Alex Ashley ‘22 wins Pepper Prize


Photo by Caroline Burns for The Lafayette

This fall, Ashley will be pursuing a PhD in chemical engineering at Drexel University.

Alex Ashley ‘22 enjoys being lost. 

“You have to figure it out yourself, nobody’s going to help you. It’s just you and the world now,” he said.

He was reflecting specifically on getting stranded at a lakefront restaurant while studying abroad in Germany. But this excitement around figuring out life on his own is one thing that makes Ashley, this year’s Pepper Prize winner, stand out from many of his peers.

While he may enjoy getting lost, he knows not everybody does. In fact, he has spent much of his time at Lafayette making sure other students can find their way, a trait that has earned him the designation of the Lafayette ideal.

And on campus at least, Ashley is never on his own for long. He enjoys walking up to people he does not know to “just start talking,” although he will apologize if he sees that he is interrupting.

He doesn’t go to class just to learn—he also goes to strike up a conversation with the student sitting next to him about how their day is going. He often goes to his professors’ office hours not for work but to “catch up.” 

But as a chemical engineering major and mathematics minor, Ashley has spent his fair share of time in the classroom.

“He’s a real presence in the [chemical engineering] department. He really tries hard to make the experience he has but also the experience of his fellow classmates better, in smaller ways…but also in more meaningful ways,” Chemical Engineering Professor Aseel Bala said.

Working with Chemical Engineering Professor Ryan Van Horn ‘04, Ashley has conducted research on polymers since his first year at Lafayette. 

“I like [research] because you never know what the answer is. It’s new, and when you find something out, you’re the only person in the entire world that knows it…you’re an expert now,” Ashley said.

As if he didn’t spend enough time in Acopian already, Ashley has served as president of the Engineering Student Council (ESC) for the past year. One focus he had in this group was on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ). Namely, he worked with Director of Intercultural Development Rob Young ‘14 to establish a workshop for over 200 first-year engineers last fall on inclusivity, bias and microaggressions in the classroom. ESC has now incorporated this content into the curriculum for first-year engineers so they can be exposed to these topics early on.

“Just having the courage and the persistence to identify an area of need and make [change] happen is where Alex really thrives,” Chemical Engineering Department Head Lauren Anderson ‘04 said.

“I’m a huge advocate for making spaces welcoming for everybody because I was pretty uncomfortable [in] my first couple classes in engineering. And I didn’t want other students to experience what I experienced,” Ashley said.

An international student from Jamaica, Ashley is no stranger to making spaces comfortable for others. From tutoring underclassmen to cooking Jamaican food for members of the International Student Association (ISA), he tries to help students adjust to Lafayette. He knows it can be a difficult transition.

“The culture here, it’s a little [more] competitive than back home,” Ashley said. “Back home, everyone is trying to help each other, whereas here, it’s kind of like an all-out war. You have to figure out everything for yourself, fend for yourself. Things aren’t just going to come to you, you have to go and search for them.”

Searching for opportunities led him to many places on campus and even abroad, both to Bonn, Germany for his spring 2020 semester and to Madagascar as part of the Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education (LIME) in January 2020. In this program, he mentored students interested in coming to the United States for college.

“Madagascar reminded me a lot of Jamaica, and at that time, I hadn’t been back home since leaving freshman year, so I was very nostalgic,” he said. “[The people in Madagascar] were really warm, they were really welcoming…The students there, they reminded me of past versions of myself.”

All throughout his Lafayette journey, Ashley kept two people in the back of his mind: his parents. He recalled his father driving him three hours to school for seven years in Jamaica in order for him to attend the best school in the country. His mother would have breakfast ready when he got up at 4 a.m. to leave for school and dinner prepared when he got home at 10 p.m. And later, they used their retirement fund to pay for his SAT classes so he could have the test scores to get into college.

“My parents are superheroes. I firmly believe that,” Ashley said.

Working campus jobs each semester, Ashley sends money home and hopes to do so even more once he starts working out of college. 

“That’s really just my motivation,” Ashley said. “I can’t let my parents’ sacrifice go to waste. All of this stuff they did, I have to make it mean something, I have to make it worth it.”

Next year, Ashley will begin pursuing a PhD in chemical engineering at Drexel University. Ecstatic at the idea of doing research full-time, Ashley will be working to improve the efficiency of solar cells. His future plans also include working on solar adoption around the world and in electric vehicles and other forms of transportation. He’d like to do this all while leading his own research lab one day—a lab he described as being low-stress and thoughtful of every member.

Ashley was first exposed to solar cells in Jamaica when he learned how to install solar panels one summer. 

“Electricity was a scarce commodity growing up. A lot of people in my community used to steal electricity, which might sound bizarre, but it’s still pretty common in Jamaica,” he said. He hopes solar energy being cheaper to produce will allow it to become more widespread globally.

“It’s not just a Jamaica problem, it’s a worldwide problem,” he said.

After graduate school, Ashley expressed interest in moving back to Europe. He fell in love with Sweden, one of the leading countries in solar energy, after visiting while studying abroad. He loved the ease of traveling to different countries around Europe and being immersed in their different cultures. The European lifestyle also appealed to him after he watched Netflix’s “Emily in Paris,” he added.

No matter where he ends up, Ashley will inevitably uplift the people he is surrounded with.  

“He wants to make everybody have a better experience, and I think that’s the reason people are happy to see him win,” Bala said.