By L.A. Carroll
As a 3-year-old, Nemmi Cole was seen as someone special who would someday take her place on a big stage. Her great-grandmother, Eloise Dunn, often referred to her as “my little Ph.D.”
That was more than 30 years ago. Eloise Dunn is no longer alive, but her dream is. And she had it exactly right: On Friday, Cole will be among nearly 500 Florida A&M University (FAMU) summer graduates at the Al Lawson Jr. Multipurpose Center and Teaching Gymnasium, 1800 Wahnish Way.
She will walk on the stage to be hooded as she receives her doctorate in civil engineering with a concentration in environmental engineering from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.
Cole will share the joy of commencement with more than a dozen family members and friends from Texas, Alabama, California and Washington, D.C. In celebrating her success, they will also be honoring Eloise Dunn and her foresight and the hard-fought journey that brought Cole to the distinguishing moment.
“Earning a Ph.D. was never a part of my plan,” said Cole, who also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FAMU. “I am here for a reason. Back then, my [ great grandmother] saw a vision. . . she prophesied it.”
Cole, originally from San Bernadino, Calif., recalls that she knew very early that she wanted to be a Rattler after seeing the movie, “Drumline,” and hearing about the FAMU Marching “100” band. She and her mother researched the University before they later decided to make the cross-country trek to Tallahassee. Over the years, Cole became a piccolo musician in the band, a Mahogany dancer, and an honor student.
Her faculty adviser, Clayton J. Clark II, Ph.D., a professor in the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, spotted Cole’s talent early.
“When I mentioned grad school to her, she didn’t have the confidence. She initially surprised herself, but I knew how hard she worked,” Clark said. “I knew she had the quality to present and communicate very well.”
Cole’s journey to her doctorate began in 2014 when she began work on her dissertation. That year, she won a Gubernatorial Fellowship to work on environmental affairs with other graduate students at the state Capitol in Tallahassee. At the end of that fellowship, Cole was selected from among her cohort from Florida universities for a Federal Affairs Fellowship in Washington. She spent a year working on Capitol Hill focusing on environmental issues on behalf of the State of Florida.
“It delayed [her degree] for a year, but it gave her valuable insight on a federal and national level. It will really help her as she goes out and does other things,” said Clark, who will be hooding Ph.D., candidate Niya King as well Cole.
“She really cared about the work. I will never be surprised at how high she can go now that she knows how good she can be.”
While Cole’s academic horizons expanded, family obligations changed the trajectory of her studies. Deborah Cole, Cole’s mother, received devastating medical news just before the pandemic. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. At the same time, Cole’s grandmother was struggling with dementia. Hearing her mother was battling for her life prompted Cole to pack up in the middle of the night and drive to Houston. That unexpected return to Texas, could have brought Cole’s studies to a halt.
“You have no idea how proud I am of her,” said Marcella Carnes, Ph.D., longtime friend, confidante, and fellow FAMU-FSU College of Engineering graduate. “A year ago, we didn’t know this was going to happen.
“Nemmi has had to overcome so much,” Carnes said. “To have the fear of losing someone so close – and now, ‘my mom is going to watch me earn my doctorate.’’’
As Cole and her mom – now cancer-free – completed the almost 700-mile trip to Tallahassee this week, she said taking the stage will be an emotional moment.
“I think there will be a lot of tears. I am trying to get them out now,” she said, with a little laugh. “This process has been very hard . . . but this degree is bigger than me. It belongs to Mom because of the sacrifices. While she was dealing with radiation, chemotherapy, and the loss of her hair, she was asking every single day what she could do for me.”
During those times, laptop in hand at countless doctor’s visits in Houston, late-night support calls and prayers, the duo fought on. Cole even shaved her own head as visible support for her mom, seeing her hair fall away. Yet, she never fully let go of her studies. She also had to cope with an even more personal struggle: a lifelong, severe case of ADHD.
“That’s the thing about Nemmi,” Carnes said. “She is a driven, motivated individual who is very goal-oriented. Nothing will stop her.”
It was difficult to focus on a dissertation that speaks to Cole’s early interest in science and math, and the motivation that she later had after learning of Flint, Michigan’s disastrous water quality. Somewhere, somehow, she completed her dissertation, “A Cross-Sectional Population Based Investigation: Analyzing the Association of Water Quality and Socioeconomic Variabilities in the State of Florida.”
Cole plans to take all she has learned about water, education, and perseverance to a classroom because she wants to teach; perhaps she will become a professor, an environmental consultant or post-doctoral student to help others reach their full potential.
“The Flint situation really motivated me,” she said. “Water quality should be for all people; it should not matter what your economic situation is or the color of your skin.”