KINGSTON, R.I. — April 26, 2017 — Cherish Prickett is a fan of blockbuster natural disaster films. She likes to critique the rescue and recovery plans. “I know the movies are dramatized,” she says, “but they do have some truth in how people react to disasters.” Tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis are so fascinating to the University of Rhode Island engineering student she’s pursuing an academic career researching how best to respond to disasters.
She’s one step closer to her dream, thanks to the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. Prickett has won a $7,500 Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious undergraduate national scholarship for students in the fields of mathematics, engineering and the natural sciences.
“I was shocked,” says Prickett, 27, of Lilburn, Ga., just outside of Atlanta. “I didn’t expect to win. Then I called my mom: ‘Mom, I’m a Goldwater.’ ”
The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation is a federally endowed agency honoring the late Arizona senator. Prickett was one of 240 scholarship winners in the United States, all undergraduate sophomores and juniors, for the 2017-18 academic year.
Prickett is enrolled in URI’s five-year International Engineering Program, which offers a dual degree in an engineering field and a language. Students spend a year studying abroad and participating in an internship.
Prickett will travel to Germany in the fall to study and complete a research project in German—her chosen language—at the Technical University of Braunschweig. For the remaining six months, she’ll work at a German company that specializes in product delivery to consumers.
Driven is one way to describe her. After graduating in August 2018 with a degree in industrial and systems engineering, Prickett expects to get her master’s in operations research and her doctorate in industrial engineering. One day, she hopes to do research for government agencies and nonprofits involved in recovery after disasters.
“To know I’m setting myself up to do work that helps people in need here and throughout the world is exciting,” she says. “We’re a global world. We can’t isolate ourselves. Disasters are all over the world, and how we respond to them can always be improved.”
Her road to engineering has been long and winding. She excelled in math and science, especially physics, in school, but studied theater and then special education at a local state college. Undecided about a major, she took time off to work as a nanny and consider her options. Fate intervened: the parents of the children she took care of were engineers. They persuaded her to give engineering a try.
She earned her associate’s degree in engineering at a local community college, where she was selected to participate in four different National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates, even examining space debris during an international research program in Chile—a project that sparked an interest in seeing the world.
Exploring colleges for her bachelor’s, Prickett Googled “international programs and engineering” one day. URI’s International Engineering Program popped up. She requested admission information and liked what she got in the mail: A brochure with a cover photo featuring a woman of color. “Diversity was obviously important,” she says.
A few months later, Prickett and her mother took a road trip to visit URI, as well as the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The warmth of the URI campus and quality of its industrial and systems engineering program were game-changers.
“We were walking to the engineering buildings and a student and professor stopped to ask if we needed any help,” she says. “In the South you hear that the people up North are unfriendly. Not at URI.”
Academically, she says, she couldn’t have asked for more. The classes, from human factors and ergonomics to production control and inventory systems, have been challenging. Her professors, she says, are accessible. She has a 3.87 grade point average and is a regular on the dean’s list. A poster she created about characterizing the space debris was presented at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington, D.C. She has also published a research article with colleagues and presented her work at various conferences.
The Goldwater is her most distinguished honor to date. The scholarship is fulfilling on a personal level too. Prickett is the second in her family to attend college.
“I’m happy I’ve done so well,” she says. “I’ve worked very hard. This is important to me.”
The Goldwater foundation also named honorable mentions, including Rachel Bellisle, 20, of Exeter, a URI junior majoring in computer engineering. Eligible sophomore and junior students throughout the country may only apply if nominated by their institution, and each institution is limited to four nominations a year.
Goldwater scholars historically have impressive academic qualifications. Recent winners have been awarded Rhodes scholarships, Marshall awards and Churchill scholarships and other awards like the National Science Foundation Research Fellowships.
Photo above: Cherish Prickett, 27, of Lilburn, Ga., a systems and industrial engineering major at URI, has won a Goldwater Scholarship. Photo by Michael Salerno Photography.