Meet student leader, Janay Ezekwe, currently in her fourth year studying Biological Sciences with a Biomedical concentration. You can find Janay at the Peer & Academic Resource Center as a tutor, as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. Center as a student coordinator. She has also held student leader roles as activities coordinator for the American Medical Student Association and former president of the Black Student Union at Sac State.
(Janay with other student leaders awarded Student Leader of the Year at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center Inaugural Black & White Gala; December 2016)
Three words that describe you: Compassionate, Resilient, and Suave
Tell us about your leadership journey: My first two years at Sac State, I wasn’t very involved on campus apart from attending large events. When the euphoria of my first year faded, being a young Black woman on a predominately white college campus became more obvious. My intelligence and work ethic would be questioned based off the color of my skin, my professionalism based on my changing hairstyles, and my livelihood based on the countless murders of my brothers and sisters by the police. It took the murder of Sandra Bland on July 13, 2015 by officers in a Texas county jail for me to not only seek, but create space for community on campus.
At the time, I didn’t feel there was an entity at Sac State for all Black students to feel safe and supported to discuss social justice topics. When Black Lives Matter continued to grow as a movement, the need for an organization of this kind on campus did as well. This urgency compelled me to bring everyone together. With a small group of passionate individuals, we revived the Black Student Union in fall 2015. Since my involvement with BSU, I’ve grown tremendously into what people call a leader. In my journey I learned you must keep good faith and move forward; that critiques, although hard to hear, may be the most valuable feedback, and that visions may fail sometimes. Most importantly, I discovered you cannot lead a group of people towards anything without first addressing the needs and goals of the individuals. I truly believe each bump in my journey didn’t set me back, but allowed me time to learn valuable lessons that make me who I am today.
What motivates and/or inspires you? My biggest motivation is knowing that no matter where life takes me, I will be doing what I perceive to be needed of me in the world. I feel blessed with lessons that have taught me new ones, uncovered strengths, and paved the way for many opportunities. Through my experiences I’ve realized how I can bring change in my community and the health field. Through my studies I learned there is a huge disparity in health care and access to education for minority communities of lower economic status. Over time, this has created distrust toward medical practitioners, along with unproportioned illness. I find myself, often one of few or the only Black person in many of my major classes, and I can’t help but think who else will make changes in response to this disparity if not me? Discovering this injustice has inspired me to educate others to be holistically healthy, and with their health and confidence in their humanity, they can pursue success in their own goals.
What does leadership mean to you? When I think of the word leadership I envision the act of leading others, but it is much more complicated than just that. Leadership cannot simply come from a title or position, and it can also exist without it. To lead others you must stand alongside each other. Leadership also means being so passionate, one inspires others merely by their own actions, and with that same passion, relate to people in such a way it creates momentum towards a collective goal. One must also be willing to sacrifice for whom they lead, and guide a pathway for a legacy to continue, even if they may not be present when the legacy comes to fruition. Sometimes these qualities of leadership go unnoticed by the individual, while others find them worth following regardless of a role; to me these leaders tend to be the most influential.
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life? My good friend, fellow Hornet, and Vice President of Black Student Union, Isaiah Alexander, has had tremendous influence on me as a leader. We became friends through restarting the BSU together, and since then he has been by my side through every success and failure. I admire him for his ability to connect with every person he comes in contact with. No matter the situation, he always seems to find the right words to say. He has not only given me some of the best advice, but he also has the courage to talk to me when I need to be challenged.
Last spring Isaiah was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer. When he gave me the news, I was in disbelief that such a wonderful person would have to endure something so horrible. However, since that day he has demonstrated the strongest faith and strength I have ever witnessed, even when his health makes him physically weak. I believe as human beings, we tend to worry about the unknown and things we cannot control. Isaiah teaches me that no issue is too large for God, and we must always stay focused on the positive because we have the capacity to find light in everything. #TeamZayy Live with freedom. Fight with faith.
(Janay and Isaiah at Martin Luther King Jr. Center; February 2017)
How do you think your various life experiences have influenced your leadership journey? The lessons I didn’t appreciate at a younger age have made me dynamic and given me tools to connect with so many people. I’m a mixed race child of divorced parents. My father is an immigrant from Nigeria and my mother a swirl of European races with a pinch of Cherokee. This creates an interesting and sometimes complicated experience of the world as I confront white supremacy and promote black liberation. It also makes it difficult for a person to fully understand me. When I’m with family, I hear the stories and opinions of my white relatives with both Republican and Democratic views, as well as of my African relatives who gained independence from British colonization and worked extremely hard to find success. Then there’s my story of being a Black woman in America, whose opinions and experiences are often conflicting on both sides. As I grew older I had to define myself for myself. Through dedication to a healthy mind, body, and spirit, I let go of 75 pounds and gained a greater and immeasurable amount of confidence in who I am as an individual. Once I achieved this, I hold the belief that nothing can hold me back from my goals and I aspire to help others understand and love themselves as I did.
If you could give one piece of advice to new Hornets, what would it be? My biggest piece of advice is to hold yourself accountable for your actions. Prior to college, it may be easy to follow the flow of the current, but when you get here, your success is truly what you make of the opportunity. I also highly recommend finding a place you feel comfortable and supported. When you plant a seed with the intention of growing fruit, feed it healthy soil filled with minerals it needs to thrive. This makes a huge difference when the struggles of being a college student become overwhelming; you have people to nourish you while holding you accountable. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center works tirelessly to provide this space on campus and continues to provide ways for students to get involved. This month we begin the workshop series I am leading and facilitating, Love Yourself. The series is an engaging five-part program exploring self-care strategies to achieve self-actualization in order to reach and surpass one’s full potential in college and in life.
Once you plant your seed in enriching soil, find your light, your passion, and pursue it with all of your will. Sit in the front of class and don’t skip, go to office hours regularly, volunteer for different charities or non-profit organizations, and find opportunities that will give you valuable experiences in relation to your goals. This is how college will prepare you for the future you crave outside of your degree. Lastly, my last piece of advice is understanding that when things don’t work out your way, I believe it is only to rotate you toward the right direction.