"I went from hardly being able to construct a complex sentence or write a paragraph without grammatical and spelling errors to graduating in three years magna cum laude."

by Ela Schwartz

No one predicted Nicole Chere’ Wood ’97 would go far. Diagnosed with dyslexia in eighth grade, she received specialized education services but still struggled. At a meeting at her Baltimore, Maryland, high school, she and her parents were told that she “would be lucky to make it to community college,” she recalled. Little did they know that she would go a lot further than that—from the slums of Brazil to the halls of power in Washington, D.C.—in a career advocating for those who also fight to overcome adversity.

Nicole Chere’ Wood with kids

Undaunted by that high school meeting, her parents got to work researching universities with programs for students with learning disabilities. They decided on Adelphi.

This decision turned Wood’s life around. Thanks to the Learning Resource Program (formerly called the Learning Disabilities Program) and Dr. Matilda Stuckey, “I went from hardly being able to construct a complex sentence or write a paragraph without grammatical and spelling errors to graduating in three years magna cum laude,” she said.

Not that it was easy. Instructors in the Learning Resource Program spent long hours helping Wood analyze the structure of sentences and paragraphs. In addition to helping her succeed academically, they taught her about something called the “power of presence,” i.e., being there to support someone through difficult times. Case in point: “When I was challenged, I knew I could always go to the Learning Resource Center and get help, whether it was with writing or working with a teacher or communicating better. They were my advocates, and that to me is equally important. When you give someone tools of resilience and build their self-worth, you don’t just enable someone to graduate in three years; you create a leader.”

Overcoming her own obstacles endowed Wood with an affinity for others. She majored in anthropology and minored in environmental studies, “areas that allowed me to understand people and culture and how the environment affects these,” she explained. She then obtained master’s degrees in public health, divinity and urban ministry and went on a mission to the slums of Brazil, where she worked with impoverished families and abandoned children and youth. So far, she has held positions with the Department of Health and Human Services, World Hope International and other entities devoted to bettering underserved populations.

Today Wood is a program specialist for the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, where she serves as lead subject-matter expert and operational lead on human trafficking, which she said is a major issue in the United States.

Contrary to public perception, trafficking is not just something that happens to people from other countries. “It can happen to anyone,” she said, but the most vulnerable are youth who have been traumatized or who have lost hope. “We take the approach that community and faith leaders play a role in preventing trafficking and supporting those who have been trafficked,” she said, which they do by providing a haven for those who seek help or recognizing “when someone’s head is hanging low or they’re acting out. Then we create a sense of self-worth and help them cope, because no matter what they may have experienced, if they have a supportive, connected environment, they can succeed. We can be part of turning the tide for vulnerable youth.”

Working to transform the lives of others has been transformative for Wood. “Is life about money, power or prestige, or is it about the lives you could serve, the individuals you can stand alongside and be a voice when they’re not able to speak?” she asked. “For me, [the latter] is by far the greater accomplishment.”

This piece appeared in AU VU, Fall 2014 issue.

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