The Most Powerful Student on Campus Needs No Introduction
But you’ll remember her name anyway.
December 5, 2019
Jakiyah Bradley is not the sentimental type. When you’re the most powerful student on campus, you can’t let your emotions get in the way.
In her office in Kimmel, she spends about four hours a day seated in front of a white board that reads in big, blue letters, “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK” and “JAKIYAH BRADLEY, REMEMBER THE NAME.” She leads conversations with students experiencing food insecurity, as well as billionaire trustees who have never even heard the term. As the chair of student government, she is at the helm of up to seven meetings each week and is perhaps the only undergraduate who has the ear of President Andrew Hamilton.
The pressure of representing 50,000 students could easily get to her if she let it. She doesn’t.
Jakiyah has a quiet confidence about her. At most student government meetings in the GCASL Colloquium room, the Gallatin senior lets her vice chairs take the reins and lead the conversation. But she’s watching, listening and taking notes. And when it does come time for her to take the mic, the room snaps into attention.
“How’s everybody doing?” she said at the end of a recent Student Senators Council meeting, and the sleepy-eyed students looked up at her expectantly. “You guys are so quiet sometimes.”
CAS senior Kosar Kosar, Vice Chair of the SSC, led that two-hour meeting, but Jakiyah stayed past the end, discussing initiatives, taking questions and cleaning up leftover food and coffee cups until everyone else had left the room.
When she speaks, she speaks with intent — like she’s 10 steps ahead of you, already formulating ideas, making plans and back-up plans. But every sentence is followed by a slight giggle or a tilt of her head. She doesn’t dwell too much on her power. Really, she says, she was thrown into this without much preparation.
The first time I met Jakiyah was at by CHLOE. on Bleecker Street. She’s not completely vegan, and she doesn’t go there a lot, but the warm mac and cheese was calling her name that day. It was the first flurry of the season; a few snowflakes wet the top of her head as she came in from the cold. This is the girl who, as a sophomore, first brought the term food insecurity to the table at NYU. Now, it’s in the daily lexicon of university bigwigs like Hamilton and Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Marc Wais. Naturally, I was nervous to meet her.
“It’s so cold outside,” she said, greeting me with a smile and a hug. I was immediately put at ease.
As we stood in line waiting to order, we made some small-talk about food, and she revealed her enthusiasm for fries and the house-made chipotle aioli sauce at by CHLOE. She pulled up the leg of her jeans to reveal long, red socks with french fries drawn on them and laughed.
“I’m a big french fry person,” she said. We had found our first bit of common ground.
We settled at a table close to the middle of the restaurant — me with my sweet potato fries and Jakiyah with her mac and cheese — and talked about student leadership, family, NYU administrators and food insecurity.
“Food insecurity is a weird term. It’s a very technical term. But I experience it and I know a lot of other students experience it,” she said. “There were times where I was like ‘Oh, I’ll just skip this meal because I’m running low on cash or funds for the week or the month.’”
Advocating for the issue, however, wasn’t something Jakiyah had planned on. During a presentation for NYU Leadership Fellows as a sophomore, she was tasked with creating a project about anything she wanted. After disagreeing on idea after idea, her group settled on food insecurity. She did some research and, in collaboration with Share Meals founder Jon Chin, hosted an open forum about food insecurity on campus.
The next year, she became an instrumental member of NYU’s Food Insecurity Working Group and the Senator at-Large for students experiencing food insecurity. She gathered data and stories from students and used her position to appeal to administrators like Wais, whom she met with and emailed frequently.
“I think the Food Insecurity Working Group last year was the moment where I was like ‘I just need to start telling administrators specifically what students feel,’” she said.
Jakiyah’s work with the group eventually led to the creation of the Courtesy Meals Program in 2016, which served nearly 2,000 people in 2018.
She sees the role of student government chair as a liaison between students and university administration, a delicate balance between activist and advocate. She knows who holds the power at NYU, and she knows how to appeal to them.
