Meenakshi Richardson and Alyn Rivera are the 2023 recipients of the inaugural graduate and undergraduate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence Awards, respectively, from Washington State University’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS).
A representation of the “CAHNRS for All” mission, the awards highlight individuals creating inclusive spaces within their workplaces and communities.
“Investing in efforts to diversify our communities is my priority,” said Luz María Gordillo, assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence in CAHNRS. “These awards are integral to the larger DEI efforts that CAHNRS has already instituted. My office created them to recognize, validate, and reward our learning community for their DEI efforts at all levels of the college.”
Taking knowledge back to her community
As a citizen of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe, Richardson has always had DEI on her radar. For her, this award represents an important shift toward inclusivity.
“I’m grateful to be honored,” said Richardson, who is pursuing a PhD in prevention science through WSU Vancouver’s Department of Human Development. “This award reflects everyone I have partnered with to advocate for change. I’m thankful to be part of the DEI transformations at WSU and that my department supports my advocacy and my voice. This shows that our work is respected and valued.”
Before coming to WSU, Richardson worked in the public health, human services, and social work sectors. A desire to develop culturally grounded programs for Indigenous communities like her own led her to return to school. Her research focus areas include intergenerational trauma and decolonizing methodologies.
“I don’t want to just stick a Band-Aid on the problem,” Richardson said. “I’m examining how we can centralize Indigenous voices and people of color, especially in relation to the way our social, healthcare, and service systems are set up.”
As part of a DEI workgroup in WSU’s prevention science program, Richardson examines program policies and curriculum development and expansion. She also serves as chapter president for WSU’s Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, and as a student member of the WSU Vancouver Native Community Advisory Board and the Campus Indigenous Prescence Steering Group. She encourages her fellow students to get involved in similar efforts.
“Students of color may feel very isolated within their programs, especially if those programs are split across multiple campuses,” she said. “We’re here to support one another and advocate for each other, and there are faculty members who are doing the same. There are opportunities for students of color to find those pockets of community.”
Post-graduation, Richardson pictures herself working for a Native American health organization, a sovereign nation, or a health board that provides technical assistance and research advocacy for Native Americans. Wherever she ends up, she wants to take her knowledge back to her community.
“DEI can’t exist without the voices of the communities that have been most impacted,” she said. “I’m grateful to see a shift in power unfolding, but it’s sad that it has come after a lot of harm. I hope that we continue to move away from land acknowledgement toward action.”
A first-generation college graduate helping her peers succeed
Rivera, who earned a bachelor’s degree in human development from WSU Vancouver this May, plans to continue her DEI work post-college. Receiving this award was a gratifying surprise for the recent graduate.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Rivera, who also received a WSU civic leadership award in 2022. “It was really exciting — I cried happy tears! So many people have supported me along the way. It’s an honor to be recognized, and this means that my peers and community see my work and how it impacts many students.”
Rivera gravitated toward a degree in human development because of a desire to help others. The first in her family to attend college, she made it her goal to support those with similar backgrounds by serving as a peer mentor for first-year students.
“There are a lot of students who are trying to better themselves and their families,” Rivera said. “Going to college is a privilege that helps students grow and bring everything they’ve learned back to their communities. Education is a powerful tool for a better life and more opportunities.”
As a student, Rivera served as orientation coordinator for La Bienvenida, a Spanish-language orientation program for new students. She also assisted with advising for classes and spent two years as a peer mentor with the Engaged Learning and Career Action Center for Students. As the only WSU Vancouver student ambassador who spoke Spanish, she was able to help prospective first-generation students connect to WSU and the college experience in a unique way.
“I know language can be a barrier for a lot of our Spanish-speaking students and their families,” Rivera said. “It felt great to be a resource and help them with things like financial aid or finding the bookstore.”
Rivera plans to pursue an internship as a classroom aid with the Clark County YWCA, which provides shelter, meals, and resources to women and children in southwest Washington. That experience could lead to a full-time position working with children and families. Rivera also hopes to continue her DEI work by partnering with nonprofit organizations and volunteering in the community.
Rivera considers herself fortunate to have met many great mentors on the WSU campus. When it comes to getting involved, she encourages students to step out of their comfort zones.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Rivera said. “I’ve always been shy, but speaking up helped me get more involved in our campus and learn what DEI really means.”