Tonanziht Agua

Senior Tonanziht Aguas Eyes Public Policy Intent on Helping Others 

When senior Tonanziht Aguas thinks back to her days at Passaic High School in her hometown of Passaic, NJ, she recalls that the student body consisted predominantly of poor kids of color; class sizes were bursting at the seams; and there were too few desks, broken Chromebooks, outdated textbooks, insufficient science-lab equipment, and no air-conditioning on blazing-hot summer days.  

Aguas was among the minority of students taking AP and Honors courses within the high school’s college track, but given the overcrowding and underresourcing there, for most kids a quality education was out of reach. Her Physics teacher, a Harvard graduate who had returned to Passaic to give back to his hometown community, confirmed as much when he shared a sobering statistic with Aguas: Less than 15 percent of her graduating class would apply to college, and the school’s graduation rate, also disturbingly low, mirrored that reality. 

“I thought, What the heck! College for me was my golden ticket out of poverty and hardship,” said Aguas. “To learn so few were getting that opportunity—I kept asking, Why, why, why!?? Why are so many lower-income kids stuck in this cycle?”  

That question has driven Aguas’ academic and extracurricular career while at Rutgers University–Newark, where she arrived in 2019 and has double-majored in Political Science and Economics as a member of the Honors College, while carving out an impressive track record of not only academic excellence but also of service to the RU-N community, the state of New Jersey and the country, working on issues like education, poverty, peace and transitional justice, and international affairs. 

Aguas’ journey to the cusp of college commencement, and possibly graduate school, was an arduous one.  

She grew up in poverty herself, one of four children raised by previously undocumented parents from Mexico who had come to the U.S. before the kids were born (they eventually received their papers). She speaks all too vividly of the racial segregation, drug use, gangs and gun violence enveloping her as a child and adolescent—along with fears of her parents’ deportation—and the constant anxiety they wrought.  

A bright and curious student early on, Aguas escaped the world around her by seeking refuge in afterschool tutoring programs for low-income children and at the public library a block from her home, where she read incessantly, gobbling up books on world cultures filled with images of far-away lands and people, which fueled a wanderlust that remains with her to this day. Aguas went on to have a stellar early academic career, beating the odds and graduating second in her class at Passaic High School.  

I wanted to understand the socioeconomic barriers Newark residents are facing and how state and national policies could be impactful.

Aguas' interest in politics and international relations started in that very high school, with a course on American government, which gave her a front-row seat to the work of Passaic County legislators, as well as a class on international trade and developmental economics, which examined the wealth disparity between industrialized nations and countries in the global south. Her interest in economic justice intensified when she was paid a paltry wage for a job she had making and selling meals out of a food cart as a teen. 

“I was getting paid $50 a week working six-hour days. I didn’t like it,” said Aguas. “I wanted to get paid fairly and get the skills I needed for better jobs. I didn’t want to stay stuck. I wanted social mobility.” 

Aguas entered RU-N with 30 AP credits under her belt and hit the ground running, taking a full load of courses through the Honors College and adding a dual minor in History and Asian Studies. She also was a member of the RU-N debate team, competing at schools like Yale and in places as far-flung as Hawaii; was a member of the Pre-Law Society; and worked as a research assistant to Urban Education Professor Carolyne White under the auspices of RU-N's International Institute for Peace. 

Along the way, Aguas gave back to the RU-N community, working for a year as a programming assistant for the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance, and for three years as a student health advocate and peer wellness coach for the Health Promotion Division of Student Health Services. 

If that weren’t enough, Aguas also held a series of internships and fellowships off-campus, starting as a summer intern for the Office of the New Jersey Secretary of Education in Trenton, conducting research on programs for community college students to transition to four-year institutions. She’s also been a research fellow for the Newark Movement for Economic Equality, a pilot program under a national initiative called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, collecting data from Newark residents that could inform guaranteed-income policy. 

“Coming from a low-income background, this was a perfect fit for me,” said Aguas. “I wanted to understand the socioeconomic barriers Newark residents are facing and how state and national policies could be impactful.” 

Aguas also worked as a public policy fellow for RU Law School’s Center for Security, Race and Rights, conducting research on policy, media and scholarly literature focusing on Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and North African communities. 

And in March of last year, Aguas became a 2022 Rutgers-Eagleton Washington Internship Award recipient, which provided $5,000 in living and travel expenses for her to do a summer 2022 internship with the New America higher-education thinktank in Washington, D.C., where she researched services that support and enable older, nontraditional students nationwide to start and stay in school. While in D.C., Aguas lived a few blocks from the White House, attended congressional hearings, conducted research, and wrote for the thinktank’s policy blog for Hispanic Serving Institutions. 

“It was an amazing experience,” said Aguas, “and it was great to interact with policy makers in D.C.” 

While at RU-N, Aguas also fulfilled her early-childhood wanderlust by studying abroad in Greece and Thailand through the BOLD Women’s Leadership Network, which cultivates leadership skills and facilitates opportunities for women’s career development and networking through scholarship funding from the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation. She also is headed to Jordan for two weeks shortly after graduation, through an Honors College course titled, “Culture, Conflict and the City in the Middle East.” 

And Aguas’ future looks bright. 

She applied to graduate programs in public policy at the University of Chicago and Georgetown and will hear back soon. She sees law school as a possibility down the road as well. In the meantime, she wants to immerse herself in data science, after taking a course in Computing for Economics last year. Her reasoning reflects the wisdom and perspective she’s had since she was a teenager growing up in an unforgiving world. 

“Policy needs to be shaped by good data,” Aguas said. "It’s vital to prove need when addressing policy makers and introducing concepts to them if you want to move the ball forward on issues. There are so many issues affecting low-income people of color and students. And I learned back in high school, watching Passaic County legislators doing their job, that policy can do great things if it’s in the hands of the right people.”