Nicaragua is once again mired in violence as the brutal Sandinista government terrorizes its own citizens, inflicting human rights abuses including murder, torture and rape.
The Somoza regime was deposed in 1979, but the new ruling faction has cracked down on dissent, taken ownership of private property and censored the press. An American-backed opposition, the Contras, have engaged the Sandinistas in a violent civil war, with each side leaving death and destruction of unspeakable horror in their wake.
A mother and her 5-year-old daughter seek refuge from the war-torn Central-American nation their family has called home. The mother knows it’s time to leave Nicaragua behind to start a new life for herself and her family in a place free from the violence that has consumed the nation.
Like so many immigrants, that mother came to America in search of a new life, better opportunities and a safe haven from the dangers of her home country. She probably couldn’t have imagined how her decision would affect a small college town in New Jersey.
Rbrey Singleton, a 23-year-old student enrolled in law school at the University of Massachusetts and a former Rowan University Student Government Association (SGA) president, knows just how consequential his grandmother’s decision would be for his life and how his family’s experience has impacted his perspective.
“Nicaragua has been the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere for my entire life. When I go there, I’m just kind of saddened at how so many people are just living in abject poverty,” Singleton said of his family’s home country that he still visits about twice a year. “The government there has been unstable for a very long time. When things happen to folks, a lot of times the law isn’t fair in your recourse. You can’t go and seek the law for protection. I think that’s the thing that I value the most about our system. Granted it isn’t perfect, but at least sometimes I do feel like I can depend on the law for protection and recourse when I need it.”
Singleton is a kind, personable individual with a smile that lights up the room. He puts a premium on his relationships with his family and friends and it should come as no surprise that he was elected as Rowan’s Student Government Association president for the 2018-2019 school year. The first-generation college student has a magnetic pull that draws people close to him. It’s a quality that will serve him well as he embarks on a career as an attorney and in public service.
“Rbrey is one of the most goal-oriented people I know. He has a plan in his head of where he wants to be and how to get there. A lot of people have goals, but not everybody has the plan to achieve those goals. For Rbrey, I feel both come naturally to him,” Singleton’s good friend and 2018-2019 SGA Director of Public Relations and Special Events Eric Mann said. “He may start off as an attorney but I wouldn’t be surprised if soon he went into politics. He’s had a taste for that ever since he was young.”
Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, the Singletons were a tight-knit family in the diverse North Jersey city.
“All my family lived in Paterson. I remember trips to the park with my grandpa. There were lots of family cookouts. My grandma had a house on Lilly St. in Paterson, where I grew up,” Singleton said. “I also think I can attribute that to my family being immigrants. We like to say that we’re all we have in this country and because of that, we stuck together and we spent a lot of time together and we’re super involved in each other’s lives and I’m really glad that I was raised that way.”
However, his formative years weren’t without tragedy. Singleton’s uncle, who immigrated to America a year after his mother and sister, was murdered in Paterson in 2009. The incident left a lasting impact on Singleton and helped shape his future.
“When he came here, he had a little bit of a difficult time, adjusting to the culture and the new lifestyle. He ended up getting involved with gangs and was in and out of prison for a while,” Singleton said of his late uncle. “I was the last person to see him and speak to him before he was murdered … we’ve never found out what happened to him or who was responsible. It definitely impacted me mentally, as you can imagine, but it kind of changed my worldview. It made me want to pursue a career in the law and try to bring about justice for other people’s families who have gone through similar situations.”
Singleton has been drawn to civics and service since a young age. In middle school, he took part in Model Congress, meeting in the Trenton state house to introduce and pass bills. At Manchester Regional High School, Singleton joined the mock trial team to master the art of working a courtroom while perfecting his public speaking skills.
When Singleton stepped foot onto Rowan University’s campus, his dreams were set into motion. However, the path wasn’t always clear.
“The funny thing is, my parents wanted me to be a doctor in school,” Singleton said. “I came into Rowan, accepted as a biochemistry major. I said to myself, ‘This is not gonna happen. There’s no way that I’m going to go through this.’ I ended up changing my major to political science. My goal was to get to law school. From the day I stepped on campus, I knew I wanted to get into law school. How I was going to get there, I had no clue. I had no lawyers in my family. We don’t know many lawyers, but I just knew I wanted to get there somehow.”
Joining the Student Government Association as a freshman, Singleton began the long climb to the top of Rowan’s SGA hierarchy.
“Going into it as a freshman senator, I didn’t know how much impact SGA would have on me,” Singleton said. “In hindsight, SGA contributed to a huge portion of my success and ultimately getting into law school.”
Over the course of his four years at Rowan, Singleton set about making meaningful changes in students’ lives. While he is very proud of his accomplishments as SGA president during his senior year, the achievement he was most proud of came earlier in his academic career.
