came in contact with, Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology Sophia Perdikaris, encouraged her to try a program on the Caribbean island of Barbuda, where students conduct research relating to environmental initiatives in the region. Costosa was awarded necessary funding for her trip by the Roy L. Furman '60 Furman Fellows Program.
Costosa says the program gave her a certain flexibility and ability to acclimate to global cultures and engage in the kind of hands-on fieldwork that cannot be replicated in a classroom. She also formed a bond with Perdikaris, for whom Costosa serves as acting research assistant for their work with the Barbuda Research Complex, the first nonprofit, conglomerate organization established in the region.
"We built everything out of the Barbuda Archaeological Research Center (BARC). In January, we created the kids' museum. As others did with the adult museum, we built all of the exhibits and painted everything. Additionally, researchers are now growing plants, both medicinal and edible, and raising tilapia at another of the places we worked with, the aquatics facility.[Distinguished Professor] Martin P. Schreibman ['56, founder and emeritus director of the Brooklyn College Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center] set up the aquaponics there."
Over the summer, Costosa worked at Children of Promise NYC, a camp program out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, for children with incarcerated program. In the spring, she will be working with Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Rebecca Boger under her grant to assist in the development of a related specialized course. Costosa is currently applying to the Master's of Arts in Liberal Studies Program in Sustainability Science and Education at the CUNY Graduate Center. Once she has completed that program, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology, focusing on the effects of poverty on children.
The experience in Barbuda has helped Costosa, who will be returning there this summer to continue her efforts and reaffirm her purpose. The island has a population of 1,800 — 50 percent of whom are children under age 18. Her interaction with them has helped her come to some profound conclusions about herself and her goals.
"We're all connected," she says. "That cannot be denied. It's very important to reach back and help other people, especially the most vulnerable among us. And working with Professor Perdikaris has really helped to widen my scope in respect to that. I used to think about how vulnerable populations were challenged in strictly socioeconomic terms, but I wasn't thinking of it in terms of environment and climate change and how we could assist in making that less damaging."