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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

'I'm Excited to See What the Future Holds.' MLK Legacy Winner Talks Leadership and Community

Nailah DuBose smiles for a portrait on Dexter Lawn. She is wearing a white headband and a black hoodie.
Written By Gabby Ferreira // Photos by Joe Johnston and Dylan Head

At Cal Poly’s annual MLK Jr. Legacy Event last month, a student won the MLK Legacy Award for the second time ever. Nailah DuBose, a second-year psychology major, co-accepted the award with Professor Michael Whitt. DuBose is co-president of the Black Student Union (BSU), a volunteer trainer with Cal Poly Athletics, a recipient of the Black Student Scholarship and heavily involved with the Black Academic Excellence Center. She recently sat down with Cal Poly News to discuss her reaction to receiving the award, her leadership on campus and her dreams for the future.

How does it feel to be receiving this award? 

Nailah DuBose, left, poses with Professor Michael Whitt, right, as they hold their awards. Both are wearing navy blazers and white shirts.
MLK Legacy Award honorees Nailah DuBose and Michael Whitt smile at the MLK Jr. Legacy Event in January.

It’s honestly such an honor that my classmates, peers and friends would even consider me to be someone who could be adjacent to the legacy that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left. I had no idea ahead of time and I cried. I couldn’t believe it! It's an honor.

Chloe Wardrick (the first student to win this award) texted me to say congratulations and I was like, “I’m just following in your footsteps. You laid it all out for us!” Chloe Wardrick has been like a mentor and big sister to me. I often like to say that she ran so I could walk. She worked incredibly hard last year as BSU President and inspired me to be a BSU leader.

How did you get involved in BSU and in leadership, and what have you learned?

The summer before I came to Cal Poly, I did a lot of research on resources offered to Black-identifying students. At the club showcase during the Week of Welcome, my two friends and I were intentional about finding the BSU booth because we wanted to make sure that we connected with our community on campus. 

BSU and the Black Academic Excellence Center (BAEC) played an integral role in shaping the memories and friends I made during my first year. Chloe Wardrick encouraged me to join the board, so I did, and it has easily been one of the best decisions that I ever made. Being in this role has taught me so much about myself and what it means to be a people leader.

Nailah DuBose gives a speech at a wooden podium at the MLK Jr. Legacy Event.
Nailah DuBose gives a speech while accepting her award at the MLK Jr. Legacy Event.

I knew I wanted to offer those same opportunities to the next set of students coming to campus — and even those we have on campus now. A lot of students don’t know about the resources out there for us Black scholars and that should be our goal: for BSU be the central hub.

One essential lesson that I've learned in this role is that communication —especially effective communication — is key. Not everybody communicates like you or leads like you. Learning the specific niches of the team members has been one of the most valuable lessons.

Tell me about your studies. What drives you?

I’ve known I wanted to be a doctor since the third grade. I attended the Rex and Margaret Fortune Early College High School in Sacramento, which is focused on closing the African American achievement gap, and we had the opportunity to take college courses. I graduated with two associate’s degrees. The experience really helped me to understand what I want my future career to be like.

I also have a Black female pediatrician. She's my own superhero in a way that really drives my studies and my desire to be a doctor.

I’m majoring in psychology because I figured that to be the best doctor, you need to understand the human mind, why certain responses are coming up and why the patient is maybe not communicating that much about their care or illnesses or pain. When a patient can see the human in you and can see that you’re very empathetic toward them, they’ll trust you more and continue to foster that healthy doctor-patient relationship.

I’m also a volunteer student athletic trainer. I assist with preparing for games, treatments, tapings and just helping out around the training room. This quarter, I’m helping with women’s basketball and men’s basketball. I grew up playing basketball, but I knew I didn’t want to go collegiate or pro, so this is a way I can stay involved.

I want to become a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon and hopefully work in the NBA because there’s not a lot of women — particularly Black women — in that field, and I love the game. Being around it every day and getting paid to do it? That’s so fun!

Professor Camille O'Bryant, left, and Nailah DuBose share the stage at the MLK Jr. Legacy Event.
Professor Camille O'Bryant and Nailah DuBose smile as she accepts her award at the MLK Jr. Legacy Event in January.

You’ve also written and published a few books. Could you talk about that?

During the pandemic, my mom told me and my little sister, “This is the perfect time for you guys to do what you’ve been wanting to do.” For us, that was writing a book. We’d been thinking about it for a few years at that point, we just never had time. We sat down and we wrote it together and that became "Above All Things,” a devotional book.

For our second book, we got a cohort of six girls together — some were classmates, one of them was my best friend Sierra — and we helped them through the process of writing and publishing what became “Surviving Our New Normal,” a memoir of how we are thriving in the pandemic. We wrote this book because when the pandemic came, chaos came, and everybody was wondering how to operate in our new normal. We wanted to bring some young voices to the stage and say, “This is how we’re thriving and changing the narrative and the language surrounding the pandemic.” The pandemic didn’t beat us; we’re going to beat it.

I understand you have a hair braiding service too. Can you talk about how that started?

Growing up, my mom was a licensed cosmetologist for over 20 years, and she had a salon in our house at one point. I loved seeing the way she’d make women feel so beautiful after getting their hair done and the laughter and joy throughout the house. I loved seeing my mom be so creative and in her element.

That’s something that’s lived in and was instilled in me and I thought, “OK, I’m going to learn how to braid.” It started because I wanted to take braiding mine and my sister’s hair off my mom’s plate, but by the time I was 16, I was braiding other friends’ hair.

When I went to college, I thought I’d bring it here because I know we don’t have any braiders nearby. I wasn’t expecting it to blow up the way it did. I thought it was going to be really small, just a few friends. I’ve been running it since my freshman year and if I had to scale it, I’m probably doing two or three clients a week. So that’s about 20 to 30 clients a quarter.

Music and water is key to a good braiding session, and I’m friends with a lot of my clients so we’ll talk. It’s always good vibes.

In the time you’ve been at Cal Poly, how have you seen things shift in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion? What makes you optimistic?

I definitely have seen things get better since my freshman year. I was telling my friends at the beginning of the quarter that I see more of us now than I did last year.

The way I feel the administration supports us as an organization and as Black-identifying students on campus and the scholarships that are being offered as well make me optimistic. My high school is a partner high school, which means students who apply for financial aid are given priority for scholarships. I feel that establishing partnerships with schools that have a predominantly Black student population is a great way to continue making Cal Poly more diverse and, in the process, help alleviate a common factor for a lot students of color who choose not to go to college: the financial burden.

I'm excited to see what the future holds and work with Cal Poly to make sure more Black students are coming here and know they belong here.

We went to the R.A.C.E. Matters SLO block party a few months ago because we wanted to be more involved in our community. We had a donation bucket out, and people kept coming by saying encouraging words, telling us how much they support us and want to help us. To see that we have the support not just on campus but off campus as well really means a lot. It made me really optimistic, not only as a leader here but as a student.

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