It was never a question that Jamya Graham would continue her education after graduating from high school. “My family believes that education is fundamental as well as the key to gaining more access within the world,” says the Charlotte, NC, native. Although she grew up in a diverse community that provided different perspectives, she didn’t truly have a clear picture of diversity and inclusion until just before enrolling at UNC. “It wasn’t until I was no longer a part of the system of inequity that I was able to see the impacts of it within my own community,” she noted. “Becoming aware of those issues made me want to take action to eradicate [them] by creating bridges over barriers. [This way,] students [wouldn’t] have the same experiences as I have and others did before me.”
Once she recognized inequitable practices within education and became aware of other issues, she gravitated towards activism, which has continued in her college career. At Carolina, Jamya created Carolina Defender, a student organization that fosters inclusivity and openness through allyship, community engagement and leadership by addressing experiences of marginalized and underrepresented identities at UNC. She also serves as an Undergraduate Business Mentorship Program participant, using her position there to foster diverse and inclusive events that have safe spaces for all. Now a junior, she continues to find new ways to support students – particularly first-years – to navigate higher education successfully and with a sense of belonging. A fellow student noted when nominating Jamya for a 2020 Diversity Award, “If she has a vision fueled by her passion, nothing can stop her.”
What challenges did you face as you considered and then applied to college?
Some challenges I faced included not knowing anything about the application process. Not knowing exactly how to do the NC Residency component correctly, I moved out of state during my junior year, and I moved back to NC my senior year. That year out of state made me receive an out-of-state decision initially when I applied. After about three to six months of consistent appeals, I was able to receive a different decision. So that was a bit of a process for me to get over. My godsisters helped me through the process of applying and pushed me to apply to my “reach” schools, one of which was UNC-Chapel Hill. Once I received my acceptance from some of the schools I applied to, I then moved on to [figuring out] how I was going to pay for my education. By chance, the week after I found out I was accepted into UNC, I also [learned] I had a full ride.
What led you to choose Communication Studies as your major and Urban Studies and Planning as your minor?
I chose communications initially because of a class I took with [Assistant Professor] Renee Craft during my freshman year. As I continued to take more classes, I fell in love with the people in the communications department and found myself becoming passionate about [how] communication can be used in life. I believe that communication is the biggest tool individuals can possess, whether through sign language, literal verbiage, or creating subcultures in protest to dominant ideologies. It’s the tool that allows us to create avenues of change and spaces to allow others to step up and take action towards issues within their communities.
I intend to use my minor in urban planning to manifest those spaces of change within communities through planning and implementation practices in surrounding communities. It allows me to learn about cities and planning processes, enrich or expand upon my communications major, and explore avenues of how I can be involved in improving the prosperity, livability, and equity of cities, towns, and regions.
What was the campus climate like when you matriculated in 2018?
It was on edge. Student organizers were dealing with the history of UNC’s checkered past regarding monuments and its experiences with people of color on our campus. That same year, Silent Sam was removed, [former Chancellor] Carol Folt removed the remaining stump, and she resigned. Fall Fest was rained out and students were just learning to be students at UNC. The campus climate is what led me to create the Carolina Defender.
I felt that my classmates and I were thrown multiple hurdles we each had to overcome but were never given the time or space to deal with what we were being presented with and counteract those experiences. My vision behind it was to create a space for students where they can deal with their campus experiences through art and expression while at the same time celebrating their diversity and the aspects of their identity that they bring to campus through events, conversations, music and art.
Our first Candlelight event was truly memorable because it was a vision that was brought to life through support and dedication. It helped to encourage involvement for the Carolina Defender and to create the space for students to celebrate themselves without judgment or criticism. Another goal the Carolina Defender accomplished was when Makayla Jefferys, the Events Chair, spearheaded a benefit night with Ben & Jerry’s. It was a great experience for me to know that the Carolina Defender helped to provide a platform that allowed her to create her vision with community partners.
Have you received any institutional response to the work you’ve done with Carolina Defender? What are some current issues that you would like to have the University address regarding diversity, equity and inclusion?
Our organization was accepted as a committee within the Queen Anne Campus Y. This was a big accomplishment because it put the Carolina Defender in a position to have a larger impact within an already existing organization. Some current issues I would like the University to address are the spaces that DE&I initiated in which to take place. I want to see more engagement and involvement of University officials in these spaces because the students put a lot of energy and work into creating [them], and it would be appreciated if student leaders could see their work impacting [not only themselves], but also faculty, university leaders, and professional staff.
You are an Undergraduate Business Mentorship Program participant. How do you address diversity and inclusion in that milieu?
I address D&I by showing up actively and engaging and using the resources provided to strengthen myself as a growing professional. For example, the Undergraduate Business Mentorship Program has a capstone course titled “MAC777,” which is offered in the fall through the business school. Within this course, students engage in a case competition for the majority of the semester. The experiences students gain from this course are more than [just] an opportunity to participate in a case competition, but [also] the opportunity for professional development by strengthening our elevator pitches and leaning on real work professionals to come up with solutions to case analysis.
What challenges have you faced in the Undergraduate Business Mentorship Program? How did you address them?
Within the program, I’ve worked on my own personal and professional development. [One challenge is that] I am a really fast talker. The pace increases the more nervous or anxious I may get in certain situations. Within the program, I have received mentorship and assistance by creating techniques to help me to slow the pace. [The techniques included] rehearsal and participation in case competitions and conversations to help strengthen my elevator pitches and improve my individual interviewing skills.
What are your plans after graduation next year?
I plan to apply my major and minor to a business development idea I am currently working on to provide the space for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to take part in and tap into their potential growth and development so that a lack of resources and opportunities does not hinder those individuals.
Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
I am most proud of the Carolina Defender because it was a dream that I was able to bring to life through mentorship, support and just believing in a dream for students to experience in some way. I get excited talking about it because it is an amazing opportunity for students to grow within and become a part of it. [During my off-time,] I work on my business ideas and have a part-time job. I have a special interest in trying to figure out how to become a grant writer, as well as how to find grants for small businesses. The idea of growth and pushing another vision to manifestation draws me to these things.
Written by Adrianne Gibilisco, University Office for Diversity & Inclusion