Shaneya Simmelkjaer has spent her academic career at SUNY Cortland studying the struggles faced by people of color.
The senior from Bronx, N.Y., who is pursuing triple majors in criminology, political science and Africana studies, has endeavored to make a difference in her time at Cortland through the Black Student Union. She currently serves as the organization’s president.
In summer 2021, the aspiring future defense attorney travels to Africa where a unique study abroad opportunity will allow her to take her intellectual curiosity and social advocacy work to the next level. Simmelkjaer will make that trip following graduation next May to continue with a course of study at University of Ghana.
Simmelkjaer is SUNY Cortland’s 14th recipient of a prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship since the award was established under the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000. Her expense award of $5,000 will be managed through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and supported in its implementation by the Institute of International Education..
“I have always wanted to go to Ghana, where a lot of African Americans have their roots,” she said. “Ghana is a very spiritual, emotional and educational place and this will be an all-around wonderful trip.”
The Gilman scholarship program has helped send more than 31,000 ambitious students who are receiving Pell Grant funding to pursue academic studies or internships around the world since the highly competitive national scholarship was started in 2001. The program aims to better prepare college students to thrive in the global economy and to expand the number of Americans studying and interning abroad, thereby gaining skills that are critical to U.S. national security and prosperity.
“That is wonderful news and a great honor,” wrote Mary Schlarb, director of Cortland’s International Programs about the award notice to this future student participant in the university’s study abroad opportunity at University of Ghana. “We are proud you are representing SUNY Cortland with such distinction.”
One of the university’s most visible leaders, Simmelkjaer was among the students honored recently by the institution in lieu of the 35th Annual Student Leadership Recognition Banquet, which could not be held on April 16 due to the pandemic.
“Congratulations again. You are surely on the roll,” wrote Seth Asumah, a professor of political science at Cortland and chair of its Africana Studies Department as well as SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and Carnegie-University of Ghana Diaspora Fellow, to Simmelkjaer. “Keep on keeping on. We are very proud of you.”
At Cortland, Simmelkjaer has served as a Black feminist advocate to spread the word that Black Americans continue to live in fear, sometimes due to indirect or unintentional discrimination.
“I love SUNY Cortland,” she said. “This is where I have been able to grow as an intellectual, as an individual and as a student. I love SUNY Cortland so much that I’m not afraid to stand up for every student. I always want to make sure everybody’s voices are heard and everyone’s concerns are addressed by the institution. That’s why I’m always open to sharing my experiences as a student of color.”
Originally, she was set to go to Ghana this summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused the U.S. State Department to require that all summer recipients defer participation until between Jan. 1, 2021 and Dec. 31, 2021.
So Simmelkjaer will graduate before she travels abroad and currently is looking for summer employment and additional financial support to help offset other costs of her planned international educational foray.
For Simmelkjaer, Ghana’s history — in which so many of its citizens were ripped from their homeland and sold into slavery in the U.S. — represents the ultimate example of human rights violation.
“I want to study Ghana’s culture and history as well as my own history as an African American, the politics and the way of life,” she said. “And of course, I look forward to the sightseeing as well.”
Simmelkjaer currently is researching which university she will apply to for admission to earn a dual Ph.D. and law degree in criminal law, starting in Fall 2021.
“I definitely do think my study abroad experience will help me,” Simmelkjaer said. “I want to use it to learn to come out of my shell more, to get used to things I’m not accustomed to, to get out of my comfort zone.”