Zakiyia Forbes heard it her whole life. She was a failure. She couldn’t focus. She couldn’t finish anything she started.
At Middlesex College’s 56th Commencement, Forbes will hear something different: Cheers as the valedictorian of the Class of 2023.
“Being named valedictorian is such an amazing way to cap off my time at Middlesex,” said Forbes. “For me, it reaffirms what is possible when commitment and support intersect.”
Forbes did it. Her future, with a big assist from Middlesex College, is brimming with possibilities.
“I found at Middlesex that really, truly, whatever the class was, when they saw how much you wanted to learn, they would help you do anything along the way,” Forbes said. “I didn’t imagine I would land where I did next. Now, I am going to another amazing school remembering the dreams I had when I was young.”
The “amazing school” Forbes attends now is Columbia University.
The 45-year old New Brunswick native graduated from Bishop Ahr in Edison and wanted to advance her education, but for whatever reason, she was unable to maintain her concentration on her studies. She admits she failed out of multiple schools.
“I entered and failed gloriously each time,” Forbes said. “I always blamed myself and felt I wasn’t trying hard enough despite giving it all I had, or I simply wasn’t smart enough to comprehend. No matter how the failure was presented, I believed it could be traced back to me simply not being good enough.”
Almost 25 years after high school, Forbes was working multiple jobs and, despite her failures, had ”pinky promised” her two kids, Medina and Noble, she would get a college degree.
“We have a rule in our house that pinky promises are never broken,” said Forbes. “They may take time to fulfill, but when I said it, I knew I had to do it.”
Things took a dramatic turn for Forbes when she was working as a security guard for the New Brunswick Board of Education. There, she met Gladys Martinez, who told Forbes she needed to see a doctor who might be able to diagnose her learning disability. Forbes was classified as neurodivergent and put on medication to help settle her mind.
“I got counseling, I got a treatment plan,” Forbes said. “I got the support system that I needed and, in a month, I felt like an entirely different person.”
Martinez then showed up with an online application to Middlesex College and ordered Forbes to complete it. Forbes thought, “no way Middlesex would take her,” or accommodate her, but she found a welcoming environment that offered support.
“I wish there was enough time to individually name every administrator, professor, support staff and fellow student who got me to this point,” said Forbes. “As I continue forward, the encouragement and lessons they gifted me will guide my journey and remain close to my heart.”
Forbes always had a talent for languages and attacked her studies with a clear mind and determined goal. She finished her studies in January of 2023 with a 4.0 GPA and earned a scholarship to Columbia with the goal of creating self-sustaining communities based on cooperative economics.
“Zakiyia is one of the most amazing students I have met in my time at Middlesex,” said Gary Abbott, the chair of ESL, Languages and Cultures Department at Middlesex College. “Not only does she show the drive and commitment to do and be the best she can, but she has done so with life circumstances that would have made most of us give up a long time ago.”
Forbes is now busier than ever, getting her speech ready for commencement while balancing her time at Columbia with multiple jobs, friends and being a mom. She said she’s still fighting the negative voices in her head, but with each new accomplishment, their volume gets lower.
“I want so very much to be the person people believe I had the potential to be,” Forbes said. “I am working very hard to prove them right.” For more information about the 2023 Commencement Ceremony, visit middlesexcollege.edu/commencement.