Nyia Curtis: Finding her passion in photography


Photo by Raquel Hamner

Student trustee Nyia Curtis will graduate this month but will stay at AACC to work at the information desk.

Sarah Noble, Social Media Manager

High school was a struggle for Nyia Curtis. Even though she played basketball, she kept her head down in class.

“I didn’t see myself going to college,” she says.

In her senior year in 2009, however, Rhonda Smith, her guidance counselor at Annapolis High School, told Curtis she “was too smart not to attend college.”

Smith helped Curtis, who lives in Annapolis, to apply to Towson University, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Howard University and other schools.

All of the colleges Curtis applied to accepted her. But as soon as she heard from Howard, she immediately committed.

But after three years studying broadcast journalism there, she regretted her decision to pursue a major she wasn’t passionate about.

“My last day at Howard was in March of 2012, [in] the middle of the spring semester,” she says.

“I felt like I was a failure,” she says. “[I felt like] I would be judged because I had wasted time and money.”

And when she walked Howard’s campus for the last time, she recalls, “I felt like, ‘Oh my God. This is really it. I have officially dropped out of college.”

A year after she dropped out, she enrolled in a non-credit photography class at AACC. Here, she says, she found her passion—and what she expects to become her career.

Curtis combined her two passions—photography and sports—and with the help of the professors she met by taking business classes here, started a photography business.

“As a photographer, you see that parents get these photos of their athletes and every year the only thing that changes is the child gets older,” she says. “It’s the same, posed shot with the basketball, same jersey [but] the child just gets bigger.”

Taking four classes and shooting photos made for some long days, “but for some reason I didn’t care,” she says.

“By the time I got home from my first day, I remember sharing with my mother that I might actually like going to school again,” she said. “[It] was such a surreal day for me.”

This semester, Curtis is enrolled in “New Venture Planning,” a business course designed for students who have an idea for self-employment.

Five people are in the class tonight, each with unique businesses.

The class runs from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in a tucked-away classroom in the Careers building.

It’s 6:15 and everyone is here, and most gripping onto coffee cups. Each student lives a busy life, but through it, they all stay determined to create successful businesses.

Awadia Nasrab, who sells a three-ingredient body hair removal sugar scrub, is the only one without coffee.

The way each student sits reflects his or her unique personality.

Nasrab sits in the corner sternly and soaks everything in.

Vince Harris, who is interested in running auto shows and is the only student who works for a non-profit business, is glued to his laptop but chimes in with suggestions throughout the class.

Maria Penayo, who also runs a photography business, has a special relationship with Curtis. They talk about the conflicts they run into while working and bounce ideas off of each other to use at their next shoots.

Dilts, who taught Curtis in 2015 in Introduction to Business, says her student has always had the same “energetic personality.”

“She always brings a lot of energy [to class] and asks good, insightful questions,” Dilts says. “I am so excited to see her graduate.”

The students take in everything Dilts says, as they would a pastor giving a sermon in church.

Dilts stands in front of a large white board for a class. She wants the students to make a step-by-step list of the process a customer has to go through to get a product or service.

As an example, she begins writing down all the steps for purchasing movie tickets.

She doesn’t pause or hesitate while writing. She has every step memorized.

“Well, first I have to get on the website,” she says. “Then, select a movie, choose a time, select the seats I need, go to the cart, pay, run to get my wallet and then log back on to my computer because by that point in time I’ve been logged out, Pay, email the tickets to myself, print the tickets, drive to the theater, park, go up the stairs—I hate the stairs at the Harbor Center—get popcorn, put on the correct amount of salt and butter.” She goes into a long rant about what a hassle the popcorn is for her.

“Then, I go back for a soda because I surely forgot that, sit down, watch the advertisements and then I get to see my movie.”

The class gawks at how many steps there are.

“So, what did I get from all of that as a customer?” she asks. Her students stare at the board.

“Popcorn?” Jeannette Twigg, a second-year entrepreneurship student who officiates unique weddings, says.

Then, more seriously, “a movie and a date with your husband,” Twigg adds.

Dilts nods and asks for more comments.

“Enjoyment,” says Penayo. The class nods in agreement, and then discusses how important it is that customers enjoy the process of receiving their service.

Dilts passes out paper for everyone in the class to write down all the steps their customers must take.

Once she puts her pen to the worksheet, Curtis doesn’t look up once. She scribbles down arrows and paragraphs. She leans in close to the paper and furrows her brow when she hits a difficult spot in her writing.

When she’s done, she slams down her pen and yells, “Bam!”

After the class finishes the worksheet, Dilts tells everyone to take a 10-minute break.

Curtis, Twigg and Nasrab stay in the room while the rest leave.

“Jeannette is the highlight of my Wednesday nights,” Curtis says.

Twigg returns the compliment.

“[Curtis] has a tremendous amount of passion for her photography business and enthusiasm for class,” she says. “I’ve never seen her in a down mood, and if she is she’ll tell you why and then bounce right back.”

“She’s very professional. She’ll be a great photographer.”

At AACC, Curtis works closely with the entrepreneurship club, an organization she’s been a part of since her first semester on campus.

Professor Shad Ewart, who taught Curtis in a business management course and works with her at The Hatchery, a campus space dedicated to helping student entrepreneurs, calls her “a “professional worker I can always count on.”

“She’s a tremendously great representative of the college and business department,” says assistant professor of business management Shad Ewart. “I can’t say this more strongly. She’s a great representative of our school.”

Walking around campus, Curtis looks more like a mayor than a community college student who is preparing for her May graduation.

People smile and wave to her, and she stops to say “Hi” to everyone, even if she’s busy with a day that she has meticulously planned, hour by hour.

On a normal day, Curtis can be found in Student Services.

At the information desk, where Curtis will work next year, she answers students’ questions and she gives tours of campus. She helps dozens of people every day.

Outside of the classroom, she’s involved in campus clubs, activities and projects, and she serves as the student member of the Board of Trustees.

Chris Storck, director of the Office of Student Engagement, calls Curtis “a shining light in my life. She has that smile that lights up her face.”

Storck said she suddenly started seeing Curtis all over campus after she met her. Because of Curtis’s involvement with the entrepreneurship club, S.O.D.A. club and Phi Theta Kappa, Storck knew she was destined to make changes on campus.

“I wanted to sit her down and ask to be the student trustee member,” she said. “I knew, even though she was involved with six different things on campus, she would say yes.”

She did.

Storck says Curtis says yes to everything, and it’s a “great quality.”

“I knew she would be great [for the job],” Storck says. “She’s not afraid to speak in front of people. I knew she could hold her own.”

Curtis’ most recent project on campus is “Riverhawks in Focus.”

She describes it as a “photo mini-series that highlights different students, faculty and staff.”

After a 15- to 30-minute interview with a student or faculty member, Curtis selects a quote she feels is interesting and sums up the person’s story and shoots a photo for AACC’s social media pages.

Curtis chooses her interview subjects on the season and month. For May, Riverhawks in Focus will highlight graduating students.

Next semester she will continue working at the information desk while focusing on her photography business.

“It’s been such a joy to watch her develop and give back to the campus in so many ways,” Storck says. “She’s so genuine. She’s a shining light in my life.”

“In my 34 years [at AACC], I’ve had so many students come and go but she stands out,” Storck says. “She’s special. She’s going to go so far in life.”