Legacy Mills program receives Northeastern award 

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On March 28, Northeastern’s Chief Inclusion Officer Karl W. Reid announced the first awardees of the Inclusive Impact Innovation Fund, which were culled from 59 entries submitted by faculty, staff, and students across the Northeastern network. One of the five winners was the Social Justice Peer Mentorship Program, which traces its roots back to sundry projects that have taken place in the public health and health equity major over the last several years. 

As a result of this funding, faculty members—Assistant Adjunct Professor and program head Catrina Jaime; Professor of Biology Jared Young; Program Coordinator Vala Burnett ’06, MA ’17; Associate Adjunct Professor of Biology Charlene Betts-Ng; and Assistant Adjunct Professor of Public Health and Health Equity Miki Hong, PMC ’95—will build a support network to make more of those projects possible. 

But Jaime says that all credit should go to the recent alums who first undertook these ventures while at Mills. “These were all student-led initiatives, and we want them to continue to be student-led,” Jaime says. “Our role as faculty is to help them operationalize their initiatives and mobilize them into action. Students were able to lead these projects not because they were my idea, but because they were theirs.” 

The Social Justice Peer Mentorship Program aims to take the efforts already put forward by these former students to create pathways for their later peers to lead social justice initiatives in the sciences. Projects have included the creation of a doula course available through Mills starting in 2020 (as covered in the spring 2022 issue of the Quarterly) and a Being in STEM While Black virtual event for student networking and support. 

McKenzi Thompson ’21, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, helped organize the latter. She says she felt compelled to do something after receiving discouraging feedback from a professor, especially given that STEM fields tend to enroll small numbers of Black students. “The event gave a platform for our Black student voices to be heard by peers, faculty, and staff in the Natural and Health Sciences Division. For the first time, I truly felt heard,” she says. 

Another initiative the program is aiming to replicate is the Black Wellness Project, which Ashlee Davis ’22 put together with Dylyn Turner-Keener ’21, MPP ’22; and Jessica Hairston ’23. As the mission statement lays out, it’s a series of policies and tools to improve learning environments for Black students. “We just wanted change not only for us, but the Black students that were silently or loudly struggling with the battle of being Black in America, and to make sure we gave that fight a voice and chance at change—even if it was just at Mills College,” she says. 

Davis emphasizes the importance of a support system for this kind of work, no matter who provides it: “It doesn’t matter as long as you have someone in your corner willing to listen to all of the emotions and frustrations that come with doing the work.” 

Thompson adds that the planning process for the virtual event was tough, but it was worth it in the end: “Self-belief goes a long way when combined with determination and a well-executed plan.” 

The kinds of lessons learned these alums have experienced are what Jaime and her colleagues aim to center through the Social Justice Peer Mentorship Program, connecting new students who are moved to do similar works with those who have already done them. “That lived experience is nothing I can ever capture because I wasn’t that student who felt it,” she says. “Yes, it’s a pathway to continue to support students in their agency to do social-justice work, but more so an opportunity to maximize the learning experience and to foster broader peer connections between new students and a near peer or an alumna.” 

With this first set of funds from Northeastern, Jaime and her colleagues are working on the basics of setting up the program, such as recruitment. Along with other recipients of support from the Inclusive Impact Innovation Fund, a presentation will be made this fall to provide updates on all five of the fund’s projects.