Jeffrey Sams never expected to go to college, much less major in chemical engineering. In fact, Sams was homeless at several points in his life, living in a car with his mother and siblings and later sleeping in an alley. His father was murdered six months before he was born, and his mother worked as a prostitute.
When Sams was in his 20s, he worked multiple low-wage jobs to support his wife and son. “At that point, I wasn’t thinking about the future,” he says. “When you’re working three jobs to survive, you don’t have time to think about the future.”
Today, Sams, who is now 32, is thinking about the future, and that future involves a career in the chemical sciences. He’s currently a senior majoring in chemical engineering at the University of Akron, and he is president of the American Chemical Society student chapter there. This past summer, Sams did a three-month internship at AkzoNobel, working on coatings research.
As a first-generation college student, Sams says that joining ACS has given him a sense of belonging he’s never had and opportunities he’s never imagined. In fact, several first-generation college students told C&EN that by joining ACS, they’ve found a community in chemistry, gained leadership and organizational skills, and learned about different career paths in the chemical sciences.
“Just knowing that other people like chemistry, too, really makes me feel a lot better about choosing this type of career,” says Brea Rivard, a chemistry and applied math double major at the University of New England, who wants to pursue a career in research.
“I really enjoy all the benefits I get from being an ACS member, like the discounts to go to the national meetings,” she continues. “I will be attending the meeting in San Francisco in April to share the research I did this past summer.” And because she’s of Native American heritage, Rivard plans on applying for a scholarship through the ACS Scholars Program for underrepresented students in the chemical sciences.
Even though nobody in her family had gone to college, Ke’La Kimble always knew she would. “College has always been in the future for me,” she says.
Kimble’s mom passed away when Kimble was a toddler, and her dad worked as a truck driver, spending weeks at a time on the road. Nevertheless, she says, “my father was big on education. When he was at work, he would give me vocabulary words to memorize, and we would practice them when he got home from work. He would always leave for two weeks and come home for two days. But I knew my father was doing the best he could to provide for me.” Kimble is now a sophomore chemistry major at Xavier University of Louisiana, and she is active in her ACS student chapter.
“When I became a member of ACS, I realized that chemistry isn’t just working in a lab; there’s so much more to chemistry than meets the eye,” she says. “It has definitely opened up my options.” She plans to go to graduate school and study forensic science. “My goal is to do something that has impact. I have a chance to improve myself and improve the society around me.”
Emily Ankrom, a junior biochemistry major at Waynesburg University, says she didn’t have much exposure to the sciences growing up because her father owned an auto body shop and her mom stayed at home with the kids. In college, she discovered her passion for biochemistry and joined the ACS student chapter.
“I would attend the student chapter meetings, and just being involved in that put me into proximity with other students and professors who have knowledge of what chemists are doing in the real world,” she says. “It made me realize that I was really excited about science and that I wanted to be part of the scientific community.”
As for Sams, a stroke in 2008 set him on a different path in life by preventing him from doing the manual labor jobs he had been doing previously. His doctor recommended that he go back to school to learn some new skills. It was then that Sams learned about a program to be certified as a technician in environmental remediation. After completing that program, he began pursuing an associate’s degree in chemistry at Stark State College. “I really like the challenge that comes with chemistry,” he says.
At Stark State, Sams founded its ACS student chapter. “We started with just me and a couple of other people, and when I left a year and a half later, we were at 30 people,” he says. “We also attended the national meeting in the spring, and the year after that, we received an award for community outreach.”
Now, at the University of Akron, Sams is continuing to grow his community. “As president of the University of Akron student chapter, I’ve gotten our chapter involved with the Akron local section,” he says. “I’ve been attending the local section meetings and trying to get involved there so that, after I graduate, I can stay involved in ACS as a local section member.”