Inspiring grads: Future educator aims to ignite love of learning in others

Kenneth Booker (Photo: Fan Wang)

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When Kenneth Booker was in first grade, he was awed by the science of the solar system. But his early appreciation for science faded away without the support of strong educational role models.

“I went through school my whole life just drifting. Floating,” Booker said. “Facing poverty and attending under-performing public schools was draining — in my community on the South Side of Chicago, you went to school because you had to. No one really tells you why or where you are headed. And that can cloud your perspective on education.”

It took a high school chemistry teacher to reignite his love of science after all those years and to help him see a future in education.

“My junior year, our teacher showed us a chemical reaction. It was the first time I saw something from my textbooks in real life, and it reignited that childhood passion,” he said.

Booker, a biological sciences major and Honors College student, hopes to instill in future students like himself a deep love for learning. After graduation, he will return to UIC to pursue a master’s in science education.

“My chemistry teacher changed my entire perception of education,” he said. “I want to change the way people look at education and help them to see learning as a useful life skill rather than a requirement.”

A first-generation college student, Booker also found motivation to further his education from his family, including his daughter, Kennedi, who was born on the first day of classes in fall 2017.

“My mom pushed us to go to college, but my brothers found their callings outside of school. I’ve always been the nerdy one though, so the pressure has been on me,” he said. “They’ve been behind me 100 percent.”

“My daughter definitely inspires me and keeps me going,” he continued. “She added some heat to the fire — gave me direction.”

For the past two years, Booker has performed research in the lab of Dr. Terry Moore, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy. He’s tackled a project that involves working with small molecules to make potential new drugs safer and more effective.

“I’ve always liked natural medicine and synthetic chemistry,” Booker said. “It’s been a great experience in the lab — I was given my own independent project and am grateful to have worked in the capacity of a graduate student and present the research across the country.”

In addition to being an undergraduate researcher, Booker is vice president of the Honors College’s Journal for Pre-Health Affiliated Students and a member of the LAS Dean Advisory Board, where he focuses on college recruitment. He also mentors students as a peer success coach for the African American Academic Network. There, he tutors students and helps guide them through their UIC experience.

“As a large public institution, UIC can be intimidating,” he said. “It’s easy to get lost in the shadows. I’ve been there and I speak from experience, especially as a minority student.”

But peer coaching is his way of spreading light on campus, Booker said.

“My goal is to help students see the bigger picture and stay on track,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of students get discouraged and quit. You have to seek out resources and stay the course.”

Booker plans to return to his roots in Chicago Public Schools as a chemistry teacher. He hopes to impart the wisdom he’s learned at UIC on his future students.

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