Very few students will ever come within inches of a member of NYU’s Board of Trustees, but Jakiyah has met with Chair William Berkley five times this semester. She told me about how she approaches her conversations with him — and those with the likes of Hamilton and Wais.
“You just have to explain things to them. They’re not students,” she said. “Also William Berkeley is like a billionaire. When I first talked about food insecurity with him, I couldn’t start on the level that I maybe start with students — because he’s a billionaire. So I had to back it up a little.”
“So how would you explain food insecurity on campus to William Berkeley?” I asked.
“I would say, ‘Alright, William,’” she chuckled. “‘Let’s look at the cost of tuition. It’s $75,000. Think about the average salary for a family of four. Think about how many years they would have to work just to pay one year of tuition. Think about how much people have to save to pay for one year of college. How much money do you think they have left over for things that are essential? Like rent, utilities, cell phone bills. Think about those things. If you were, you know, not a billionaire.’”
After a year of experience, she now navigates these conversations with ease. She knows what to say to make administrators act — and she’s not afraid to follow up when things don’t get done in a timely fashion.
“She’s very comfortable in any of those meetings,” SSC Vice Chair Kosar said. “Administrators respect her. I’m always in awe at the way she’s been able to navigate these spaces. She always has an agenda ready; she always has stuff to talk about.”
Though running from class to class, event to event, meeting to meeting constantly, Jakiyah is still on top of everything — with time to spare. She prioritizes sleep and school, even as calls, emails and messages are constantly rolling in.
“Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?” I asked her.
“Yeah,” she said. She paused for a few seconds. “Yeah.”
It’s been that way from middle school, she said.
“I was always very serious about school,” Jakiyah said. “I don’t know where I got it from. Whenever I was given a task, I wanted to be really good at it.”
She’s driven by a sense of curiosity and the desire to do all she can for the people that look to her for answers. It hasn’t always been 50,000, but the intensity of her work doesn’t change her priorities.
“When I was younger I would talk to my grandma a lot,” she said. “My grandparents didn’t get past maybe elementary school. My grandmother would say, ‘If you know more, maybe you’ll do more.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, well I want to do something.’”
And Jakiyah never slips. “I don’t miss classes,” she said. “I think I missed one this semester.”
It’s a balancing act that’s hard to fathom, but according to her friends and coworkers, she makes it seem easy. She considers the effectiveness of everything she does, and every action she takes is to maximize progress for those she represents — including me, you (probably) and the thousands of NYU students spread across the world. And when she sets out to get something done, her first instinct isn’t to speak.
When I was talking to her, she listened intently, breaking focus only once because I insisted she not neglect her mac and cheese.
“It’s just not effective to always be the one who’s talking,” she said.
Her humility doesn’t stop her from pushing people to make change, but it does ease the tension that comes with the job of a student leader.
“The effect it has on members of student government has trickled down,” Kosar said. “The comfortable feelings you have with her — anyone can meet with her, anyone can talk to her about anything. Can quell any angry discourse or bad feelings. When you talk to her, you feel comfortable and feel like you’re being heard.”
Kosar describes Jakiyah’s impact as “generational.”
As much of a natural as she seems, Jakiyah says her leadership skills developed over time.
“I wasn’t raised to take up a lot of space,” she said. “I think that’s based on race and gender and all those other social constructs. Some people do naturally take up a lot of space and don’t realize it, and I think for me it was the opposite. I didn’t take up enough space and I had to realize that.”
When she speaks, she’s using her voice for something — or someone. She never wants to stop being an advocate. Her next step is taking the LSAT, applying to law school and working as a public defender.
But Jakiyah lives her life in phases. She compartmentalizes like a well-adjusted grown-up and takes challenges as they come to her. She works in the here and now, and in this moment, she’s the most influential undergraduate at NYU. Her work is to serve those who need her the most.
“It’s always about helping your community. And if you’re not doing that, what are you doing?”
Email Sakshi Venkatraman
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