Rita Thornton’s father had definite ambitions for her and her five sisters: They would become doctors. "You kids are black and ugly. You gotta be able to look after yourselves. And for that you gotta be smart," he told them often, according to Rita’s sister, Yvonne.
Rita graduated from Monmouth College (now Monmouth University) in Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1973 with a double major in chemistry and biology. After 2 years at medical school, however, she quit; medicine was not her calling. So she worked as a chemist, chaired a secondary school’s science department, and then spent 17 years at New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in Trenton, rising to become section chief for the Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste. She even earned a law degree. But it wasn’t until 2006 that she fulfilled her father’s wish--not with an M.D., but a Ph.D.
Her doctoral research in environmental science brought education and cleaner air to underprivileged preschoolers, but her success carries a message for all students: that age, race, and disability need not be barriers to higher education.
During Thornton’s childhood in the 1950s in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, her father, Donald, worked two jobs to support his family. Her mother, Itasker, left college after 3 years and cleaned houses. After a bank manager refused Donald’s mortgage application based on race, he built his family’s house as money afforded, 10 to 20 concrete blocks at a time.
The Thornton sisters followed their father’s advice. Four went into medicine. Yvonne--whose 1993 memoir, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters, was made into a TV movie--is an obstetrician-gynecologist. Linda is an oral surgeon, Betty a nurse. Jeanette is a psychiatrist; she and Rita, the youngest, self-published their version of the family’s story, A Suitcase Full of Dreams, in 1996. Donna, the oldest sister and the only one without a degree in science, was a court stenographer. She died of lupus, an autoimmune disease that also afflicts Rita.
In 1993, while working full time at the DEP, Rita Thornton completed a degree in environmental law from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, in 4 years. "The department has always been very supportive of any advanced education that I have sought," says Thornton. "But my bosses were still amazed that I was able to pull it off."
Seven years later, Thornton’s boss handed her a flyer advertising a new doctoral program in environmental science offered by the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark. The chance to combine policy and science intrigued her.
NJIT’s Collaborative Doctorate program, which allows professionals to earn a part-time Ph.D. while employed full time, was a good fit. A scholarship from the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate  (AGEP)--a National Science Foundation-funded program for underrepresented minorities--enabled her to take on the doctorate while still paying off student loans from law school.
Thornton also saw an opportunity to resurrect a pet project. As the DEP’s first Environmental Justice Administrator, she discovered that Newark’s poor African-American and Hispanic preschool children experienced higher incidents of asthma than those in most other New Jersey urban centers. Neither the children nor their parents made the connection between the environment--in this case, the one inside their schools--and the preschoolers’ health problems, she says.
"Once I got accepted at NJIT, I decided to make it part of my doctoral dissertation," she says.
The approach was unusual, says Daniel Watts, the director of the York Center for Environmental Engineering and Science at NJIT, who became Thornton’s adviser. Thornton came with a very broad project that did not emerge from ongoing research at the university. "It changes the dynamics," Watts says. But she was determined to do her project her way. She had no intention of following a traditional "publish or perish" academic route where "most researchers don’t ever come out of the lab and interact with the community," she says.
So she stated her case to her doctoral committee early on. "I explained what I wanted to do. I warned that it would be different from what they were used to. Then I asked if they could help me. And they all agreed," she says. Then, according to Thornton, it started to unravel.
Not only was Thornton the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate at NJIT in environmental science, she was twice the age of her peers and disabled (by lupus). She is convinced that her race, age, and disability prompted NJIT faculty to doubt her abilities and throw obstacles into her path.
Watts wasn’t aware of this, he says. "I never heard those issues mentioned, let alone discussed."
Discussed or not, the slights were real to Thornton. In one class, students had to complete five projects. She didn’t do them all, and neither did a white male colleague. "He was given an ‘A’ and I got an ‘incomplete,’" she says. "I had to fight and point out the unfairness." She also experienced prejudiced e-mails and comments from faculty, she says.
One conversation, in particular, still rankles. "One of the faculty members said, ‘You people aren’t good at science,’ " Thornton says. Although Thornton pointed out that she worked full time, carried a full course load, and was maintaining perfect grades, she says, the professor wouldn’t reconsider.
"It’s institutionalized racism," she says. "The pattern was obvious: They were going after me and making me jump through hoops that they weren’t making my white male counterparts go through."
Joseph Bozzelli, a senior professor in the chemical and environmental science department, agrees that Thornton met with opposition. But he attributes it to a difference in opinion between Thornton and members of her doctoral committee about her project. He’s discussed it with Thornton. "Rita’s response is that her experiences have taught her to see things differently," Bozzelli says.
"What you see often depends on where you’re standing," says Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College, an all-woman, historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia, who has studied racism and its effects in the classroom. "It is common for white people to think of racism as overt, intentional acts of discrimination, failing to recognize the ways in which even well-intentioned behaviors can serve to reinforce racial stereotypes or otherwise result in inequitable treatment," she says.
"Of course, no one is going to admit that they’re racist," Thornton says. Faculty members told her she overreacted and was too sensitive. But she has experienced enough, she says, to understand that was the only stance they could take. "Anything else would require them to acknowledge that what they said had been offensive."
"I realized that I had to flip it and turn it into a steppingstone and make it something that is going to sharpen my skills," Thornton says. "I have to thank those faculty members for being as negative and as discriminatory as they were, because all it did was make me stronger. I think if they weren’t there, I wouldn’t have had the fuel to go the distance."
Three years into her doctoral studies, after she had completed all course work, passed the qualifying exam, and begun preliminary research, Thornton considered that her handpicked committee of faculty members no longer supported her personally and did not have the background she felt she needed to complete her project. So, with the dean’s permission, she reshuffled her thesis committee and asked Bozzelli to become her adviser.
The move took Watts by surprise. Thornton never discussed her decision with him, he says. "I was interested in what she was trying to do. So I didn’t quite understand what all the issues were [with her decision to switch advisers]. But this isn’t the first time that this kind of thing has happened. I’m experienced enough to understand that. So I wished her well and tried to help her however I could," Watts says.
Bozzelli set out clear scientific goals, and Thornton designed a program that combined environmental health education for the Newark children and their parents, an environmental and analytical chemistry protocol to measure indoor air particulate contamination in the schools, and installation of air pollution abatement equipment in the classrooms with the poorest air quality.
Thornton defended her thesis in October 2005 in front of a grateful community of 50 Newark residents and preschool educators. The attendance was unprecedented at NJIT, says Ron Kane, director of graduate studies.
"I was very happy to see her finish," Kane says. "There are times in this job when you look and say, ‘This is why I do it.’ When someone like Rita gets a Ph.D., it’s one of those times."
In May 2006, 10 days before her 55th birthday and 23 years after her father’s death, Thornton addressed the audience at NJIT’s spring commencement where she shared the stage with keynote speaker, Governor Jon Corzine, who called her "inspirational."
"When I stood up there and gave my speech, and looked down at the faces of those faculty members who told me to my face that I would never make it, that was the most beautiful payback that I could ever have," she says. "I hope and I pray every day that because of me they can no longer say that ‘You people don’t do well in science.’ "
Photo (middle): courtesy of Rita Thornton
Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at AMSasso@aol.com .
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