“It was one of the best experiences of my life, hands down.  I fell in love with the program.” Dantawn sharing about JP program.

“I don’t know what or where I would have been, what path I would have taken without the opportunity.”

Project Exploration changing the face of science for 20 years!

Project Exploration (PE) is known for providing life-changing opportunities for minority youth and girls. Project Exploration exposes students to different science topics and concepts while also creating life-changing experiences. Our Operations Director, Kamentha Pillay, and Program Manager, Kiara Byrd, sat down with Dantawn Nicholson to discuss how Project Exploration made an impact on him and is brother Corzail “Corey” Nicolson.

Dantawn Nicholson meets Project Exploration

Dantawn’s introduction to Project Exploration was during the summer of 2001, just after 8th grade. He was a typical teenager, eager to spend the summer hanging out with his friends, but his mom, a single mother of four on Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Englewood, had other plans. She gave him the application for Project Exploration’s Junior Paleontologist (JP) program, and he was not interested.  Paleontology seemed so removed from his life and his background, and he felt he wasn’t worthy, although he had good grades in school. Young men from the South Side face certain pressures, including navigating the world of gangs and violence, lack of positive self-esteem, and mentorship. Never-the-less, even with these obstacles, Dantawn applied went through the interview process and was accepted to the JP program.  He was really excited about the opportunity.

Getting familiar with the Junior Paleontologist program

The first two weeks of the three-week program were held at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).  Students took trips to the Field Museum and learned about conservation. During those two weeks, Dantawn was introduced to Gabe Lyon, founder, and Miss Connor Barnes, a PE instructor, who would play an instrumental role in guiding and mentoring Dantawn’s interests and ultimately, his career.  He also found out that he was learning so much more than paleontology. He was learning about the environment, conservation, weather patterns, teamwork, and that there was a whole full world outside the city of Chicago.

The third week, students took the train to Montana for a dinosaur dig. Reflecting on the trip, Dantawn stated, “It was one of the best experiences in my life, hands down. One night I remember specifically, in Montana, at the end of the hike, we took a break and had the chance to look up at the stars and take that moment in. After that, I fell in love with the program and on our way back, I asked is this it? What else can I do to stay involved?”

Dantawn stays involved with Project Exploration

Dantawn returned to the program the following summer as a team leader, and with encouragement from Miss Connor, applied to the Earth Watch SCAP program. This program was comprised of a select group of students who went on different expeditions across the world. When speaking about the experience, Dantawn said, “I was one of the six students able to travel to the Bahamas. After [being] given that opportunity, I was PE crazy!”.  His group traveled to the Bahamas to study the effects of global urban development on the marine ecosystem. This really sparked his interest in taking his career down the path of “environmental everything.” Dantawn spent his college years at Cheyney University, ultimately getting his undergraduate degree in Math, Biology, and General Science.  He then went on to get his Masters in Sustainable Engineering and became the first African American male in the country to obtain that degree. He also kept in touch with his roots and came back to Project Exploration as a Teaching Assistant for two summers. He currently works for ComEd in the energy efficiency department and owns a home where he and his family reside on the South Side, in the Chatham neighborhood.  When prompted, Dantawn said, “Hands down I credit Project Exploration for my experiences in my journey down this path through science. I accredit it all to PE. I don’t know what or where I would have been, what path I would have taken without the opportunity.”

Reflections on Corzail Nicholson

Dantawn’s younger brother, Corzail “Corey,” was the second oldest in the family, and also applied to the Junior Paleontologist program. Corey was accepted his sophomore year in high school and made long-lasting connections. It was during the summer of 2006 that Corey met fellow JP student, Paige Preston, who he kept in touch with throughout the years.  Through Corey’s experience with the program, he gained an understanding of the importance in STEM and went to Cheyney for a year. From there, his career took a slightly different path from his brother. Recognizing that a four-year college path wasn’t for him, Corey returned home and entered the Year Up program, focusing on computer science. He became IT certified and was hired as an IT analyst at Leo Burnett.  After several years, he made the switch to Northwestern University as a Senior IT Analyst. Outside of his career, Corey and Paige were blessed with their son Izaiah in 2010. Izaiah and Paige currently live in Carbondale, and seven-year-old Izaiah says he wants to grow up to be an engineer.

STEM Mentors Matter!

An essential piece that Project Exploration focuses on within our programs is building relationships with students. STEM mentorship is a critical component in supporting youth through out-of-school time programs, whether they are exposed or become familiar with STEM topics or not. Growing up in the city of Chicago, surrounded by traumatic situations, can be tough for underrepresented youth to see themselves beyond the streets of Chicago.  Dantawn was able to share the importance of mentorship for himself and his brother.

As a teacher assistant, Dantawn formed a bond with JP student Jaquan Washington. Dantawn and Jaquan still speak to this day. “Jaquan had a lot of the same struggles as I did as a young black man. We both came from a single parent home, we both attended Kenwood High School, it was a lot of things that we could relate to.” Because of the bond that grew between them, Jaquan expressed openly to others that Dantawn was a father figure to him, something that he never saw in anyone else.

For Corey, mentorship was needed. As the older brother, Dantawn was also seen as a father figure to him as well. Corey was able to make it out of Englewood and have a successful Computer Science career.  External pressures are always present, and unfortunately had an impact on Corey. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Corey suffered from depression and is no longer with us.

“Be confident that you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Advice from Dantawn

Dantawn wanted to give three pieces of advice to students that may not know what the next step is.

“Some advice is to stay involved and seek opportunities to do something different. The opportunities may be different in the norm, but you never know where it will take you. A second piece is to get a mentor. Having someone that you can talk to that also has your best interest at heart is very important. It’s hard to say find someone, but being proactive and intentional about that is important. And finally, be confident in yourself. Mentors, especially for inner-city minority youth, are critical, we have a sense of acting like we can take on anything, but on the inside, we lack self-esteem because of the environment we are raised in. You don’t picture yourself as an engineer or the first black male to obtain a sustainable engineering degree. You don’t think of that stuff. So be confident that you can do anything you put your mind to.”

In honor of Corey, Dantawn is working with Corzail’s best friends to create the BU Foundation. BU is an acronym for Boss Up and builds confidence and self-esteem for youth through Art programs.

With Project Exploration turning 20, it is essential to acknowledge the alumni who were hugely impacted and to give perspective on why we provide the programs that we do. Our core values in equity, authentic and meaningful experiences, and students at the center brings hope and change to generations to come.

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