Empowering diverse students

It’s been a tradition for senior social work major Yakira Sanders to attend the Student Leadership Awards on campus every year. At first, it was just a way for her to show support for her friends and mentors. Throughout her time at UNI, she ended up securing a couple of nominations herself, but she never won — until this year.

Always honored just to be nominated, Sanders was elated to win the Diversity Matters award at this year’s ceremony. And though she had also been nominated for the Lux Service Award — the top honor for student leaders on campus — she thought nominees were only eligible to win once. But then the presenters started describing one of the winners of the Lux Award.University of Northern Iowa senior Yakira Sanders.

“She was like, ‘This is a senior social work major,’ and my heart started beating fast,” said Sanders. “I was like, ‘Wow, they’re talking about me.’ I just started crying. I’ve never felt so many emotions all at once.”

Sanders was one of three students who were awarded the Lux Service Award this year. Not only was her win was the result of years of service to the campus community, it was also a sign of growth for Sanders, who never believed she would even come to college. It wasn’t until participating in a campus visit day that she thought she might be able to succeed in higher education.

“At first, I didn’t think that college was my next step. I didn’t think I was capable of doing it and I didn’t think leaving my support system at home would be good for me,” said Sanders. “But we did the visit day and people were just so nice and friendly. I felt a lot better about maybe taking this next step going to college.”

Finding her community

Not only did Sanders find her place on campus, she became a source of inspiration for other students experiencing the same doubts she had before she started at UNI. Sanders has worked as a Peer Advisor in Residence (PAIR), a pathfinder for the Jumpstart program, president of Ethnic Student Promoters, a success coach in the Office of Student Success and Retention, and Director of Diversity for Northern Iowa Student Government (NISG). Through these roles, Sanders was able to provide one-on-one help to students and serve as an example of a diverse student thriving as a leader on campus. Her experience with BSU was especially transformative.

“That’s where I found my community,” she said. “I started to think of myself as a change agent. I wanted to become a leader and make changes on campus.”

This semester, she took an even more direct role in advocating for diverse students at UNI, when she was named the first-ever Peer Advocate Intern for UNI’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice (DIS). This role was created just for Sanders — in fact, she approached DIS with the idea of working for them as an intern, because it’s a resource she’s loved using as a student and as a leader on campus. The job focuses mainly on advocating for diverse students who have experienced bias-related incidents on campus, acting as a listening ear and a source of resources.

“Students who go through these experiences typically don’t like to talk to administration or staff,” said Sanders. “As a peer, I make it less intimidating to talk to them and let them know that I also go through these things and this is how we can get through it.”

A new vision

This role has been a vital addition to the resources provided by DIS. Formerly the Center for Multicultural Education (CME), the office recently became DIS, and began focusing more on offering intersectional and inclusive services devoted to addressing the needs of students with a variety of diverse experiences and identities. In her new job, Sanders will support all these students, and she sees this new role as a sign of this larger shift towards a more inclusive vision of diversity.

“The real change is to be able to see that our institution is actually doing something about [diversity],” she said. “I’ve truly enjoyed being surrounded by different people being challenged to step outside my comfort zone and being able to learn from them. The idea of having differences just makes everything better.”

And it’s this desire to build a better environment that motivates Sanders in her role with DIS — and especially now that she graduated.

“All of the work that I’ve done I hope that it has created a foundation for others to kind of pick it up and take it and hit the ground running,” she said. “Everything that I do is just for the idea that I’m leaving something — even if it’s just a little bit, tiny bit — better than it was.”