When Kareim Oliphant, then age 15, and his family emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in 2007, they hoped it would be an escape from poor economic conditions and provide educational opportunity for Oliphant and his younger brother. After a 10-year wait for emigration approval, and a period of homelessness after the family’s home was devastated by Hurricane Ivan, they moved into his grandmother’s East Orange residence.
Life was not easy. The family shared the home’s small basement as their living quarters. His mother, who had worked at a bank in Jamaica, could not find employment and became depressed. His father traveled frequently as a truck driver. These challenging and cramped conditions continued for four years.
“The hardest part was watching my mother struggle. She was very driven and working made her feel useful,” Oliphant says. “She dreamed of coming here and providing a better life. It was difficult to watch her sadness at being unable to find employment.”
Despite the family’s turmoil, Oliphant excelled in high school and was accepted into Virginia Tech. But during his freshman year, tragedy struck at home. His mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor; the crushing headaches that she had endured now made sense. As his finals neared, his mother underwent surgery. They spoke on the phone and she assured him that all would be well. A few weeks later, he was summoned home and learned upon arrival that she had died of complications after surgery.
Once again, Oliphant had to persevere through unimaginable pain and loss. Rather than turning inward, he reached out to help people in need. As regimental commander for the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, he led the corps to raise more than $20,000 for scholarships and charitable organizations, and set a new record for corps blood drives.
After graduating from college and entering the MSW program at Rutgers School of Social Work with a Management and Policy concentration, he continued his mission of service. Oliphant improved community health by coordinating annual health fairs at his church. A mobile health van was used to offer basic health screenings to church members and residents in the surrounding community. He made a medical mission to Jamaica with nurses from his church to provide basic health screenings in rural towns.
Now an ordained a minister, Oliphant leads several youth outreach and social initiatives, including a feed the homeless program, a youth mentorship program and a gospel band, for which he is the musical director and lead keyboardist. Last year he started a program called ARTSE (Actively Reading Through Self Expression), which helps children enhance literacy skills through visual and performing arts.
After experiencing so much turmoil and loss in his life, why does Oliphant give so freely of his time to serve others? He says that giving back provides him with a sense of personal healing.
“I think part of the reason that I give back so much is that there were times that I wished someone had reached out to my family when we were in need. They say that if you go into social work, there must be some wound that brought you there. I know what it is like to be homeless, to lose a loved one. I know what it is like when the odds are against you,” Oliphant says.
After graduation, Oliphant hopes to combine his social work education with a career in the health care policy field. His field internship [CC1] helped him to see the important interplay of social work with health issues.
As for this year’s graduation ceremony, Oliphant wishes that his mother was alive to see her dream of educational advancement for her children become a reality.
“She would have the biggest, brightest smile and the most wondrous eyes if she was here to see me graduate,” Oliphant says. “And I know what she would say: That I had done well and she was proud, but that there was still more out there in the world for me to accomplish.”