Marielle Joseph draws people in, seemingly effortlessly. Whether it’s the shy young girl she met through the New York State Mentoring Program who now chatters excitedly every time she sees Joseph; an incarcerated young person she’s forged a relationship with through the Black Student Union’s (BSU) U-TURN (Uplifting Through Unity Responsibility and Nurturing) or the NAACP Juvenile Justice programs; or new students entering the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) on campus, Joseph is most proud of her ability to connect with people and have a positive impact on them.
Joseph is intentional about seeking out new people and opportunities to make a difference. Her involvement on campus over the past two-and-a-half years extends across several student organizations and campus programs, including the NAACP and BSU, Haitian American Student Association, Caribbean Student Association, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. and EOP, among others. Much of her involvement has focused on engaging with youth in mentoring roles, and particularly with incarcerated young people — work that recently won her the George Floyd Scholarship for Social Change.
Her eagerness to throw her net wide and connect with as many people as possible during her college career likely stems from her upbringing. Joseph was raised in South Jamaica, Queens, by a single mother who immigrated to the United States from Haiti. Her mother put a strong emphasis on immersing Joseph in American culture from a young age.
“I was literally in everything possible,” said Joseph. “Every type of sport — mind you, I don’t even like sports — but she put me in karate, she put me in all these things and always made sure I had the best opportunities.” Her mother’s insistence on giving her daughter every opportunity possible also resulted, somewhat paradoxically, in Joseph developing a love of languages.
Joseph grew up speaking English and Haitian Creole, but she recalled her mother’s reticence to let her really delve into the Haitian Creole language.
“Growing up, I thought the reason my mom didn’t want me to learn Haitian Creole was because she didn’t want me in her business, because that’s all the adults spoke,” said Joseph. “But later, as I grew up, she told me that in Haiti, there’s a hierarchy, and even though everyone may speak Creole, the Creole differs depending on where you’re from, so you can tell who has money based on the way they speak Creole. Because she did not grow up in a wealthy area, she was afraid that if I spoke Creole, people would be able to pick out where she was from, and she didn’t want people to make fun of me for the way I spoke.”
Despite this, Joseph said that now people are often surprised that she’s not from Haiti because her accent and fluency are so good. That’s not the only surprising language coming from her mouth, though; Joseph also speaks Korean.
“The schools in my area were very bad,” said Joseph. “I went to one of the worst middle schools in the entire area: constant fights, stabbings, the police were always there. A lot of the teachers who would come to the school would come so they’d get student loan forgiveness for working in an impoverished area. We had some amazing teachers, but it wasn’t enough.”
Joseph knew she would need to find a different high school to achieve the level of success she hoped to, so with help from her godmother, she ended up finding and attending East-West School of International Studies, a small school focusing on Asian studies. Rather than the Spanish and French classes typical of most American schools, it offered Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Joseph ended up falling in love with the Korean language and even had the opportunity to visit Korea.
Her love of languages has flourished, and she is currently majoring in human development and linguistics with a minor in Arabic studies. One of her many goals is to start a nonprofit organization, hopefully back in her old neighborhood, teaching young children two to three languages before they reach the age of four, taking advantage of children’s innate ability to absorb languages at a young age and setting them up for success later in life.
“I feel like I have to make a difference,” said Joseph. “I have to show the kids in my community that they don’t have to follow the path that maybe their family has followed. Your school may limit you, but you can get out of it. You don’t have to keep yourself within this box.”
And Joseph is already making a difference. Between her experiences mentoring youth in various capacities to her eagerness to be a welcoming presence in EOP, she is making people feel valued and empowered.
“I have a lot of conversations with under-class students, and I always make sure I speak with them and make sure there’s no conflict there,” said Joseph, adding that she remembers being a first-year student and feeling like there was an underlying tension between upper-class and under-class students. Especially with so many first-year and sophomore students coming to campus for the first time this semester due to the pandemic, she believes it’s important to reach out and make connections.
“You can ask me anything. Even if I don’t have the answers, I will find the answers for you. Having bonds with everybody and being known as someone people can come up to and talk to, just being a personable person, I think that’s what I’m most proud of.”