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Student activists recognized with new award for creating change on campus

‘There were many tears’ among student honorees

Four Northwestern student activists thought they would graduate from the University this year having created lasting change on campus but would never be recognized for it. And they were OK with that. 

Described by their peers, supervisors and faculty as “humble,” “devoted,” “empathetic” and “diligent,” these students, now alumnae, helped push Northwestern and its community to be more inclusive, caring and just. They didn’t do it for praise. They did it to make the University a better place.  

But thanks to a new award — the Jazzy Johnson Waw-jashk Student Award from Northwestern’s Campus Inclusion and Community (CIC) in the Division of Student Affairs — the students received some much-deserved recognition for their dedication to the University. 

The four awardees — Kiana Jones, Kimani Isaac,  Antonette Narvasa and one student who preferred not to be identified — were recognized during surprise Zoom meetings in late June with members from CIC and their communities, those who nominated them and the award’s namesake Jazzy Johnson, a 2013 Northwestern alumna whose work and advocacy along with that of her peers helped start CIC. 

“People filled them with affirmation, and there were many tears,” said Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, acting chief of staff and executive director of CIC. “Many students said they never expected to be thanked for the work they did at Northwestern. They said they did it because they love their community and thought it was important; that people like them often get forgotten about, and they were ready to accept that, but this recognition was so moving.”

The annual honor — completing its first full award cycle this year — recognizes the work of student activists of all kinds. Faculty members, staff and fellow students nominated the students based on five tenets: commitment, courage, care, service and humility.

“The award is intended to reflect the fact that we are grounded in a rich history of student activism,” Brown-Henderson said. “This idea of memory also grounds us in remembering those who lived on this land before and those whose courageous acts of critical hope are the foundations on which CIC was built.”

The word “Waw-jashk” comes from the Potawatomi tribe, a nation whose land Northwestern’s Evanston campus and CIC’s office were built on. The direct translation of Waw-jashk means “muskrat,” which is a small, tenacious and humble creature, Brown-Henderson said. 

“Despite its size and seeming lack of strength, in numerous local indigenous tribes the muskrat is known for its courage and the crucial role that it played in the creation of these nations,” Brown-Henderson said.  

Each of this year’s Waw-jashk awardees impacted campus in very different ways, Brown-Henderson said, yet the theme of humility, courage and commitment to change over time was consistent among all four students. 

Kiana Jones
Kiana Jones

Kiana Jones, a 2020 anthropology and global health studies graduate, dedicated her intelligence and leadership to ensuring Northwestern listens to and adequately supports Black students, said her nominator Daviree Velazquez Phillip, director of Multicultural Student Affairs (MSA).

Jones worked on the Black House Renovation Committee and was “one of the powerhouses” behind programming such as lock-ins, spring break trips and parking lot parties for Northwestern’s premier Black student alliance For Members Only (FMO). Often called upon by University leadership to provide insight and honesty regarding the experiences of her peers, Jones has contributed to the healing of student groups, the relationship between students and administrators and the relationship between students, administrators and alumni, Velazquez Phillip said. 

“Similar to the muskrat, Kiana has contributed to societal change at a great cost,” Velazquez Phillip said in the nomination form. “Her time, energy, labor and so much more has allowed Northwestern to become a more inclusive place. Many do not know the amount of time and care Kiana has given, because she does it quietly and humbly. Kiana makes people feel seen, cared for, understood and supported while lovingly holding them accountable to be the people they want to be.”

Kimani Isaac
Kimani Isaac

Kimani Isaac, a 2020 learning and organizational change graduate, was a “social-justice change agent” who took on several advocacy efforts around academic affordability, support for Black students, first-generation, low-income students, and queer and transgender students, said her nominator Kourtney Cockrell, director of Student Enrichment Services (SES).

Isaac helped support first-year Northwestern students by becoming a Compass mentor and member of the Student Academic Workshop (SAW), a three-week program designed to equip students with the tools to thrive at Northwestern. As an active member of ASG, Isaac spearheaded course affordability efforts that led to the creation of Books for Cats, which offers eligible, first-year students the opportunity to borrow course materials. 

Isaac also was involved in various cultural and identity-based groups such as FMO and Quest+. She served as a student panelist and speaker at several high-level Alumni Relations and Development events, including the We Will events on campus and in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she advocated for greater support for first-generation and low-income students and the work of CIC more broadly.

“Kimani demonstrates all of the core values of the Waw-jashk awards, starting with the commitment and courage to advocate for marginalized communities throughout their time at Northwestern,” Cockrell said. “During events, I could always count on Kimani to connect with a student who might be alone or hesitant to engage. Kimani has an uncanny ability to make others feel comfortable and open up.”

Antonette Narvasa
Antonette Narvasa

Antonette Narvasa, a 2020 industrial engineering graduate, contributed tremendously to the Northwestern community as an office assistant and student supervisor in MSA, counselor of SAW, InclusionNU Fund Board member, treasurer and president of Kaibigan, the Philippine-American Student Association, treasurer of Quest Scholars Network and a member of the JubilAsian planning committee, said her nominator Robert Brown, director of Social Justice Education.

As a SAW counselor, Narvasa was responsible for individually supporting 10 first-generation, low-income first-year students in their transition to Northwestern. She enforced program rules and held students accountable in meeting program expectations, while also demonstrating compassion and empathy to build trust with students as they navigated their transition away from home. 

Narvasa is regarded as one of the best student organization treasurers her Kaibigan advisors have worked with, Brown said, and she was extremely organized and responsible. 

“Antonette Narvasa has been one of the most impressive undergraduates I have worked with,” Brown said in his nomination form. “She truly cares about the well-being of those she encounters and the world around her. These qualities shine through in her ability to mentor younger students, serve as an educator and engage her communities.”

The awardees received an engraved box made of birch, which is a resilient and flexible building material for many Native communities, said Briana Newkirk, an administrative assistant at CIC. The box was filled with a muskrat postcard and four sacred medicines: sage, tobacco, sweetgrass and cedar. The teachings of these medicines come from the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes Region, Newkirk said, and were shared with CIC by the American Indian Health Services of Chicago.

“We wanted to give them something physical as a thank you, but it was intended to send a message that you gave two, three, four years to this University, made it better, and now you can rest and heal,” Newkirk said.

 The Jazzy Johnson Waw-jashk awards, which are not limited to just graduating students, will be given every year during spring quarter.