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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 15, 2024

Meet this year’s recipients of the Presidential Award for Civic Life

A profile on the Jumbos who embody civic engagement at Tufts and beyond.

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Alex Dingle and Adrian Huq, two winners of the Presidential Award for Civic Life, are pictured.

Each year, Tufts University grants the Presidential Award for Civic Life to students who demonstrate both academic excellence and civic impact. Awarded to undergraduate and graduate students, the award constitutes the highest recognition for service, leadership and civic engagement at Tufts.

This year, 14 students — seven undergraduates and seven graduate students — will receive the award, each of whom has engaged in a wide variety of community-oriented projects during their time on campus. The Daily spoke to five of the awardees about their civic involvement.

To Saffiyah Coker, a senior studying international relations and economics, civic life comes from applying academic learnings off campus and into the world.

“To me, civic life means taking the things that I learn in school, like in class, and then trying to contextualize them in my surrounding environment,” Coker said.

Civic engagement has been a large part of Coker’s time at Tufts. Some of her notable experiences include being a Tisch Scholar, working in the Office of Campus Life, working with the Africana Center and volunteering at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. Coker will also be delivering the Wendell Phillips Address at the Class of 2024’s Baccalaureate Ceremony.

Alex Dingle, a senior studying international relations and Middle Eastern studies, felt similarly.

“Focusing on civic life is trying to make sure that everybody feels aware of their positionality and understanding within the role of civic community,” Dingle said.

Dingle has been involved with political and humanitarian groups on and off campus. On the political front, she has participated in the Middle East Research Group and worked for the Iowa Democratic Party. She has also done humanitarian work in India, Jordan and Greece.

Both Dingle and Coker will continue to work internationally as part of their civic engagement.

Coker has roots in several parts of the world and will be moving to Indonesia after graduation.

“I have always had a very global perspective on life. My dad's from Gambia and my mom's side of the family is from Jamaica, so I’ve always had a very outside-of-the-United States perspective,” Coker said. “After graduation, I’m moving to Indonesia for 13 months with this program called Luce Scholars.”

Through the Tisch College program, now called Civic Semester, Dingle had the opportunity to  live in India.

“It was an incredible experience, if not the most formative experience of my life,” Dingle said. “I lived in India for seven and a half months. I worked with Teach for India there at a school. … It really taught me how impactful education is, and the importance of being on the ground and learning directly from my students and seeing things from their perspective.”

Dingle has also worked with refugee children in Greece and studied abroad in Jordan for a year. After graduation, she will return to Jordan and then go to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

“I have received the Projects for Peace grant at Tisch College to go work in Jordan at the same organization that I volunteered with when I studied abroad there,” Dingle said. “In August of this year, I was accepted to a fellowship called the Via Global Community Fellowship. I will be living in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a year, and I will be working with students from Myanmar, with Parami University.

There is also plenty of civic engagement on and around Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus. Wanci Nana, a senior studying biopsychology, spoke to the importance of local engagement.

“I’ve been involved in a number of different things because I love personal development,” Nana said. “I love community development.”

Nana engaged in a wide variety of extracurriculars while at Tufts, notably the Black Men’s Group and the Tufts Community Union Senate. Nana is also an Interfaith Ambassador, working with the University Chaplaincy to design programming for students of varying faith backgrounds.

“[The Chaplaincy has] been a large part of my experience here at Tufts: working with the chaplaincy under Elyse Winger with a group of students from different faith backgrounds,” Nana said. “Working with the different chaplains that are a part of the chaplaincy, and creating programs, and putting forward initiatives [and] hosting panels.”

ShaSha Kingston, a senior studying biology, psychology and environmental studies, is similarly involved on Tufts’ campus. She is very engaged with environmental activism, working as a Sustainable Core Fellow and serves on the board of two environmental nonprofits. At Tufts Kingston co-created three new sustainability programs through the Office of Sustainability.

“Off campus, I’m on the board of two different nonprofits. The first is called Our Climate Common … the whole mission is to foster the building of relationships across societal divides [to] move toward a more sustainable future together,” Kingston said. “And then the other nonprofit is called BREN, which is the Boise River Enhancement Network. This is based in my hometown, and it’s a very similar organization to the Mystic River Watershed Association here where they help with land stewardship.”

Adrian Huq, a senior studying applied environmental studies, spoke to the power of engaging with one’s local communities.

“I would say active citizenship is about learning the local politics around you,” Huq said.

For Huq, local includes Tufts as well their home community of New Haven, Conn. Huq co-founded the Youth Action Team under the New Haven Climate Movement organization and has also spearheaded sustainable efforts on Tufts’ campus as a Sustainable Core Fellow.

“With [the] New Haven Climate Movement, we’re very local-focused. We have a pretty central focus on targeting New Haven City Hall and the New Haven Board of Education,” Huq said. “Through that, I was able to learn a lot more about local politics and the local governing structures. So, I feel like active citizenship is about being informed about what’s going on in your city in your state, and then showing up to make your demands heard.”

The awardees felt that Tufts’ campus is largely civically minded with peers and community members lending themselves to a greater sense of active citizenship.

“Tufts is a student body full of incredible students doing work focused on civic engagement, and I am constantly amazed by my peers, and my friends and my faculty who are really doing such incredible work across disciplines to further our community’s understanding of civic engagement and commitment to civic engagement,” Dingle said.

Nana and Huq shared Dingle’s sentiments.

“At Tufts, [civic engagement is] there. It’s everywhere,” Nana said. “It’s an aspect of Tufts that I really came to enjoy, outside of academics, in a number of different extracurricular realms.

“It just feels exciting to have these opportunities available at Tufts,” Huq said. “I’m grateful to all the student activists who are on campus and make this a more vibrant and fulfilling place to be.” 

Despite the year and their time at Tufts coming to an end, their work is not done. The 2024 cohort of Presidential Award for Civic Life winners deeply value active citizenship and will carry their experiences from Tufts into the next chapters of their lives.

Huq shared that their passion for activism isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Organizing is something I want to continue for as long as I can,” Huq said. “After you get into activism, I feel like there's not any going back. I feel like it’s a pretty core part of my identity now, especially working with young people. That’s something I want to continue to do.”

Nana similarly finds his drive to better himself will stick with him following graduation.

“I do my best to be the best version of myself day in and day out,” Nana said. “It’s just a matter of finding what realms you want to exist in when it comes to civic engagement.”

Nana’s fellow awardees also recognized the importance of active citizenship in a context beyond Tufts.

“What does it mean to be graduating in 2024, where it feels like every part of the world is on fire?” Coker said. “So much responsibility is on us, as these young minds graduating, and yet another election year, so many concurrent global crises and suffering … I do think it’s important to talk about these things and not even just talk, like, talk about ‘What are we gonna do about it?’”

“I think now more than ever, it’s important to really think about what civic engagement means, especially in a global world that increasingly looks to conflicts rather than community,” Dingle said. “There’s a lot more work that needs to be done, and I’m happy to be on the journey of doing that.”

Kingston summed up each of the awardees’ drive for civic betterment best.

“It’s important to do what you can, in your capacity, to make the world a better place, she said.