Liberal Arts senior follows social justice passion to create change on campus

Rebecca Marcinko
December 09, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a senior studying political science and African American studies, Nyla Holland wants to create meaningful change through activism and campus involvement at Penn State. She is also working on a master of public policy degree through the School of Public Policy.

As president of Penn State’s Black Caucus, head of the caucus' Black Leadership Council, and co-chair of the University’s Student Code of Conduct Task Force, Holland is well on her way to being a change agent.

Originally enrolling as a kinesiology major, Holland said others at her high school in Philadelphia were applying to Penn State, which motivated her to apply as well.

“I got accepted [to Penn State] within a week,” Holland said. “So that was kind of exciting.”

After taking a kinesiology course, however, Holland said, she decided to change her major. “I had been passionate about social justice for a long time,” she said. “So I thought the two majors in political science and African American studies would suit me well.” 

Holland said she would encourage other students to change their major “sooner rather than later” if they feel it is not for them.

“There are lots of different options. Be fully honest with yourself — be honest with your adviser — and do something that you’re passionate about,” Holland said. “I’m really glad I changed … I think I’m a lot more happy now.”

Throughout her time in the College of the Liberal Arts, Holland said she particularly enjoyed two different special-topics courses taught by Candis Smith, Laurence and Lynne Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professor in the McCourtney Institute and associate professor of political science and African American studies. Holland said these courses were both cross-listed as political science and African American studies, which helped her combine her majors “in a really cool way.”

“Even though this class was kind of tough, I [also] liked my political science class, ‘Political Ideologies,’” Holland said. “It was interesting to see how it’s much broader than Democrat and Republican and what influences people to vote the way they do.” 

Moreover, Holland said the master of public policy degree “kind of fell into [her] lap.” 

“I knew I wanted to go into something maybe with local government or working with nonprofits,” Holland said. “Having a master's degree in [public policy] would help me reach those goals.” 

At the beginning of her first year at Penn State, Holland got involved with Black Caucus after visiting the involvement fair. 

“It just felt different. It kind of automatically had this family vibe,” she said. 

Holland said she also found its general mission, purpose and history to be “super powerful.” She initially joined as a general body member but later applied for the political action chair. 

“Not only on the academic front, but also with extracurricular activities, you can help make Penn State a better place,” Holland said. “It’s a lot of fun, and a great way to make friends. I kind of think everyone should be involved … it’s very rewarding.”

Now, as the organization’s president, Holland is responsible for conducting all weekly general body meetings, attending events and weekly discussions, working with chair positions and committees and completing other logistical work. 

“In a broad scheme, I maintain and improve our relationships with the University administration, with community organizations, with different departments — like African American Studies — with the Paul Robeson Cultural Center,” Holland said.

Holland also presides over the caucus' Black Leadership Council.

“Whenever there is a need for Black Caucus to speak on behalf of the community or say something, I am a part of that,” Holland said. “It’s a whole lot of logistical things, but also maintaining our presence, making sure our voice is heard and really advocating on an administrative level for better conditions and experiences for Black students.” 

This year, Holland said her position as president started in May rather than in August due the increased presence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States after the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. 

In late June, Holland and Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at Penn State Law, began work as the co-chairs of the Student Code of Conduct Task Force. Holland said the task force met weekly throughout the summer with a focus on a number of goals, including "clarifying what the purpose of the Student Code of Conduct is.”

“Ultimately, [we came] up with a list of recommendations for improving the Code of Conduct so that it might better hold students accountable for hateful speech,” Holland said. 

Through research, discussion and guest speakers, Holland said the task force worked through its goals. 

“It’s not the full solution, but we think it’s part of the solution to making [Penn State's campuses] more welcoming and accepting,” Holland said. 

Holland took part in the University's Dec. 9 Town Hall to discuss the recently released draft reports and recommendations of the Select Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety and the Student Code of Conduct Task Force. The live stream was produced from WPSU studios and is now archived and available for viewing.

While she’s still exploring options for after graduation, Holland is potentially interested in working in nonprofits and living in or near a big city. 

“I’m always going to be social justice minded,” Holland said. “Anywhere in that field would be great. I’m pretty open.” 

To learn more about Nyla Holland and other Liberal Arts Change Makers, visit https://la.psu.edu/changemakers.  

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Last Updated April 15, 2021