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NCAN Alumni Spotlight: Danjuma Quarless, Degrees of Change

Thursday, September 3, 2020  
Posted by: Carm Saimbre, External Relations Associate
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The college access and success field is old enough that classes of students we’ve supported have graduated and are now creating the change we want to see in the world. As NCAN marks 25 years of progress in the effort to close equity gaps in higher education, our Alumni Spotlight series will feature the stories of outstanding alumni who have come through our member organizations over the years.

At a time such as this, we believe it’s still important to share the success stories of the students our members serve. We hope you enjoy the series and this week’s alumni.

In 2010, Danjuma Quarless graduated from Whitworth University as the institution’s first bioinformatics major. Danjuma always had an innate curiosity for life and the world around him. College supported that curiosity, providing an environment to research, discover, and challenge.

After completing his Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego, Danjuma began working at AbbVie Inc., a pharmaceutical company.

And as Danjuma says himself: “People are seldom successful in isolation.” He, too, had a mentor through Act Six – a program at Degrees of Change – who would not let him give up after one failure early in college.

Read more about Danjuma’s story below.

Note: The responses below have been lightly copy edited for clarity.

Tell us a story of how a mentor or counselor helped you on your journey to earn your postsecondary degree/credential.

Mentorship is essential at the postsecondary and advanced degree levels because programs can be very difficult, especially for first-generation college attendees.

My primary mentor in the Act Six program supported me through unwavering belief in my ability to achieve my goals, despite all shortcomings and setbacks. Also, I had mentors at the university who were essential to my growth.

I remember getting a D on a chemistry test during the second semester of my freshman year. Frustrated, I immediately threw the test in the trash near the main entrance to the science building. In the pouring rain, my adviser made me retrieve that test from the garbage so I could review my mistakes with the professor and improve. It was that level of support that helped me succeed.

As a student, what hurdles did you face while getting your postsecondary degree/credential?

Majoring in a STEM field can be daunting because of the inherent difficulty of the material. This fact is only compounded by being an underrepresented minority in predominantly white academic spaces because experiencing issues with self-worth and the ability to succeed can be common.

Overall, I would say that imposter syndrome was the most significant hurdle to overcome in pursuing a postsecondary education because empathy for the minority experience is often lacking in those environments. Understanding how to overcome those feelings when they appear is essential to successfully complete any degree program.

Why was it important for you to get your postsecondary degree/credential?

Earning my degree was important because I was, and still am, naturally and furiously curious. I feel that education and school naturally extend the interest I have for life. I believe this should be the basis of building strong learners; curiosity is what keeps individuals engaged when the difficulty increases.

Also, I've found it very simple to believe that I have gained enough information to be "done learning." However, I strive to remain humble, but confident in my abilities. I feel this lesson can help others continuously learn and improve in their craft.

What inspires you to work in your field?

I work in the pharmaceutical industry. I am inspired by the idea that we, as a scientific collective, can discover, create, and apply new therapies to treat those who suffer from disease.

At the end of the day, my professional goal is very much aligned with my personal goal, and that is to help those in need. I strive to contribute to this endeavor to advance the frontiers of science and medicine, no matter how small my contribution is.

In light of COVID-19, it’s important for students to hear words of encouragement from those who were in their shoes not long ago. What advice would you give to students right now?

Life is about responding positively to events that we face – we cannot always choose the situations we find ourselves in, but we can choose the attitude and optimism we use to navigate these scenarios. I can assure you that no one is ever “100%” prepared to face the next challenge in their life, and I am no different. There will be obstacles that we must overcome that seem impossible at the time. However, I would remind you that any challenge is defeated one step at a time and that finding the silver lining is possible even in the darkest situations. That is often the simple differentiating factor for those who find success – they do not quit.

A handful of the alumni nominations we received are for people who currently work at the organization that supported them when they were in high school or college! What drew you back to Degrees of Change?

My call back to Degrees of Change was influenced by my desire to contribute and return to the community enabled my trajectory, both professionally and life in general. I have not lived in the Northwest for a number of years, but I still feel connected to the people and the community there, so any opportunity to add value to that community through service is a win-win for me personally.

Why is it important to you to give back to Degrees of Change?

Giving back is important because it’s important for those who have found success in education to reach back to younger individuals, help illuminate their path to success. People are seldom successful in isolation, thus, opportunities to facilitate positive educational outcomes for others is a responsibility we all share, especially for socioeconomically disadvantaged students and underrepresented minorities.

How have you seen the college access and success fields change?

I believe the de-emphasis on four-year degrees is an important development that should be encouraged for developing students, because there are multiple avenues to success and there is a path for everyone.

Also, I believe that academic universities are beginning to recognize the challenges of minority students. However there is much progress that will be necessary to make an impactful change, especially for predominantly white institutions.

Read more stories of incredible alumni who have come through NCAN member organizations.