Uprooted by the second Liberian Civil War, Jefferson King, Jr. moved from camp to camp in neighboring African countries before settling in Boston, where he finished his high school education.
The United States has given King opportunities he never would have had in Liberia, but he still hopes to return one day to his native country. “As a refugee, you experience a lot of hostility. People say, ‘Go back to your own country!’” he says. “It makes you love your country even more.”
King used to think he wanted to be an author. “I used to write little stories,” he says. “If you asked me even four years ago whether I wanted to be an engineer, my answer would probably have been, ‘No.’”
But since his sophomore year of high school, when he had fun building model bridges and mouse-trap cars in a pre-engineering program, King says his mind has been geared toward engineering. He chose to study civil engineering at Cornell so that when he returns, he can help Liberia rebuild. “I wanted to do something that would help me help my country,” he says. “The infrastructure is really devastated because of war.”
Succeeding at Cornell has required King to adjust his study habits. “In high school, I never studied. All I did was homework. It’s really hard to do that here,” he says. “When you’re at Cornell, you have to master time management skills and other things you never did before.”
Spending time with other engineers—King is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers—helps him to keep focused. “My first two years, I hung with non-engineers. You forget they don’t have as much to do as you do and that hindered me,” he says. “Now I hang with engineers.”
But as hard as he works, King still finds time to have fun. “On weekends, I go to parties to dance and get out that stress because if you don’t it’s going to catch up with you in the middle of the week,” he says.
In class, King is learning about structures by designing a reinforced concrete four-story, multi-purpose/classroom building from roof to foundations. “We’re doing the actual work that a building designer would do,” he says.
This summer, King will intern with city of Ithaca, where he’ll work on a floodwater control project in Cayuga Heights, as well as monitor bridges and roads. “My goal is to get a little experience here and try to get a job with a company with a branch in Liberia and after a few years, transfer there,” he says.