Busy Effecting Change: Niya Gray ’19 talks her passion for prioritizing diversity and inclusion on campus

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Niya Gray ‘19 keeps herself busy around campus as a member of BSO, AKA sorority, PEARL, National Pan-Hellenic Council, Student Assembly and SCOPE. COURTESY PHOTO / NIYA GRAY

Niya Gray ’19 likes to stay busy – and she certainly succeeds. Whether she’s juggling her fashion line, conducting meetings for the Black Student Organization or balancing on and off-campus academic endeavors, Gray has a packed schedule. But to her, it’s all worth it so that she can make the change she wants to see at the College of William and Mary.

Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, Gray wasn’t far away from the College. However, during her senior year of high school, her mind was far from the college application process. She was a recent survivor of a burn injury and was focused on recovery. When her mom pressured her to apply to the College, she agreed. When she got in, she was shocked and excited about the new opportunity.

“I really want this campus to make diversity and inclusion a priority as well as mental health,” Gray said. “I am a burn survivor. I am a part of the neurodiversity community and that is something that is lacking on this campus. I want to advocate for the communities that we might not see.”

When she got to campus, Gray dove into a STEM major, intending to follow a pre-medicine track. After a bad freshman advising experience, she went through a hard transition, juggling five prerequisite science classes at once. She sought out more supportive faculty, leading her to the track she is on today.

Now, Gray is an anthropology major with a minor in gender, sexuality and women’s studies. To her, anthropology is a way for her to study people and how they learn – which is what keeps her interested in her classes.

“It’s not just one anthropology class,” Gray said. “I’ve learned about bones, about Africa. I had a class called the Golden Age of Spain, [I’ve learned] about protests in Italy. There’s a culture and cuisine class where we learned about different cultural practices and nutritional anthropology. Although I am in one major, I am learning about so many different things. There’s also a biocultural perspective on health which goes really well with what I am trying to pursue. This was a better array of experiences and learning that I wouldn’t get in another major.”

Gray’s passion for her anthropology major was sparked by a class called African Ritual and Religious Practices taught by anthropology professor Brad Weiss. She took this course during her freshman year while still navigating a neuroscience major, and it gave her hope for another direction.

“This was the class that helped my decision of going into anthropology; this was my first professor that I’d taken in the major,” Gray said. “It was something different, a different thought process how different cultures experience life. A lot of the stuff I learn in anthropology I can apply to any field that I can go into because I’m learning about people.”

These skills are important for Gray who, despite her initial troubles with the neuroscience program, is still pursuing a pre-medicine track – just not at the College. Mostly on the weekends, she’s been working on online courses, which she then transfers to the College since they fail to count for her major or minor. She’s currently applying to graduate programs in physical therapy, and has found that many graduate schools will accept the credits and grades from her online work. Right now, she’s enrolled in one of her last two pre-med requirements: physics.

Outside of the classroom – when she’s not finishing up her online work – she’s plenty busy around campus. Over the last four years, she’s been involved with Students of the Caribbean, which is now defunct, and the Nu Chi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. She’s served as Student Assembly’s undersecretary of multicultural affairs, the treasurer of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the 2017 co-director of Pearls of Great Price Mentorship Program with AKA, secretary of SCOPE (STEM Created Opportunities to Promote Empowerment) and the president of the BSO. She also worked as a student assistant at the Dean of Students Office during her junior year.

Through these organizations, she plans events, tutors students at Williamsburg-James City County’s Berkeley Middle School and runs social media for the Center for Student Diversity.

“I would start my day off with work for the CSD, making sure that advertisements and [social media] posts are done, that any events that need to be advertised are out,” Gray said. “If it’s a Tuesday, I would do the BSO meeting agenda, know what we’re talking about, check all of the group messages – the GroupMe’s – make sure that I haven’t missed anything, go to class and then meetings on meetings. NPHC meetings, AKA meetings.”

As president of the BSO, Gray has planned a lot of events that she is proud of. She has also represented her organization in meetings with College President Katherine Rowe, where she said she got to voice a lot of concerns that she has heard from other students. She said that out of all of the events, her favorite was last year’s Founders Celebration Dinner.

“It was something new that I decided to do,” Gray said. “It was during the 50th [anniversary] of African-American students in residence and we decided to do a founder’s celebration dinner for BSO for past presidents and the founding presidents, [Warren Buck M.S. ’70 Ph.D. ’76] that was really cool and we had him come out. There were a lot of Board of Visitors members that were there, and [Lynn Briley ’71, Karen Ely ’71 and Janet Brown Strafer ’71 M.Ed. ’77]. It was a room full of legacies, it was something that was really special that this campus hasn’t seen before.”

Gray said that while she enjoys being busy, the reason behind all she does is deeper.

“I think I see the potential on this campus because I see so many activist students and students that want to effect change on this campus, not just in diversity and inclusion,” Gray said. “I see the opportunity that we have to effect change. I want to see that change while I am here. I don’t want to leave this college regretting that I didn’t do anything to make a change. I see the potential on this campus to make it better for future students.”

This passion for effecting change also led Gray to launch her own fashion line called “Gray Expectation: Defining Your Own Expectation.” She said it’s still in the starting phase, but she has big plans for its growth.

“I wanted a clothing line that celebrates identity and self-happiness and self-awareness,” Gray said. “My shirts say emotional and cultural things [about] reclaiming identity, one’s own consciousness and awareness.”

The shirts she sells have slogans like “Never Stop Fighting” and “Finding Myself, Healing Myself, Loving Myself.” Right now, she’s selling through a third party, but she’s hoping to raise enough to switch manufacturers and have her own logo on the tags. And while she’s not sure how graduate school will affect the company, she’s willing to see where it goes.

“I am going to continue with it,” Gray said. “I am a big person who starts projects and just see where they go. It’s just something that I thought was really cool and that is needed, some positive affirmations on a shirt. It creates a chain of happiness. When someone reads it, they are getting that positive affirmation that someone gets when wearing it.”