Student activist Collyn Smith does not fit the definition of an "average Carolina student," he said.
A public policy major and first-generation, low-income student from a rural town called Barbecue, North Carolina, Smith did not feel like a space had been made for people like him when he came to UNC.
"So I found myself trying to find a lot of spaces where I fit, or creating spaces where I fit," he said.
Now, Smith has made it a priority to fight for students who not only identify like him, but also belong to other marginalized groups on campus. He aims to hold the University accountable — especially focusing on how COVID-19 has highlighted inequalities on campus.
Smith said he first got into advocacy when he joined student government, becoming an undergraduate senator for District 3, School of Social Sciences. Before becoming involved, he said it was difficult to make the connections needed to have conversations around advocacy.
Smith is also one of the undergraduate executive branch's Affordability Committee chairpersons — a committee on campus designed to promote affordability programs and remove financial barriers for low-income students.
“A big passion of mine is ensuring that Carolina is an equitable space financially and that there are never barriers to students' finances that create other barriers in academia,” Smith said. “Being a low-income, first-generation student, I understand those impacts directly, and I think that’s a much-needed perspective that has been missing in those spaces for a while.”
Another passion of Smith's is talking about diversity, equity and inclusion spaces and the impacts that they have on marginalized students. The University needs to put more work into creating diverse spaces for students who are not white and wealthy, he said.
“I want to get back to ensuring that spaces work for people and people are not working for spaces,” he said.
Smith has also been involved with the new Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity — which he said was made largely out of the racial injustice that has been on campus since the start of the University.
Over the summer, the commission called for remote learning and de-densifying on-campus housing before the start of the fall semester.
“It's taking back spaces that should have been there in the first place and should have worked for marginalized students,” Smith said. “It's advocating for those students and pushing for those voices in those spaces, almost not as an ask anymore, because I don't think we're in a time where we can just simply ask for those things. It's a demand because it's a necessity at this point.”
Lamar Richards, a sophomore student activist, is the chairperson of the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity and has worked alongside Smith for many months as an undergraduate senator.
Richards said Smith is an exceptional leader whose advocacy is admirable, and who has inspired him to do better in his own leadership.
“He is new to student leadership around Carolina, but he is not new to leadership,” Richards said.
Richards said Smith not only advocates for students who identify closely to himself, such as first-generation and low-income students, but also other marginalized students.
“Whenever I’m in a space with him, you know he is there because he is not going to stay silent,” Richards said. “He is never afraid to speak out against injustices that he sees at the University.”
Ekta Deshmukh, a junior economics and statistics and analytics major, works alongside Smith on the executive branch of the affordability committee. She said they have been focusing on holding the University accountable for the decisions it makes and how it impacts students financially.
Smith is always pushing and advocating for more and does not take no for an answer when UNC is not as cooperative as he would like, Deshmukh said.
She said Smith has a passion that is not common in people these days. She said that, ever since classes went remote and students were sent home, Smith has been adamant about students receiving refunds and RAs getting paid.
“He is holding administration accountable,” Deshmukh said.
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