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Breaking Barriers, Building Leaders

By Zaniya Lewis

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Growing up in a military family, I have seen the effects of war firsthand. And though battles happen overseas, there are also so many fights people need to face in our own country. I have been impacted by the recession, with my mother facing unemployment for part of my life. I have been discriminated against as a young black woman and stressed over being unable to afford higher education. In these moments, I would often wonder if anyone else was going through similar situations.

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In 2016, I founded the YesSheCanCampaign, a national nonprofit organization centered on equipping young people with tools and resources to broaden their horizons and achieve their dreams. One of the main focuses of my nonprofit is providing young people with the platform to share their stories about how they are currently overcoming adversity to achieve their education. At the YesSheCanCampaign, 95 percent of the girls and women we serve are from underrepresented groups and they have noted that racial injustice is a barrier they face daily. We focus on five critical themes to assist students through their journey: college preparation, career development, community service, advocacy, and leadership development.

In 2017, the YesSheCanCampaign launched The Sparkle Summit, a day-long conference that empowers young people to harness their passions for making a difference and motivates them to continue their education. Each year, my organization holds this conference in Burlington County, New Jersey, where I grew up, to provide educational resources and opportunities to local youth. In 2019, I received a grant from The George Washington University Honey W. Nashman Center and The Taco Bell Foundation to start a college and career readiness program for high school students in Washington, DC, called The Climb Is Our Story. The students in our program came from schools that have a deficiency in college and career readiness programming. Since the founding of this program, our students have been accepted to 40-plus colleges and universities. Furthermore, our students have received more than $240,000 in scholarships.

gwi21_quoteWhile running this program, I experienced another obstacle in my life; I became a victim of scholarship award displacement after winning a scholarship from The Taco Bell Foundation. After learning that I was not the only one who had experienced this brutal practice, I launched a national policy campaign within my organization to address scholarship award displacement, which contributes to more significant student loan debt for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Through this policy campaign, I met with politicians to spread awareness about this issue. Less than a year ago, my local senator introduced a bill to outlaw scholarship award displacement at all public universities in the state of New Jersey. The bill has passed the New Jersey Senate and Assembly and is currently on Gov. Phil Murphy's desk for signature or veto. My advocacy work with my nonprofit has also consisted of facilitating scholarship award displacement workshops for students and families across the nation and working with scholarship providers to change their policies regarding the scholarship disbursement process.

This fall, I will be matriculating to Rutgers Law School (NJ) to obtain a juris doctor. A law degree will provide me with a comprehensive platform for my advocacy efforts, while also equipping me with an expansive outlook on the interdisciplinary nature of education and civil rights policy. Both personally and through my work to achieve racial justice, equity, and an inclusive society for all, I've seen the barriers that young people overcome to achieve higher education and employment. I believe that our country needs sustainable systemic change as the core pillar of our democracy. I envision a world where every person will have the tools and resources to accomplish their goals and dreams. A world where opportunities and resources do not have a price tag. A world where every person is empowered and able to reach their full potential.

Zaniya Lewis is an entrepreneur and student activist that founded a non-profit organization, Yes She Can Campaign, four years ago to help other young women overcome adversity and transition into college successfully. She is the keynote speaker for the NACAC's 2021 Guiding the Way to Inclusion.

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