Diversity and inclusion advocate Assata Davis is among 40 U.S. residents to receive the postgraduate honor
By Margaret McHugh
Sparked in middle school at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, Assata Davis’s passion for racial and social justice continued to grow at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s Honors College, where she thrived as an academic standout and student leader.
In the summer of 2020, as protests spread globally following the murder by police of George Floyd, Davis SAS’21 was spurred to activism once again. This time she turned her attention to concerns over diversity, equity, and inclusion in some of her honors classes.
Along with two other students, Davis gathered testimony, detailed issues they said needed to be addressed, proposed solutions, and worked with college administrators through the 2020-21 academic year. Their True Inclusion initiative resulted in significant curriculum changes, including a required cross-cultural competency course for all Honors College students and increased enrollment of Black students.
“Assata was one of the most significant student leaders at Rutgers in years, and left a tremendous legacy here,” says Anne Wallen, director of the Office of Distinguished Fellowships at Rutgers.
Davis was recently named a 2023 Marshall Scholar, one of only 40 U.S. residents to receive the postgraduate honor. Winners can pursue advanced degrees for two years at the United Kingdom university of their choice. The Marshall Scholarship, marking its 70th anniversary in 2023, covers recipients’ tuition, books, travel, and living expenses.
“It’s so exciting! We are immensely proud of Assata,” Wallen says. Davis is the third Rutgers University graduate to receive the highly competitive Marshall Scholarship. “It demonstrates the caliber of our students and our undergraduate programs,” Wallen says.
Davis majored in political science and double-minored in Spanish and Arabic at the School of Arts and Sciences. She plans to study strategic communications at the London School of Economics and political science and refugee and forced migration studies at Oxford University.
The 2021 graduate says she feels strongly about sharing marginalized people’s experiences. “I see my career in storytelling and creating projects like True Inclusion to work towards social justice,” says Davis, who is currently on another prestigious scholarship through the Fulbright Program, working as an English language teaching assistant in Cali, Colombia.
Davis traces the start of her social justice awareness to the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old, when she was in middle school. The shooter’s acquittal in 2013 sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I felt so confused and sad. This could easily have been one of my family members,” she recalls. “People around me were either excusing his death or just going on like normal. I felt I had to start the conversation, so I did.” Assata says she learned to overcome pain by reclaiming and challenging narratives through writing and speaking.
As a Rutgers student, Davis volunteered at a men’s youth correctional facility, tutoring inmates to earn their GED diplomas. She took on leadership roles in the Rutgers chapters of the Women’s International and Multicultural Association and the National Black Law Students Association-Pre Law Division.
Davis met Glenda Hatchett, a social justice lawyer, former judge, and television personality, at a National Black Law Students Association-Pre Law Division conference and became the first undergraduate to intern with Hatchett’s national law firm. She advocated for the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2018, legislation to protect Black women during pregnancy. She also learned to write speeches about police misconduct cases during her internship.
“There was a huge focus on social justice work and storytelling as a tool to change people’s lives, and I thought, this is what I want to do,” she says.
Davis intended to spend her entire junior year studying abroad, first in Spain and then France, but the pandemic cut her experience short. She returned home to Roswell, Georgia, where she completed the balance of her undergraduate studies online and lived with her parents, both Rutgers graduates.
She interned for the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) while at home, inspired by her family’s experiences migrating to the U.S. from the Caribbean.
Davis says she realized that much of the work needed around racial justice extends to immigrant rights. She learned about “the unique challenges and low accessibility for languages spoken by Black immigrants, such as Haitian Creole,” she says. “Oftentimes the narrative around immigration doesn’t include families that look like mine. I realized my voice is needed here.”
She became an Immigrant Justice Corps Community fellow with the New York City-based nonprofit UnLocal, Inc. Davis is accredited by the Department of Justice to represent clients in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cases. Under attorney supervision, Davis helps people with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), work permit renewals, and applications for permanent residency in the U.S.
“Few students combine the intellectual strength and curiosity with an idealism and warmth in the way Assata does,” Wallen says. “She has an incredibly bright future wherever her commitment to social justice may lead her.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.