MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Nearly 25 years ago, a member of the African American Sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) ran for student-body president at West Virginia University and was met met with “so much racism, so much hate.”
Fast forward to the present, and WVU has elected its first black woman, Amaya Jernigan, as Student Government Association President. The junior, who is pre-med, is also an AKA member and once even served as chapter president. She said she will always remember calling the alumna who met “so much hate” during her campaign 25 years ago and tell her that history had been made.
“I was very, very excited just to be carrying on their legacy, just to represent them because I know how much it meant to the students who look like me, to the staff and the faculty and the black alumni that look at me,” Jernigan said. It’s just — I don’t know — I just feel very excited to get to work. I’m just happy that I can continue the work of many others.”
A lot has changed in the last 25 years, paving the way for her ascension, but Jernigan said she primarily credits the summer of 2020. It forced the university, as a whole, to have tough conversations about race, equity, and what it means to truly value diversity.
Not only that, but for the first time, many people finally began to understand the black plight.
“I think that’s definitely what propelled this even further and why it made it even more important, especially in this time,” Jernigan said.
Jernigan said she has a few things she hopes to accomplish in her one academic year as president. She has a first action she wants to take three campaign talking points and turn them into reality.
First Action: Reform SGA
“The first thing I plan on doing when I get in there is changing the culture of SGA,” Jernigan said. “I’ve been a part of SGA for about two years now, two years, and some change, and I still feel like I’m on the outside. Although I go to all the meetings, I talk to everyone there; it doesn’t feel like I belong there.”
That is why SGA’s new president aims to make the group more inviting, diverse, and not open to just one sex or race. She wants everyone to know her door is open, and she’s ready to listen.
This is an important first action, Jernigan said, because a house is nothing without a solid foundation.
“We are one Mountaineer family, and we should work together as a team,” Jernigan said. “That’s definitely what I want to start with, the structure. Because if we can’t get the structure together, in the beginning, there’s no way that we can properly function well-oiled down the road.”
- First Talking Point: Campus Improvements
“There are so many real problems on this campus,” Jernigan said. “For example, diversity training needs to happen, stat, within all of our faculty, within all of our staff, within all of our administrators. It just needs to be diverse.”
SGA’s president-elect said she would push for this because if diversity training is properly taught, WVU can better accommodate the diverse individuals found on its campuses. That is why, in that same spirit, SGA will push for gender-neutral bathrooms and better accessibility.
“On this campus, it’s very hard to be mobile if you have any type of disability,” Jernigan said. “We’re all uphill, everything is a climb, so it’s very hard if you any type of disability, like asthma, or anything that people may not see physically, but is still happening. It’s very hard to access certain buildings; just making there are ramps in place; just making sure that every building has access to it for all students.”
- Second Talking Point: Community Engagement
“We are a land grant institution,” Jernigan said. “We have to give to the community around us. And that looks like partnering with groups and other organizations that are in the community and actually doing community and service with them, programming with them, doing projects together. Just because WVU and Morgantown area sort of seems split, divided, and shouldn’t be like that. We’re one community, and we should have each other’s back.”
That is, also, why Jernigan will push SGA and WVU, as a whole, toward partnering and collaborating with black-owned and other locally-owned businesses. Ultimately, she wants to go even further by fostering a relationship with K-12 schools in Morgantown and the greater West Virginia.
In doing so, she wants to demonstrate to underserved/underrepresented populations that university and a better life are possible.
- Third Talking Point: Student Experience
Currently, Jernigan said, the student experience has been drastically hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic. She said it has especially impacted younger students.
“I feel for the freshman,” she said.
That’s because many of them are stuck in their dorm rooms. The same dorm rooms where they eat, sleep, exercise and have social interactions.
“We’re not providing them with substantial activities and things to do around campus,”Jernigan said. “There needs to be more safe spaces around campus that are allowing students to network, get that community feel, but is still safe.”
Turning these talking points into reality will not be easy and Jernigan knows that. Her experience with SGA has shown her how much hard work is required and she remains undeterred.
She said she has a lot of experience, even offering a gender-neutral bathroom legislation that she is working on for SGA as an example of her hands-on experience.
Not everyone knew she had this much experience, but still, many people had faith in her. For Jernigan, that means everything.
“To the people who voted, the people who were rooting for me, the people who were on my ticket, I just — every day I just wake and I’m like ‘thank you, thank you for believing in me and seeing something in me that many others didn’t see’.”