LUMBERTON — A Lumberton native and member of the Lumbee Tribe has defied odds stacked against her to graduate from Cornell University in a quest to be an advocate for others.
Kimberly Fuqua graduated in May from Cornell University with a Master of Public Administration degree focusing on social educational policy. The 39-year-old served as one of three marshals selected from the graduate programs during the May 29 commencement ceremony. A standout student at Cornell, she was also one of three Cornell Institute for Public Affairs Diversity and Inclusion Fellows.
Fuqua also served as co-president of Cornell’s Indigenous Graduate Student Association and Cornell’s Women in Public Policy. She participated in three summer internships, partnering with the Iroquois Nationals Development Group to create an educational curriculum to help Native lacrosse players have a better shot at college.
Fuqua plans to pursue a career in higher education to advocate for minorities and students with disabilities and work in policy to ensure a fair and appropriate education for students in public schools. Fuqua also said she is interested in working in government someday.
“I want people to understand that their voice matters,” Fuqua said.
Fuqua said her journey was not easy, and her persistence helped her push open doors to opportunity.
“I basically grew up in a trailer park,” Fuqua said.
“I had very meek, humble beginnings,” she added.
Fuqua said that as a little girl she was studious and loved to read.
“I just want girls to know that’s OK,” she said. “It’s OK to love to read and it’s OK to be ‘weird’ because you’re not weird, you’re just different.”
Personal events caused a shift later in life and at the age of 34, Fuqua decided to pursue a degree at Robeson Community College.
“Really, Robeson Community College changed my life because that’s where I found out who I was as a person outside of being a mom, outside of being a wife,” she said.
The Associate of Arts degree from RCC will always be her “most prestigious degree” because she worked very hard to get it, Fuqua said.
“We are so proud of Kimberly Fuqua on her achievements at UNCP, as well as at Cornell University,” said Cheryl Hemric, RCC’s public information officer.
“We wish her much success as she begins her journey to help others and make an impact in the communities she serves. She is a great example of what attending a community college can help you achieve, and she is one of Robeson Community College’s shining stars,” Hemric also said in a statement.
After her time at RCC, Fuqua continued her education at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where she studied abroad in England, Belize and Berlin, Germany. She graduated from UNCP with a bachelors degree in Special Education in 2019.
Kevin Freeman, an associate professor of Political Science and Public Administration at UNCP, describes his former student as “curious, hardworking, motivated and energetic.”
“Her study abroad experience opened her up to so many new opportunities, and I couldn’t be prouder to play a small roll in seeing her develop as a global citizen and a community leader,” he said.
After graduating from UNCP, Fuqua attended Cornell University in the fall of 2019.
She said attending an Ivy League institution as a first-generation college student and living hundreds of miles away from home was very challenging. There were times when she felt like she didn’t belong.
Fuqua recalls buying business-casual clothes for a class, cutting her hair and trying to lose her accent.
“But then I realized, you know, those are the things that make me unique,” she said.
Fuqua also became involved with other American Indians on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which kept her grounded as she pursued her degree.
However, she credits professors at UNCP like Freeman for their impact on her educational journey.
“Gleaning from UNCP faculty allowed me to go into the Ivy League with a perspective that allowed me to tap into my greatness when there were many days that I felt I did not belong,” Fuqua said.
“My professors at UNCP always supported my Cornell journey, whether it was sending cards, shooting me an email or social media support. I give credit to Dr. Roger Ladd and Dr. Gretchen Robinson for challenging me academically to perform my best. These professors forced me to think hard and challenged me to think outside my norm… I am thankful for my time at UNCP as it generated a spirit of success within me,” she said.
Fuqua hopes her story can inspire others to pursue their dreams through education.
“I feel like this degree is just one way of saying anything is possible,” Fuqua said.
She said some of the greatest moments in her life happened because she took a chance, and she encourages others to do just that.
“Just take the first step,” she said.
Sometimes its hard for people to see “a way out” when they live in low socio-economic areas, she said.
But opportunities like scholarships are available, and can help them reach their dreams, Fuqua said.
“There are opportunities. Look at me,” Fuqua said.
Mark Locklear, Public Communications Specialist at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, contributed to this report.