Cooper Medical School of Rowan University sends new students exploring through Camden
GLOUCESTER COUNTY TIMES by Jessica Bautista--To acquaint Cooper Medical School of Rowan University’s first 50 students with their new neighborhood, the charter class was loosed upon Camden on Wednesday with a series of clues in search of specific landmarks — the good, the bad and the ugly.
For new students Susan Talamini and Rebecca Lee, the first — and most crucial — item they needed to locate was their car in the parking garage across the street from the new school.
Talamini and Lee watched as classmates booked it to the nearest garage exit, perhaps wondering if they were already losing the challenge.
But, like the proverbs will tell you, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
The women realized that sooner than later.
Talamini, 28, and Lee, 26, are both from out of town.
Complete strangers to each other before orientation at the school this week, Talamini and Lee had to learn to work together quickly as a team.
Talamini was born in Essex County in New Jersey, and Lee is from Cleveland, Ohio.
Both women spent a good amount of their lives in New York and now live in Princeton and Haddonfield.
Something else the pair has in common?
They were two of 50 students chosen out of 2,900 applicants to be the first to attend Cooper Medical School.
Also, they both had no familiarity with Camden — besides what they’d heard.
“I know what I’ve read. I know the statistics,” Talamini said.
“I’d never been to Camden before,” said Lee, who eventually had a visit down with her parents before orientation.
“I don’t think they expected this, but I am their kid, so they’re expected to expect anything,” Lee said. “They were concerned, but they raised me to look out for myself.”
Camden has seen more than 40 homicides so far this year and has a widespread reputation for blighted neighborhoods and crime-ridden streets.
The stigma surrounding the city is no secret.
And those who organized the scavenger hunt weren’t trying to sugar coat anything. But they also didn’t hesitate to inform students of the revitalization efforts and earnest groups looking to change the perceptions of, and realities within, the City of Camden.
“I think it helps them see what the needs of the city are,” said Dr. Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams, associate dean for multicultural and community affairs at the school.
Mitchell-Williams borrowed the idea from her former professor and colleague, Dr. Robert J. Risimini, assistant dean for student affairs at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Camden.
Risimini said he’d been sending students on these kinds of tours for several years to date.
“I think when they don’t see supermarkets and do see abandoned lots and no place for kids to play, it’s got to pull at the heart strings.”
It’s those heart strings the new medical school intends to utilize in part to help better the community.
Before opening at the end of July, the school had already made their overarching goals clear, and much of it had to do with addressing the needs in the community.
“We wanted to show them there are green spaces and there are possibilities but that there is devastation,” Mitchell-Williams said. “And that there is hope.”
Lee and Talamini can probably attest to that after a couple hours of driving by shuttered homes and areas of heavy drug activity.
With just four sheets of clues and a little assistance from their smart phones, the pair discovered a few things but were fazed by very little.
“I heard a lot of things about Camden, but it looks like a lot of inner cities,” Lee said. “So I just try not to think of what other people say about it and will form my own opinion.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the students had a chance to hear people from the community speak about the needs of the city, its problems, but also its gems.
“I used to work in the Bronx, and I’ve always believed you just have to be aware of what’s around you,” Talamini said.
“You could be mugged in Princeton if you’re not careful,” Lee added.
Clues on their trusty sheet included phrases such as “Don’t come here at night” and “The blight along here is disheartening.”
The ladies drove through North Camden, passed the Adventure Aquarium, spotted the Camden County Historical Society, surveyed a lifeless-seeming Fine Point Park, and got a few glimpses of the heart of the industrial waterfront.
They also passed Yorkship Square, the town center, and saw the only supermarket in town, and Sacred Heart Church — which has been a center for social activism for the last three decades.
If their scavenger hunt clues were correctly identified, each group was to wind up at Harleigh Cemetery where renowned poets Walt Whitman and Nick Virgilio are laid to rest.
There, the students wrote and read haiku describing their experience in the city.
As they were from the start of the scavenger hunt, the students were energetic and lively — excited to begin their medical school careers, eager to contribute to a brighter future for the city.
Not unlike the haiku that Mitchell-Williams read:
“Summer’s oppression, tempered by your arrival, bringing hope for change.”