2018 SIS Woman of the Year: Jenna Caldwell '19

Her Campus American University's 2018 Woman of the Year for the School of International Service is junior, Jenna Caldwell.  We had the opportunity to sit down with Jenna and discuss her engagement with the community, goals for the university, plans for the future, and more.

Her Campus American University: Hi Jenna, why don't we start by you telling us a little bit about yourself. 

Jenna Caldwell: I'm a junior in SIS. I'm a BA/MA student, so I'm getting my Bachelor's in International Studies and my Masters in global media. I'm originally from north New Jersey. I'm the President of Blackprint, the Vice President of the American University Association of Black Journalists, and the Vice President of the SOC student council. I led an alternative break in January to San Francisco, and I just participated in one over spring break to Guyana. 


HCAU: Can you tell me a little about your involvement in the Blackprint and the American University Association for Black Journalists? 

JC: So, I always liked writing. I think I started a newspaper in the 4th grade and I remember they said I was too controlling so they kicked me out, but I'm a Cancer, so I cried and they re-established me.  So I've always loved writing, it's always been my thing. I never really thought about being a journalist; that was never in my head. So I came to college and I remember freshman year I was working for AU Phonathon. I remember I used to just go to class and go to work, and go to class and go to work, and I was just so bored.  I thought, "Oh my gosh is this college? This is so boring!"  So I was telling my friends Solomon Self and Ammarah Rehman and I said, "What do I do?" They said to just join a club, and luckily that was around the same time as the winter involvement fair. So I went and there was this magazine there, and it was really cool; I'm not going to name it. I started writing for a magazine, and I really enjoyed it. I was there for a year, and it was cool but at times I felt like at times I was being tokenized. So, they would say, "Hey, Beyonce just did X, can you write about it?" And I would say, "Yeah, sure!" because I liked Beyonce. Then they would say, "Hey, Senegal is doing X, can you write about it?" I'm not Senegalese-but I would say "Alright, I guess." So it was was getting a little weird at some point but I still really enjoyed writing. I remember I had just declared a minor in communications so I was getting all these communications emails, and they sent a mass email for people to join the Blackprint, and I though, "This is what I've been looking for." So I applied and I became the social media director.  

HCAU: You write for several organizations both on and off campus; can you tell me a bit more about these?

JC: I try to freelance write. So I've written for Blavity, Equality for Her, Made in the District, and Capitally D.C. Capitally D.C. is an environmentally-based fashion magazine, which is kind of me getting out of my comfort zone because I don't really care about fashion or anything really eco-friendly, which is pretty bad (laughter). But it's a pretty cool place. So that's what I'm writing for right now. I think it's just fun to get out of your comfort zone and push yourself to write different things.

HCAU: What are your favorite topics to write about?

JC: So I don't think I really realized this, but my boyfriend says I'm obsessed with race. But I think he means I'm obsessed with social justice. I think that's what a lot of my articles are about. One of my favorite topics is social justice in general. I think it's primarily because of where I grew up. So I never knew another white person until I came to college, when that was my roommate. So I've always been surrounded by other brown people or black people, and I got here and realized this is not what the world is like. So I found I was kind of able to place myself into this new world, and it's kind of opened my eyes to these different things around me. It's just made me more socially aware and socially conscious. So that's my big thing.

HCAU: Your nomination for this award discussed your commitment to uplifting marginalized students' voices. Can you discuss why this has been a goal of yours and also how you've worked to do this on campus?

JC: I think primarily the way I got involved in Balckprint because I felt like i was being tokenized by another outlet, I just don't want other students to feel like that. I want other students to just consider their journalist career, or the beginning of their journalism career, instead of feeling like that have just one narrative they can write. Even when you join Blackprint we usually have free range to write what you want. We usually have our editors do pitch lists to give other ideas, but if no one is into them that's fine. People can totally pitch their own ideas. I think it's really important for young students, young people, and people of color to find their voice early on. Often a lot of times sitting in class you might face microagressions or face these topics you don't want to talk about or you do want to talk about and you might get frustrated. So I think Blackprint is a really good outlet that you might not be able to find in other spaces on campus.  


HCAU: Like many other colleges in the U.S., American University has had several racial hate incidents occur on campus in the last few years.  Alongside the Blackprint's editor-in-chief Lauren Lumpkin, you spoke on Fox 5 D.C. news about these events (last semester?) and oversaw media coverage of the events by the Blackprint.  Can you tell us about your views on opening up dialogues about these racial events that occur in our community and around the nation?

JC: I think it's definitely really important to open up the conversations around these topics and around these things that are happening.  Because #1: if you sweep it under the floor it's super unhealthy, and it's going to create more issues. And #2 I really think it's important that all the student media organizations report on it. But I think it's especially different when the Blackprint does it because a lot more black students feel more comfortable talking to people that look like them or share similar experiences to them. So I think that's a big thing.

HCAU: Your efforts to promote diversity and inclusion extend far beyond student media on campus. Can you tell me about how you got involved in American University's alternative breaks program and what your role has been with this program? 

