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Leadership Highlight

Leadership Highlight: University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s SGA President Awa Mbai

Photo Credit: @zoedaphotographer

In an effort to highlight the people who are leading colleges and universities across the nation, we at Watch The Yard reached out to University of North Carolina at Greensboro and did an interview with Awa Mbai the 2023-2024 Student Government Association president.

The position of SGA president is a highly respected role and there is a special pride that one takes in being elected by their peers to lead. Mbai, who is majoring in Political Science, is from Raleigh, North Carolina. She is a proud Spring 2024 initiate of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.

We interviewed Awa Mbai, and talked to her about her position, goals, future and what it means to hold this type of leadership position in 2023-2024.

Read the full interview below.

What is the biggest thing you’ve learned as an SGA president so far?

During my time in SGA, I’ve come to understand that leadership embodies courage. It demands empathy and bravery, as navigating its challenges can often be daunting. Yet, a genuine leader perseveres, driven by a commitment to a cause greater than themselves. I’ve honed the ability to amplify my voice and embrace discomfort, recognizing that leadership inherently brings continuous, unfamiliar challenges. It falls upon us, as leaders, to advocate in the face of adversity.

I’ve quickly learned that imposter syndrome cannot shatter me, despite its attempts. I am deserving of my place in every room I enter, regardless of any doubts others may harbor. As Presidents, we embody multiple roles: we are students, leaders, friends, and peers simultaneously. Sharing classrooms and educational experiences with our peers, it’s crucial to integrate this knowledge when engaging with faculty and administration. My journey has taught me to listen with both passion and resilience. SGA stands out as a remarkable organization for its ability to forge connections across vast networks of people. I’ve discovered that while not everyone may identify as a leader, the diverse perspectives they offer are invaluable, fostering growth among those in leadership positions like SGA President.

What made you decide to attend University of North Carolina at Greensboro for undergrad?

Throughout my childhood, the idea of going to college seemed unrealistic. I grew up in an area where college was a rarity due to lack of accessibility and affordability which led to me dismissing college at a young age. The opportunity to attend University for North Carolina at Greensboro would seem like a dream to younger me. However, my perspective shifted dramatically due to my parents resilience within America. Both my parents immigrated to the US when I was 5 years olds from The Gambia. My mother always instilled in me the belief that education is a gateway to opportunity.

In The Gambia, my mother was an experienced nurse. Upon arriving in the US, she faced the challenges of starting her entire life over. She had to pass the NCLEX exam, which was a challenge because she spent most of her life practicing medicine in a different country. Her determination to overcome this hurdle and regain her nursing license was inspirational. Despite numerous obstacles and the significant struggles my parents faced in America, my mother’s drive motivated me. I aspired to build a future where worry was a thing of the past, laying the groundwork for our family’s prosperity and ensuring my mother’s sacrifices were recognized.

Affording college seemed like a dream, my mother reassured me she would do everything in her power to make it possible. And true to her word, she always did. UNCG represented an opportunity to change the narrative not only for myself but also for my family and community. UNC Greensboro is home to a diverse population of students which creates a home which is unique to me. . It reminded me of my roots due to the authenticity of its student population which helped me not get lost in my efforts. UNCG creates a safe and inclusive space for all which is something many schools have not been able to achieve. Through attending UNC Greensboro my aim was to become a beacon of hope, showing every young girl who finds herself in my past circumstances that college is within reach, despite the obstacles. The struggle is temporary, but the impact of overcoming it can last a lifetime. Through UNCG, I have been able to truly make an impact.

How has University of North Carolina at Greensboro molded you into the person you are today?

My journey at UNC Greensboro has been transformative, reshaping me in ways I could never have imagined upon my arrival. In high school, I often found myself retreating into my shell, despite being actively involved in various organizations. I was seldom the one to raise my voice. Yet, UNC Greensboro cultivated such a nurturing and inclusive environment that it swiftly felt like a home away from home. The dedication of the faculty at UNC Greensboro is unparalleled, with each member going above and beyond for their students. This unique atmosphere enabled me to meet extraordinary individuals who have significantly influenced my path, opening doors to remarkable opportunities.

One such opportunity was my first Congressional Internship, which I secured through the connections I made in an on-campus job. This internship evolved into a part-time role as an Immigration Liaison, a position I was honored to fill at just 20 years old. The sense of community and the commitment to giving back at UNC Greensboro are truly exceptional.

During my initial year, I engaged with the Cottage Garden Resource Center, a program offering rental assistance, tutoring, and school supplies to local families, in collaboration with UNCG. This experience allowed me to tutor in Spanish, connecting me with a diverse segment of the Greensboro community and opening the door to further opportunities, including interactions with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the National Education Foundation, and a law firm.

My involvement in the Student Government Association (SGA), encouraged by my RA who was the student body president, proved to be a pivotal experience. Leading the Ramadan Resolution initiative, which ensured that Muslim students received meals during Ramadan, was a particularly fulfilling project. This program, which continues to thrive, marks just one of the many ways UNC Greensboro has allowed me to contribute to making a difference in the lives of others.

What specific initiatives have you headed up this year (or are planning) and how do you think they will improve the school and surrounding community?

