Nialena Ali ’17
Name: Nialena Ali ’17
Hometown: Oakland, Calif.
Campus involvement: I am a proud member of the Association for Pan African Unity (APAU). During my first year I was on the board of Students Against Mass Incarceration (SAMI), where we advocated for vulnerable members of the Springfield community who were being harshly sentenced for minor offenses. I was a member of the Raunak Bhangra dance team, which was a lot of fun. I have worked at the Office of AccessAbility Services for the last four years, starting as an office assistant and I now supervise all student workers in our office.
Proudest accomplishment at MHC: This year I have taken some actions to make Mount Holyoke a more inclusive and equitable campus and I am very proud of the work that I have accomplished. One initiative that I am especially proud of is, with the support of APAU, organizing students to get a residential floor approved as a Living Learning Community. Our floor is designated specifically for students of African descent. We named it after Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black woman elected to the United States Congress and became, in 1972, the first black person to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Chisholm was also a Mount Holyoke professor and we are very proud to honor her.
Aside from my activism, I am very proud of the personal and academic growth that I have accomplished over the last four years. I have learned more about myself, made lifelong friends, developed as a young professional and successfully taken on some daunting academic endeavors. One project that I am most proud of happened while I was studying in Cape Town, South Africa: I completed a month-long independent study project where I ghostwrote an elderly woman's autobiography. I would go to her home, make dinner, put on a kettle for tea and we would sit, cry and laugh together. In four weeks I produced 70 pages of feminist research and storytelling and used my academic project as a creative healing space. A year later we are still in touch, texting and calling one another almost daily.
Favorite course you thought you might not like: I took International Economics as a requirement for my international relations major. I have never been a fan of numbers and had already taken Introductory Economics as a prerequisite. I struggled to understand much of that material, so I was dreading the idea of taking a higher-level econ course. But I was pleasantly surprised how fun it was. Professor Hendrik Van den Berg made the material very exciting and used a heterodox approach that related international markets to social issues. I developed an unexpected passion for economics and learned that it is closely related another of my passions, social justice and human rights.
Best takeaway from internship or research experiences: I was awarded Lynk funding that I used during the summer after my sophomore year to intern with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which holds nonviolence workshops in communities and correctional facilities throughout the country. I participated in self-empowerment and community-building workshops in various Massachusetts prisons. I learned so much working with AVP and met a lot of amazing people. I began my internship thinking that I wanted to pursue a career teaching in prisons. After experiencing working on the inside, I found myself increasingly concerned with the political factors that lead to incarceration. I am now interested in going to law school. I would have never reached this conclusion without this opportunity.
Future plans: I am delaying law school so I can go to Ghana with Star Service & Study Abroad, a summer study-abroad internship program that I created this year with a UMass Amherst doctoral student. We are a women-led, interdisciplinary, affordable summer-travel program dedicated to cross-cultural education and community-building.
Our program gives students opportunities to intern with our partner organization while taking classes on development, politics and human rights that will inform their work. We are working with a local Ghanaian-owned organization that works against child-labor trafficking and promotes educational opportunities and public health programs. We see our program as a way to address the rise of volunteer tourism and create more culturally competent students who can be an asset to the communities they serve, whether at home or abroad.