As a freshman he was invited to join the university’s affordability task force. The task force showed what can be accomplished through hard work between students and administration, as they founded The SHOP, Rowan’s on-campus food pantry.
“We started talking about ideas about how to support students and make college more affordable for students. Over the course of a year and a half, we raised $50,000. We collected a couple hundred signatures. We literally built a food pantry by ourselves,” Singleton said. “I remember picking out shelving. I had never picked out industrial shelving in my life. Putting that together and seeing that come to fruition is definitely something that I’m very proud of, and I still think about it a lot because to date, the center has served over 2,000 kids. They’re providing food and meals to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it. I’ll never forget that.”
The program was established when Singleton wrote a bill while serving as a student trustee proposing to withdraw $30,000 from the SGA special projects fund balance in order to fund the startup of The SHOP. It passed and was supplemented later that year by a generous $25,000 donation by Larry Salva, a member of Rowan’s Board of Trustees.
Singleton’s dedication to public service was recognized with an internship at Senator Cory Booker’s office during his junior year of college. During his time working in Booker’s Constituent Service Office, Singleton gained an appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work of a career in public service.
“Around that time, a lot of stuff was happening in the government with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals)… It was difficult at times. Some days I walk in the office and literally get nothing done. Just answering phone calls and reading letters and forwarding them to the senator because people were just so concerned or upset at the senator for things that he did. You never disrespected constituents, you sit there and listen to what they say because they pay your taxes, they pay your salary,” Singleton said.
It also gave him an up close and personal appreciation for the role of government. “As an intern, I worked on the immigration case files. I worked with a lot of families who were trying to file for citizenship and permanent residency, trying to be supportive. Those are really personal experiences and things that I’ll never forget.”
The experience helped shape his perspective about the role of government, helping clarify what, if any role, he’d like to be involved in as he moves forward pursuing a career in public service.
“It gave me an appreciation and a better idea of what I want to do within the law and within government. At the end of the day, I believe that the government should serve the people,” he said. “I can’t stand campaigns. I hate campaigning. I hate elections. I’d rather be on the back end, dealing with constituents, dealing with policy, engaging with folks, understanding what their needs and their causes are. That’s where the real progress happens. We all get so excited over elections every two, four years, but the real change happens behind the scenes with the people engaging their constituents every day.”
During his year as SGA president, Singleton’s plate was constantly full, putting out whichever fire raged across the student body. And there were plenty of fires. Early in the 2018-2019 fall semester, he dealt with the fallout of the Glassboro Police Department pulling assault rifles on two students who had been misidentified as suspects in an unrelated shoplifting case. Students were furious at what many saw as a case of racial profiling, as the arrest became regional news. Singleton held a town hall meeting to show support for the Rowan community.
Later in the semester, the sports bra controversy again became a matter of national concern, even appearing in the New York Times, as Rowan became engulfed in a Title IX investigation. The controversy wound up leading to the dismissal of the university’s athletic director.
During spring semester, a hate group named the Key of David Christian Center arrived on campus to disseminate their message to a campus of counter-protesters. While the protest was mostly peaceful, two individuals were arrested and the situation again made national headlines, appearing in Politico.
Through all the controversy, Singleton learned important lessons about leadership.
“They were a couple of gut checks for me, because as SGA president, you have your advisor, your executive board, but ultimately, the response is up to you … It taught me how to think strategically, they really gave me a couple sleepless nights, but they also gave me some invaluable experience on how to manage crises and how to communicate to the public effectively, and how to be intentional about what you do as a leader,” Singleton said.
“No matter what you do as a leader, or even as a person, [it isn’t] going to make 100% of people happy. There were things and actions that myself or the board took, or actions that I proposed, that made some people really happy and some people wanted me to be impeached. I would lose sleep over that … You have to take a conviction and make sure that you stand firm in your position, especially after you’ve thought it through … it’s easy to back to pressure when you take a stance that’s unpopular, but I’m proud of the decisions we made last year.”
Singleton hasn’t finished working to represent the student body. On April 21 of this year, he was elected to serve as vice president of the University of Massachusetts Student Bar Association. When he graduates from law school, he’s intent on beginning a career in criminal law and family law.
Through his experiences in life, he’s passionate about working for victims, their families and vulnerable children. While he isn’t quite ready to announce his intentions for political office, Singleton would like to influence policy some day.
“I’m looking for a good nexus of using my law degree and getting involved in policy and getting involved in politics, but I’m just not sure what that would look like. I’m definitely interested in getting involved in my community at some point,” he said.
With the sky as the limit, Singleton will continue to reach to fulfill his dreams. When his grandmother immigrated to the United States almost 40 years ago in search of a better life, little did she know the impact her decision would have on the lives of others.
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