This year at UNCG, I have dedicated myself to the development of Wellness Days on campus, a testament to our collective commitment to addressing the mental health concerns prevalent among our student body. The dialogue surrounding mental health, while complex and often challenging, remains a crucial one for us to engage in as a community. Recognizing that depression significantly impacts our lives, it is vital to remember that our identities extend beyond our academic achievements; we are, fundamentally, human beings.

With the ambition of establishing at least one Wellness Day each semester, I envisioned these days as opportunities for the UNCG Counseling Center to offer a symposium. This event would provide an array of resources, both from within our campus and the broader community, aimed at supporting student well-being. Given the alarming rates of college suicide, it is increasingly clear that universities must adopt both proactive and responsive strategies to address these concerns.

My discussions with the Faculty Senate have been fruitful, paving the way for the incorporation of this initiative into the Fall 2026 academic calendar. The essence of this initiative is to ensure students have the opportunity to focus on self-care, dedicating a day solely to their mental and emotional well-being. Despite our semester breaks, we often find ourselves encumbered with various responsibilities, underscoring the need for scheduled moments of reflection and self-care.

Looking ahead, I am hopeful that we can expand this initiative to include 2-3 Wellness Days per semester. Such an expansion would not only benefit UNCG but also set a precedent for our sister institutions, fostering a culture of open, healthy dialogue about mental health and inspiring significant, positive change across our academic communities.

How is your SGA administration/school currently working on attending to the mental health of students?

The Quality Enhancement Plan at UNC-Greensboro for this year prioritizes student well-being, and our Student Government Association (SGA) has been actively involved in reflecting this initiative. We commenced the year with a Suicide Awareness Tabling event, which served as the launching point for our campus-wide survey aimed at identifying student well-being issues. The data collected from this survey was instrumental in advocating for the importance of Wellness Days to faculty members. Collaborating closely with the Counseling and Wellness Center, our SGA organized a Wellness Rooms event, providing students with spaces to destress before finals. This event successfully encouraged students to take a break and garnered significant participation, with over 100 students in attendance.

Building on these efforts, we have diligently pursued the implementation of Wellness Days, presenting our proposal to faculty members and securing substantial support since October. The goal is to integrate this initiative into the Fall 2026 academic calendar, facilitating further discussions on mental health across campus. Additionally, our SGA is actively represented on the Student Health Advisory Committee, with one member and two delegates. This involvement enables us to assess student concerns and advocate for mental well-being initiatives effectively.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership entails empathizing with causes greater than oneself, taking charge when necessary, and recognizing when to do so. It’s an ongoing journey of growth and self-discovery. This year, I’ve experienced profound personal growth, realizing the importance of driving causes with passion and understanding the attitudes of my campus community towards these issues. Leadership demands dedication and a commitment to serving the community. It’s not just about holding a title; true leadership is earned through continuous listening and understanding of the needs of those around you.

There may be nights when exhaustion sets in, but a good leader perseveres, knowing that their efforts will not cease until they witness tangible change. Effective leadership involves knowing when to listen and when to take action, setting a pace that inspires others to follow. A leader nurtures growth and fosters bonds within their organization, constantly reflecting on ways to make it more impactful. Ultimately, a noble leader prioritizes the importance of the cause over personal recognition.

We now live in a digital world, what do you think schools need to do to represent themselves online in 2023/2024?

Throughout my time as SGA President, I always emphasized that it is not the job of students to bring themselves to us, but rather it is our responsibility to bring ourselves to the students. With the emergence of social media, it is crucial that we produce content that reflects our current day and age. Our SGA has established a Public Relations team, overseen by our Director of Community Affairs, comprised of professional photographers, social media managers, and digital creators. This team works diligently to create new content every month, whether it be through videos, photoshoots, or flyers, aimed at capturing the students’ attention. Through these efforts, we have developed entertaining videos and concepts that not only convey important information but also attract students to engage with the SGA. It is imperative for every SGA to implement such initiatives.

Why do you think Watch The Yard is important to Black students and college culture?

Watch the Yard provides a platform for Black students to connect within our organizations and celebrate each other’s achievements. Especially in places where outlets highlighting Black excellence are scarce, which is disheartening considering the abundance of such accomplishments. However, Watch the Yard consistently fills this void by creating a space for recognition. Additionally, it offers us the opportunity to gain insights into how other organizations operate at different schools, serving as a source of inspiration and learning. These platforms play a crucial role in empowering students like myself, providing a platform to showcase our talents and reminding us that our efforts are valued and recognized. They serve as a beacon of encouragement for Black students, urging us to persevere despite the challenges we may face.

What do you plan on doing after graduation?

This coming fall, I intend to embark on my journey to law school, where I will pursue my dream of becoming an immigration lawyer. My aspiration is to serve as a staunch advocate for immigrant families, drawing from my own experiences to create pathways for others. Recognizing the lack of resources available to immigrants in the United States, it is imperative that we prioritize these communities. In my future career, I aim to prioritize service, as many communities often remain unnoticed and underserved. My ultimate goal is to give back to my community by establishing a comprehensive resource center for immigrants, offering support in areas such as healthcare, citizenship exam preparation, and childcare. Having experienced firsthand the challenges of navigating these systems during my upbringing, I am determined to ensure that others do not encounter the same obstacles.

We at Watch The Yard would like to commend Awa Mbai for her work as the SGA president of University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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