On becoming a Hoo: Why Charlottesville’s best-known student activist said yes to UVA

CHS senior Zyahna Bryant, who famously started the petition to take down the Robert E. Lee statue, has been an activist since the age of 12. Photo courtesy subject. CHS senior Zyahna Bryant, who famously started the petition to take down the Robert E. Lee statue, has been an activist since the age of 12. Photo courtesy subject.

By Zyahna Bryant

Attending UVA in the fall is an opportunity for me to redefine what “home” looks and feels like. I initially did research about UVA when I was in 5th grade, and I knew then that that was where I wanted to go. It was not until 10th grade that I even considered other schools.

For many, UVA has always been the school that is right up the street, but out of reach. Young black students in this community have been sent the message that we aren’t good enough to be students on Grounds, but our neighborhoods are good enough to be invaded and taken over for the sake of student housing, and our time is good enough for underpaid labor to keep the institution running. For too long, the relationship between the university and the Charlottesville community has been beneficial solely to UVA. In order for there to be healing and reconciliation, that has to change.

I have learned that change will never come if we keep waiting for someone else to lead. I am looking forward to organizing with other great leaders on Grounds, and learning from some of the best scholars. I have had the privilege of working with students from groups like UVA Students United, PLUMAS, and the Black Student Alliance over the past few years, and they have taught me so much about what student activism looks like.

I think oftentimes, student activists and organizers miss out on the opportunity to actually be a student. For that reason, I will remain active in the Charlottesville community, but I am looking forward to a new learning environment where I can prioritize my role as a student. I hope that other local black and brown students begin to see home as a place where they can be more than just a number or a laborer, but also a leader. My goal is to help other hometown students see the university as a place where they belong.

There have recently been exciting efforts to make UVA more accessible for low-income and first-generation college students. Without these grant programs and scholarships, I would not be able to attend. I believe in lifting others as I climb, so I plan to use my position as a student to help raise awareness locally, about resources and programs that do exist within the Charlottesville and UVA communities for students like myself.

There has certainly been some progress, but we have a long way to go. The breaking down of these institutional barriers will take more than just a letter to local students, a cookout, or a symposium. The work to achieve racial justice and equity is long and hard, but we cannot wait another 200 years for the University of Virginia to get it right.

So while the university, like other universities all over the country, has much room for improvement, I believe that I made the right decision. I am excited to call UVA home for the next four years as a part of the bicentennial class of 2023.

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