We caught up with the 2020 Graduate Student Leadership Awardees to ask what inspired them to pursue leadership roles and what is most rewarding about their experiences. Their responses are compassionate and inspiring. Here is what they had to say.
Efadul Huq, a doctoral student in Urban and Regional Planning received the 2020 Graduate Student Leadership Award for his deep commitment to social justice in local and international communities at the intersection of his research.
Huq’s research explores housing and environmental issues in global south cities like Dhaka, Bangladesh. He uses his urban planning training and organizing skills on efforts for improving the material conditions in Dhaka. He has also made significant contributions here in Central Illinois, through his work with the CU Immigration Forum and other community organizations. He organized a series of workshops focused on immigration justice for area youth at the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club. He co-organized Immigrant Friendly Health Fair and Forum to recognize immigrant-friendly local health providers and highlight connections between healthcare and immigration.
"I was drawn to graduate education in Urban-Planning because urban planning is deeply and intimately connected to questions of social justice. In our Urban-Planning program, we grapple with questions such as, “Who produces space?” “Who uses space?” “To what end?” “How?” and, “Why?” To answer those questions, I have to go out of the classroom and out of the lab because we are talking about people of different walks of life having power or not having the power to decide how space is used.
That is what inspired me to work with community organizations and organizers in places where I do research and teach, whether that’s the GEO on campus or immigrant organizations in Champaign-Urbana or housing activists in Chicago opposing gentrification or housing activists in Dhaka fighting against evictions. My graduate program’s commitment to social justice and my graduate education required me—and inspired me—to step outside and engage with these groups.
The rewarding part about engaging in these activities is that I believe leadership is about nurturing and growing transformative initiatives that already exist and making space for the voices of historically marginalized people. Seeking social change with community groups, witnessing all the ways that they were making these thousand tiny empowerments and following the leadership of community organizers are the most rewarding aspects for me."
Leyda Garcia-Greenawalt, a master’s student in Social Work, received special recognition for her leadership endeavors and scholarly expertise in the area of foster care. Garcia-Greenawalt has advocated for impactful legislation at the federal and state level as Policy Chair for the Illinois Chapter of the Foster Care Alumni of America where she now serves as President.
"After spending eight years in the Illinois Foster care system, I wanted to give back to the communities that raised me. I thought that being a part of advocacy work and being a part of opportunities that would let me give back to other foster care alumni would be an amazing opportunity. I spend a lot of my time advocating for programs that benefit foster care alumni.
The most rewarding thing about what I do is that it provides an example for my younger siblings. I’m the oldest of six in my biological family so it means a lot to me to be able to foster their growth and provide a good example for them.
My next step is to go to Law School. I’m hoping that this will allow me to have more opportunities to do the work that I am doing now. I’m very passionate about juvenile justice, child welfare and intimate partner violence so I’m hoping that getting a law degree will help me be able to advocate for those populations."
Colvin Georges, Jr., a doctoral student in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, received special recognition for his ongoing leadership supporting University of Illinois students. His campus roles include working in the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL), the Office of the Provost, serving as a committee member within the Office for Student Conflict Resolution and supporting the Graduate College’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
"When I joined the Illinois community in 2019 to begin my graduate studies, I was amazed by all the wonderful opportunities existing on and off campus. As a doctoral student studying higher education, I was intentional about my organizational commitments because it is so easy to become overly involved.
I wanted to engage myself in areas on campus that allowed me to explore higher education and problematize the ways racially minoritized students face inequity. I joined groups committed to institutional change within higher education and society at large, I became a Research Assistant in OCCRL and the Strategic Initiatives Coordinator for Student Success in the Office of the Provost.
The most rewarding part of my involvement is that I feel like I am making a difference on campus. I love the people who I work with daily. My Faculty Advisor, and Director of OCCRL Dr. Eboni Zamani Gallaher and Assistant Provost for Educational Programs Kathy Martensen have supported me in many ways. As a result of their investment in my growth and development, I am becoming a stronger scholar and practitioner.
Through my understanding of the structural and systemic inequalities within higher education, the way I approach problems and think about who is missing in critical spaces, whose voices are not included, has become a central focus of not only my work on campus but how I approach life in general."
Alissa Irvin, a doctoral student in Curriculum & Instruction, received special recognition for her work in Tanzania and her ongoing commitment to building community among graduate students. Irvin’s leadership in the Champaign-Urbana community has been seen through her involvement in coordinating the Champaign-Urbana Black and African Arts Fest as well as serving as a member of the Champaign Unit 4 School District’s Education, Equity, and Excellence Committee.
I have always had a passion for helping others but when I went to Tanzania, we were careful not to approach our work with the communities from a savior position. This was my first time being out of the country and it was also the first time being in a predominantly black space which was important to me.
I wanted to pair my sense of self and identity with a global social responsibility. This especially resonated with who I am as a Black woman and an educator working with a school in Tanzania. It was important to me to help create a space where students were able to do work and rely on electricity beyond relying on solar panels. This was a need expressed by members of the community and by school leadership, not an imposition of our own as visitors in this space.
We decided to have an auction to raise the money needed to add Kisiju to the electric grid. This brought that notion of operating in a collective for the collective back home to Illinois. One of the things that is important about this process is the Ubuntu mantra that, “When you go off to successfully achieve your goals, the responsibility is to bring that back home.” We are part of a collective. With that, we held the auction and raised the money to connect Kisiju Pwani to the electric the grid. It was just such a beautiful thing to be a part of. So much of this was wanting to connect myself with the idea of, “home” in Africa and being a Black American.
The most rewarding part is staying connected. I still communicate with the friends I made Tanzania. Being able to build relationships on a global scale particularly in East Africa as a member of the African diaspora, maintain those relationships and connect relationally; I really appreciate and honor that."
Nic Morse conducted this interview, and he is the Digital Media Specialist at the Graduate College. Nic came to the Graduate College after owning his own production company in town called Protagonist Pizza Productions. He now works on videos, graphic design, and motion graphics for higher education at Illinois.