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Myesha Jemison '18 brings life of leadership experience to USG Presidency

On Friday, Dec. 9, Myesha Jemison ’18 secured the majority of votes to become the Undergraduate Student Government president-elect. When she begins her term in February, Jemison will be the University’s first Black female USG president. It’s a victory that is both well-deserved and exciting, according to Jemison’s friends and University faculty members, who say that the leadership and skills she’s developed throughout her life prepared her for this role.

Jemison was born and raised in Virginia Beach, Va., in a predominantly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Her hometown environment not only allowed her to practice and become comfortable with the Spanish language — Jemison is now a Spanish and Portuguese concentrator — but it also gave her a chance to see the potential her neighborhood had in developing educational resources. According to Jemison, the quality of education in Virginia Beach neighborhoods, such as the structure of schools and how teachers interact with their students, depends on the quality of life people have in those neighborhoods. Consequently, lower quality schools correlate to negative stereotypes surrounding the students who attend.

Jemison attended one such lower quality school, but soon moved to a gifted school in the third grade. She then won a scholarship to attend the local private school, which she attended for a year before moving to the Bayside High School Health Sciences Academy, a magnet school where Jemison developed her love for research and medical studies. She was involved in a variety of activities, including becoming captain of the basketball team, a role that altered her understanding of leadership.

“Leadership isn’t just a position that you fill, but more so the way you live your life, and navigate throughout the world,” Jemison said. “Something that my coach told me when he talked to us about why he chose myself and another senior to be captain, was that it wasn’t necessarily what I said but what I did and how I responded to what he said.”

She added that when given a task by her coach, as well as in other situations, she learned to lead by example while also showing love for the people that she led.

Jemison considered applying to the University after winning the Princeton Book Award, which led her to do more research on the University. At the time, the only other Ivy League schools she knew of were Harvard and Yale. Another reason she applied was that a teacher for her AP U.S. History class believed her to be an “Ivy League girl” and encouraged her to apply to schools that most of her classmates were not applying to.

“I appreciated that I had a teacher who saw potential in me. For a teacher to push you on what you’re thinking of for your college goals was really great,” Jemison said.

Jemison went on to participate in the Freshman Scholars Institute, the University’s summer program that allows incoming students to “experience the intellectual, co-curricular, and social life at Princeton,” according to its website.

She noted that the program helped her immensely in preparing her for the academic workload of the University.

“FSI prepared me to teach myself things, and making sure I was really proactive about asking questions, and understanding that you don’t have to have all the answers. Another thing about FSI is that it really allows you to establish a strong network of friends,” she said, noting that her closest friends today are those she met through the program.

Soraya Morales Nuñez ’18 was roommates with Jemison during the program and described her as a loving friend and compassionate person. When Nuñez had a family emergency during freshman year, Jemison put her in contact with the appropriate University administrators so that she could receive enough funds to go home. Nuñez also noted that Jemison is largely quiet and humble in what she does and the impact she has, so much so that she didn’t know Jemison was running for USG president until the candidates were announced.

Jemison said she joined USG her sophomore year for a variety of reasons. While she was looking for activities at the University, she was also looking for opportunities to make an impact and to have the opportunity to work with both students and administrators.

“Something that I decided that I wanted to do throughout freshman and sophomore year and that I was already trying to do was listening to what students wanted out of their Princeton experience,” Jemison said. “A lot of times, people are like, ‘You should be grateful you go to Princeton’, and we definitely are grateful, but because we love the school, we have to challenge it sometimes, so that it continues to be such a great institution. To be a place where students can call home.”

She added that through her USG presidency, she hopes to create change on campus and serve as a link between students and administrators when the latter are not accessible.

“Something that I hope came across in my platform was that the things I was advocating for were things that I wanted out of Princeton, but were more so things that students have repeatedly said they want out of the University. I think it’s a great opportunity to help make that happen, but also to establish long-lasting relationships with students and administrators to create an environment where change can readily occur on campus,” she added. She said that one of the aspects of her platform she is most excited about is the creation of a social action committee, which will create an opportunity for students to not only discuss issues they care about, but also to branch out of the Orange Bubble, so that students can stay engaged with events that happen outside of campus.

“I think that’s something that should be continued not only now in my time at Princeton, but beyond that,” she said.

Samuel Vilchez Santiago ’19 said he is most excited about solving inequity issues on campus during Jemison's presidency and giving a voice to student minority groups who feel underrepresented in the University’s current climate. He added that Jemison exemplifies the skills and values a leader requires, and that one thing she makes people feel welcome every day, in every interaction. Santiago said that another part of what makes Jemison an effective leader is that she genuinely takes interest in and helps others, for example, in helping him figure out his concentration. He was thrilled with Jemison’s election win, and is excited to see her continue to break barriers.

Jemison described finding out about her victory as a very emotional experience. She said that she called her mom, who was probably more excited than she was. She was excited to have won, but that she was even more excited for the initiatives that would be implemented and the voices that would be heard under her governance. 

Jemison has been involved in a number of activities and communities on campus, and she added that she’s been informed of the needs and wants of a variety of students from leadership roles in Princeton Caribbean Connection, Community House, and the Diversity & Equity Committee.

She also currently serves as a Residential College Advisor in Forbes College, a role in which she has “gone above and beyond to foster an inclusive community,” according to Forbes Director of Student Life Mellisa Thompson in an emailed statement. She also noted that Jemison “has proven to be a thoughtful, caring and a supportive person for her zees,” adding that she is a role model to the University community.

Justine Levine, Director of Studies for Rockefeller College, shared a similar sentiment in an emailed statement, noting that Jemison “has always exhibited an altruistic spirit” and is an embodiment of the University’s informal motto, “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity."

Jemison has also served as the vice president of the University’s gospel choir, working closely with president Briana Payton ’17.

“Myesha has always had a sweet air about her. She genuinely cares about people in her life … and it’s just been great knowing her. It always brightens your day when you see her. She’s full of joy, and ever strong,” Payton said, noting that Jemison has joy in spite of challenges she has faced.

“She does so much on campus, and she maintains a kind of lightness about her even when she’s got literally the whole world on her back,” Payton said.

“It’s about time, and there’s no one else I’d rather have take that place.… I think Black women do so much, but I think so many times we’re not recognized for the work that we do, or for the way that we serve,” Payton said. "And for her to be in such a public platform of leadership is really great… for her to have a larger platform to say ‘This is what we can do’, not only for ourselves but for making the entire University community better. And so I think it’s absolutely fabulous that there’s a Black woman who is USG president. What can I say — it’s Black Girl Magic."

Jemison said she hopes to go into researching the intersection between science, technology, and society with regard to public health services. She is a Mellon Mays Fellow, which puts her on track to become a professor and, she hopes, to help others pursue research. She hopes to put this knowledge into working in foreign affairs.

Ultimately, in her USG presidency, Jemison aims to create initiatives that are effective, long-lasting, and what students want.