Nicole Kukawski, 22, had just hit The College of New Jersey library to begin putting together information on Poet Walt Whitman's thoughts about education reform in the late 19th century, when her curiosity for the past led her to reach for a stack of old bound issues of The Signal, the TCNJ student newspaper. She piled them on the table and began leafing through, amazed to learn that her school newspapers dated back to 1885.
Five hours later Nicole made a discovery that would be read 'round the world. She was flipping through the February 1888 edition of The Signal when she came upon an interview that two College of New Jersey (then called the New Jersey State Normal School) students had done with Walt Whitman at his Mickle Street house in the city of Camden. "I was looking at articles and ads and honestly by the time I actually found the Whitman interview I had abandoned looking for anything Whitman a few hours earlier," admits Nicole, a Palmyra resident who graduated high school from Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken and is now in her senior year at TCNJ. "It took me a few days to realize that others outside of TCNJ would care about it."
The first indication that she had hit Whitman gold came when she mentioned her find to her English professor, David Blake. "I got the bug-eyed, jaw-dropped reaction that said to me this was really big," recalls Nicole.
Indeed it was. Nicole had discovered an unknown interview with one of history's greatest poets. After a few phone calls to some of the world's top Whitman scholars to verify the find and a press release sent out over the wires by the TCNJ public relations department, it was official. Nicole was a genuine student celebrity. "The Associated Press contacted me and wrote a piece that ran in a lot of newspapers, then New York Newsday, which is the paper of Long Island where Whitman is from," Nicole explains. "I was getting emails from people around the country congratulating me on the find. People were writing me and telling me that the interview had inspired them to pick up their own writing again. There was a newspaper in Italy that picked the story up. I found it to be incredible that I was talking to this guy in Italy from The College of New Jersey about this Whitman interview. I had to laugh. I just couldn't believe it."
From those first frenzied days in late April, Nicole's Whitman whirlwind continued, landing her an all-expense-paid speaking gig in Long Island alongside three famous poets, an internship with the Diocese of Trenton producing a national cable TV show for teens, a job with TCNJ's public relations department and a job this September helping with a symposium celebrating 150 years of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and 150 years of TCNJ.
Nicole says she did more than just earn from the experience--she learned an important life lesson. "I've always been interested in old things," says Nicole. "There is no good reason why I should have been looking in those old newspapers to begin with, but I did because they interested me. Too many people are on a certain track because they think that's what they have to do or what their parents want them to do. You'll get much better results working hard at the things that you really deep down want to do. Work hard at the things that interest you and you can't go wrong."