Since 2011, when Union County College has been awarding monthly “Team Player” to employees who bring a “can do” attitude to work every day, probably one of the most nominated staff members has been Zulema Cheek
. She received her official “Team Player” award a year ago, in February 2015. Even so, based on the recommendations that the newsletter staff continually receives, Mrs. Cheek could win “Team Player” virtually every month.
As in that song from Oklahoma!, Mrs. Cheek is an employee who “can’t say no.” President McMenamin is impressed with the way Mrs. Cheek “steps up every time we ask her to expand her role at the College.”
Mrs. Cheek’s supervisor is Student Development Vice President Helen Brewer, who says, “Zulema is our Division’s ‘go-to’ person. When a dean or director or any of our employees in student-service positions need help or an answer, they know that when they go to Zulema, they’ll get what they need.”
Mrs. Zulema Cheek isn’t just one of those one-dimensional hard workers, either. She’s like a prism with many sparkling sides. One of the most alluring of these is her gift for magnificent singing voice, which has evoked comparisons with Mariah Carey and Etta James. Her next public performance will be on Weds., Feb. 17 when she and students will sing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” at 3:30 p.m. for a Black History Month event in the Richel Commons.
Q: But you eventually came back to Union, right?
A: Yes, when I returned to Union County College in November 2001 as the Department Secretary for Counseling (Advising), I knew one of my main focuses was to attain my Associate Degree in Psychology, which I accomplished in 2003.
Q: And you became known as a “go to” person.
A: I did. It’s my personality. I always want to help wherever I’m needed. In Counseling (Advising), my first priority was managing the office, but if there was a way I could help, I did what I could. I’m a big problem solver and I always want to be available and part of the good. It’s that way in every aspect of my life. And, as a result, I often find that I have a lot on my plate. But, it’s ok. If you ask me to do it, I’ll do my best to get it done!
Q: So then, you moved from Advising and worked with Mrs. Brewer, eventually becoming her Executive Assistant in the Office of the Vice President. That was last year?
A: Yes, I started working with Vice President Brewer temporarily in September of 2014, and then was hired permanently in February of 2015.
Q: And with that came more responsibilities. You were asked if you wanted to help improve the graduation rates of African-American male students, and of course you said yes.
A: “Project Achievement Gap.”—and right now, I’m focusing on the 2013 cohort of African-American males but am also working with African-American males in other cohorts. My role is to talk to them, get to know them, hear about the difficulties they face. I get into their world. Students need to know that someone cares about them. It’s important that they have someone here they know, by name, to call when they need help. A lot of times there are so many complex layers to their lives, if we don’t look deeper, we’ll never understand who they really are.
Q: And you’re also a club advisor.
A: Yes, I just accepted the role of Advisor for the Glee Club. I also oversee the Liberated Inspirational Choir when it’s active.
Q: Oh yes, some people say you’re not too shabby a singer.
A: Not too shabby. Music is a major component of who I am. I have been singing practically all of my life. My love for music and my voice come from my parents. My mother is a singer, too and plays piano. My father also sings. I’ve sung solos in the church choir, directed a 100-voice youth choir at the age of 15 and also sung in the choirs at school from 6th – 12th grades in Piscataway.
Q: And what kind of music, would you say, is your specialty?
A: My core is rooted in Gospel and Jazz. But, I can truly sing almost any genre. I also write my own music and have my own group and band, so most of what I sing is original. I have produced four CDS’s independently. I’ve actually formed a number of groups over the years. In 2003, I formed a group with five women called “BLAYZE 5”, and we opened for gospel singers like CeCe Winans in New York and Martha Munizzi in Connecticut. My current singing group is called “His Prayze”. Truly, I have a passion for music and a passion for expression. I’m deeply committed to exploring the lives of people with my music. I celebrate people who endure, those who struggle to have a voice even when they don’t always know how to express what they feel. Through my music, I hope to show them that God is accessible, no matter what their situation looks like.
Q: What’s your future in music?
A: Music will always be woven into the fabric of my life. Singing and writing music will always be a part of who I am. But, I never looked for my music to propel me into stardom. I am not a showy person and I don’t look to be in the limelight. When I sing, I don’t want you to just see Zulema, but I want the message to take center stage. I am just the vessel and I strive to remain humble.
Q: And what’s in your future at the College?
A: At Union County College, I see myself growing and developing in more responsibilities. I see myself as an asset to the College in a leadership role, whatever that may be. I want to be in a place where my passion for helping young people and my drive for getting work accomplished merge together. I want to be part of the solution.