Cindy Nicoletti, a 2011 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is one of those lucky people who has known since childhood what she wanted to do with her life.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “That was my main focus, ever since second grade.”
Now a middle school science teacher at North Philadelphia’s Saint Malachy School, Nicoletti has fulfilled that goal. Thanks to financial support through high school and college, she is using her Ivy League education to give back to Philadelphia children who need the strong science teaching that she can provide.
Nicoletti grew up in the Northeast section of Philadelphia, the second oldest of four sisters. Her mother is a homemaker and her father a driver for a beverage company. Despite her family’s budget being tight and despite the fact that no one in her immediate family had attended a four-year university, Nicoletti’s parents assured her they would find a way to make it happen.
In high school, with the help of a scholarship and financial aid, she attended Mount Saint Joseph Academy, a private Catholic school outside the city. It was there, surrounded by ambitious peers and encouraging teachers, that Nicoletti began to realize attending Penn might be a possibility. Quickly, it became her top choice for college.
In the spring of her senior year, she was on the phone with her best friend when she logged on to Penn’s Web site to see if she got accepted.
“My first thought was ‘Oh my god, I got in!’” she recalls. “And my second thought was ‘Oh my god, how am I going to pay for this?’”
Clicking through to the next page of her acceptance packet online, she saw both the total figure for tuition and fees and the amount of financial support that the University would be able to offer her. Fortunately, the two numbers were quite close and remained so over her four years at Penn.
Not only did Nicoletti earn the Mayor’s Scholarship — given by the city of Philadelphia in partnership with Penn to outstanding students who are also city residents — but she was also selected by an anonymous donor, whom she characterizes as “some phantom amazing mystery person,” to receive additional individual support to meet her financial need. The combination, she says, “made accepting a lot easier.”
The support also enabled her to tailor her education toward the pursuit of her dream profession, which doesn’t necessarily come with a dream salary.
“I’m a Catholic school teacher,” she says. “I would have had to rethink that decision had I come out of school with $200,000 in loans.”
Once Nicoletti arrived on campus in the fall of 2007, she wasted little time in filling her schedule. She chose to major in biology and pursue a minor in urban education, meanwhile playing flute and piccolo in the band, traveling with the football and basketball teams many weekends. To meet her work-study requirements, her sophomore year she applied for a position in the lab of Kim Gallagher, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology who specializes in plant science. She continued to work with Gallagher until she graduated, also pursuing an independent study project with the professor during her senior year.
For that project, Nicoletti combined her loves of science and teaching.
“I developed a lab that could be done with kids involving genetics and plants,” she says. “The kids can see the experiment playing out, take pictures of the plants as they grow, and understand the ecological part that is tied in too, taking soil samples and learning how plants help keep the earth clean.”
The project wasn’t just for academic credit; Nicoletti hopes to have some of her students at Saint Malachy perform the experiments in their after-school program that begins in January.
Nicoletti also earned her Pennsylvania teaching certificate while at Penn, through a program based in the Graduate School of Education. She spent a ninth semester to complete the necessary student-teaching requirements.
“If I had gone to a school with an education major, I would probably have had three years of biology and spent the last year on education courses,” she says. “But here I got four years of science. I have the background in science that every doctor has.”
This training has helped prepare her to inspire the next generation of students.
“I want to get kids excited about science,” she says. “I want them to know that they can get past the textbook jargon and that science is cool and fun to do.”
Her students aren’t the only ones Nicoletti is attempting to influence. After “a really great four years” at Penn, Nicoletti now wants being a Quaker to become a family tradition.
“My youngest sister turns 18 this year,” she says. “And I’m pushing Penn on her.”