Divon Pender’s commitment to his community includes serving as the youngest member of the South Plainfield Board of Education
When Divon Pender isn’t working toward his Rutgers degree, he is busy giving back to all the programs that shaped him.
That means mentoring fellow first-generation college students, fundraising with the philanthropic-minded Scarlet Council, volunteering at his church, participating in neighborhood cleanups, or serving his hometown as the youngest member of South Plainfield’s Board of Education.
Pender, who is studying Human Resource Management, said his commitment to community service was instilled in him by “the rock” of his family.
“The person I looked up to, my superhero, my everything is my mom. I’m humbled by her,” Pender said of the woman who raised him and his five older siblings mostly on her own. “I come from a low-income household. My mom is a bus driver. She’s done that her whole life and never complained. She continues to persevere through adversity. The way she keeps a smile on her face and always puts others first, that’s the mentality I’ve adopted.”
That mindset and those acts of service center Pender and have kept him grounded throughout his academic journey – especially after transferring from Middlesex College to Rutgers two years ago. Going from earning his associate’s degree in business administration with high honors to ending his first semester at Rutgers with a 2.93 GPA as a business major was frustrating for Pender.
But as a person used to lending a helping hand, Pender knew to seek out resources for himself, turning to faculty, student center staff, and counselors with the Educational Opportunity Fund for advice and encouragement – ultimately switching majors and experiencing success at Rutgers. He’s made dean’s list in the School of Management and Labor Relations the past two semesters and is on track to do it again in his final semester.
“The acclimation process is hard. It can feel depressing and lonely when you’re struggling,” he said. “But I knew this education is what I make of it. So, I scratched and clawed my way out of that hole. Now I’m not only thriving in my classes but taking on more responsibilities to do more things on campus as well.”
That includes peer mentoring Rutgers students through Thrive Students Support Services and EOF and high school students through the Lena Harris Foundation and his old Boy Scout troop. He also serves as the Young Adults Chair of the Metuchen-Edison Area Branch NAACP and is in the second year of his three-year term with the South Plainfield Board of Education.
The person I looked up to, my superhero, my everything is my mom. I’m humbled by her.
Pender didn’t just walk on to the BOE. He campaigned hard – knocking on doors, walking in parades, and writing press releases to promote his platform – to defeat an incumbent by 91 votes for the open seat on a board comprised of mostly white middle-aged members.
“I thought there needs to be somebody who has seen the school and been through that system and knows the teachers and students,” Pender said, whose grandfather worked as a custodian for the school district. “I thought, ‘I can be that person.’ I felt a calling to be part of the school district.”
A self-described proud product of South Plainfield and its public school system, Pender’s term goals include using the skills he’s gained studying for his undergraduate degree at Rutgers to assess curriculums and policies and help identify and remove any roadblocks that could deter students from pursuing higher education. He also hopes to form a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee to ensure all students and staff feel represented in the district.
“That’s why I’m studying HR. I get to sit with people and get to the root cause of an issue and meet them where they are,” he said. “This is who I am. This is what my life is about – seeing strategic solutions to a problem.”
Pender plans to pursue a career in higher education, focusing on college access and preparation to assist future first-generation and college students like himself. To ready himself for that role, Pender still needs to decide where he’ll be attending graduate school in the Fall of 2023, either Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to study Education Leadership, Organizations, and Entrepreneurship or to study Higher Education at the University of Maryland’s Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education program.
“If I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth and both my parents had college degrees, I wouldn’t be on the path I’m on today,” he said. “My experiences shaped me and made me who I am today.”