JC: When I say I love alternative breaks, I love alternative breaks. I remember my freshman year Ammarah Rehman led an alternative break to New Orleans, and we were really good friends (we're still really good friends, she's my roommate). My sophomore year she led an alternative break to New Orleans again, and I had applied to one in the Dominican Republic, but they cancelled the trip. Then I was on Facebook, and this girl Teanna Willis had messaged me. I had wrote this article about my dad. He spent around 8 years in prison, from when I was 1 year old to 9 years old, and I think he went back when I was like 17. Anyway he's out now. So I wrote a whole article on my dad and used a whole frame for the the criminal justice system and how it doesn't really work well for a lot of young black men. So I guess Teanna saw it, and she was planning an alternative break on criminal justice. So she read the article (we weren't friends or anything, we barely knew each other), and she messaged me saying I think you'd be perfect for this, and I agreed. So then we met up and she explained to me exactly how alternative breaks operate and things like that. So we led one together to San Francisco.  So I obviously fell in love and became a participant in the one to Guyanna. You meet students you would never get to speak to otherwise, and you get to live together for a week.

HCAU: So what do you do on alternative breaks?

JC: The ones I have been on were both kind of different. So, obviously San Francisco was domestic and Guyanna was international. A lot of people think it's like voluntourism where (e.g. a church goes to Haiti and brings Cowboys jerseys that nobody wants). So we aren't going down there to provide anything, we go down there to essentially learn from these people that these issues affect. For San Francisco we went to talk to some public defenders, we sat in on court cases, we got to tour San Quentin Prison and talk to a lot of the prisoners for like 5 hours, so that was really cool. Talking to people on death row is insane, I still think about them every single day.

HCAU: What goals do you have for the future of American University in terms of efforts to promote diversity and inclusion?

JC: So I think there are a lot of goals, so I'll try to categorize them. I think one goal is-as an SIS student I didn't realize that other students weren't really getting a lot of diversity in their education. Because my thematic area is race, gender, identity, culture, so that's all I'm talking about all the time, so I think it's normal. But a lot of my Blackprint friends are in SOC, and they were saying they don't have classes centered on race or on culture or anything like that. I got to talk to the dean of SOC Jeff Rutenbeck. I was telling him my personal idea; I think a really great thing that SOC should adopt is-how in SIS we have thematic areas and regional focuses. So maybe if you go into SOC and you're think, "Wow, I really want to study film, but I really want to focus on the global south, or I want to focus on filmmaking in Africa." So I think thematic areas should be options. So I think in terms of diversity in education. And I guess along with that diversity in education in terms of professors. SIS is kind of like its own hub. I feel like in SIS a lot of my professors are usually people of color. I think last year all my professors were people of color. But I know this isn't a reality for the rest of the campus. So I think definitely hiring more staff of color, which is really hard. I think definitely the AU X 2 progam-I know it's just starting. I think that's definitely going to help towards diversity. It's not necessarily people who make microagressions or say these things in class. A lot of the time it's ignorance, so I don't necessarily blame them all the way. So things like that, I think programs or guiding students in the right way, and guiding them in education they have never had before and giving them options to break outside their bubbles.  

HCAU: What are your plans for after graduation? 

JC: My biggest goal in life-this has been my goal forever- I really want to write for Vice. It combines journalism and media, and it also combines a global aspect to it. Vice is a hipster new sort of media. They do a lot of short 15-minute documentaries, which are really educational. I can't sit there and read a whole PDF packet, but I can watch a Vice documentary and talk about it for 10 days. There is this one show that I absolutely love. There is this one show on Vice called "States of Undress," and this lady goes around to these different countries around the world, and at first she just starts talking about their fashion and their outfits and things like that so it seemed kind fo shallow. But then out of nowhere she delves right into their culture.  

HCAU: What was your reaction when you found out you had been chosen for this award? What does being a Woman of the Year mean to you?

JC:  I was genuinely surprised that I got it. I guess it really means a lot to me that I was chosen. I just read this book for my class called Where the Girls Are by Susan Douglass. And in class we were talking about feminism and black women and womanism. I remember watching this documentary back in the '70s this white lady is with the black protester women, and they're saying, "You have to choose your race, or you have to choose your gender." And they said they couldn't because they are both. So I started thinking to myself, do I start by putting my gender first or putting my race first? I guess it kind of depends on what setting I'm in. I think a lot of times I'm quick to react to something as a black person and not necessarily from the stance of a woman. And then I saw this application, and I said "Wow, you really do have to be in touch with your femininity." You are multifaceted and you are a diverse person, and you don't just have to stick with this one thing that people immediately see you as. You are allowed to be open and have multiple identities.

Jenna's nominator claimed that "some people talk about diversity and inclusion whereas Jenna works everyday to make sure accurate representation is present at AU through the Blackprint." On behalf of Her Campus American University and the entire American University community, we would like to thank Jenna Caldwell for everything she has done to advance the diversity and inclusion of our school.   


Photography by Emma Shetter.