Jayla Hill wants to “burn down higher ed as it stands, and rebuild it” after she graduates from Northern Illinois University in May 2021.
“I’m not quite sure how to do that yet, but it really is my ultimate goal,” said Hill, a second-year, 4.0 student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs M.S.Ed. program.
If this statement seems “impressive beyond her years” — as Director of NIU Housing and Residential Services Dan Pedersen puts it — you should know she’s already well on her way.
This month, Hill was named a Graduate Student Rising Star by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) for her work as a Graduate Residence Hall Director in NIU’s New Hall. She is the second consecutive Huskie to win this distinction.
“Jayla made it back-to-back years for us,” said Pedersen, who nominated Hill for the award with Associate Director of Residential Life Lauren Teso-Warner. “I don’t know if it’s unprecedented, but that typically doesn’t happen.”
NASPA’s sprawling Region IV-East, in which NIU is situated, serves seven states in the Upper Midwest, as well as Ontario, Canada. What makes Hill’s accomplishment even more impressive, her nominators say, is the fact that she was considered in a pool shared by such institutions as Ball State, Bowling Green and Miami universities — renowned for their graduate programs in student personnel and higher education.
Since the fall of 2019, Hill has been hard at work directing community advisors at New Hall, which has become NIU’s busiest complex during the pandemic — also completing an internship at Barnard College in New York this summer. She was afire with big ambitions from her first month on campus, launching a timely initiative for community advisors of color.
“Jayla approached me last year wanting to start an affinity group for Black and Brown community advisors — just to have a space where the staff really felt like they could authentically be themselves and have support, encouragement, and a place for professional development within their roles,” said Teso-Warner. “And I thought that was great, especially a first-year GA wanting to take that on. And she took it on and has done amazing with it. The staff who’ve been part of it have really enjoyed having that opportunity.”
“We have to keep this going. She’s created a sustainable model that now our undergraduate student staff expect to be in place,” Pedersen agreed. “I couldn’t be any prouder of her, and I’m glad it happened when it did.”
So, before she’ll even graduate with her master’s degree, Hill will have already left a legacy for others — begun before a year that brought the extra distress of continuing injustice against people of color on top of a public-health crisis.
“I really understand a lot of what our students go through, because I was that student — a first-generation from the South Side of Chicago and a low-income, single-parent home — I checked all of the boxes,” Hill said. “As a queer woman of color, life is kind of set up for me to fail in every way, systemically speaking.”
Growing up, Hill’s earliest career aspiration was to become president of the United States, “but then I got older and realized this country was a mess — maybe I don’t want all of this, just a piece.” She had become interested in mental health by the time she reached high school, and enrolled at Marquette University in Milwaukee as a psychology major. Later, she picked up a second major in writing-intensive English, on top of working three jobs as an undergraduate.
A McNair Scholar from her junior to senior year, Hill wrote research on the self-harming effects of the “strong Black woman” stereotype narrative on the ways in which women of color perceive themselves. Through her scholarship and personal experiences, she discovered college is a time when young Black women can “go through a lot of different conflicts.”
“I’ll never forget, I actually had a resident look me in my face and call me ‘ghetto’ when I first met her,” said Hill, who became a residence advisor at Marquette in her sophomore year. “This was my first experience being an RA, it was my first year — this was my first week on the job.”
Still, her flame was undimmed. The following year, Hill helped spearhead an affinity group at Marquette for Black and Brown RAs, a frontrunner to her current space at NIU. She credits a Marquette residence hall director who attended NIU with supporting her, stoking her vision to support students of color, and ultimately encouraging her on a path to graduate school and a career in higher education.
“The HESA program faculty are just delighted that Jayla’s good work is being recognized,” said Carrie Kortegast, Ph.D., a professor in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program. “Jayla is a thoughtful student who raises critical questions about how higher education can better support college students. I know she will continue to be a strong advocate for students after she graduates from our program.”
Hill is quick to point the spotlight back to her mentors and Huskie colleagues. As she takes her degree into the professional realm, systemic justice and student service remain at the fore of her focus. Affinity groups are just the beginning of what underserved undergrads deserve, she says.
“I want to open that door even wider for more students who look like me — to come from my background and really thrive. There are so many systemic things that stand in their way,” she said. “To have these opportunities to reach back and pull those students up, it just means the world to me.”