This year, I had the honor of joining the State Farm Youth Advisory Board, where I’ve been able to meet so many amazing and inspirational individuals, including Deanna White.
White is a senior at Duke University, a change maker, and a shero in every way. From the moment I joined the board, her heart and welcoming spirit was always there to guide me.
I recently got the opportunity to ask White some questions about her passions and insights. I loved learning from her powerful stories and experiences.
You are such an inspiration to young girls everywhere. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’re passionate about?
Deanna White: I am currently a senior at Duke University in North Carolina.
Some fun facts: I sing in an a capella group, and I have 29 cousins. Family and friends are the most important pieces of my life.
At a young age, I lost my father to cancer. My stepmother volunteered to raise me, and her family welcomed me in as if I were their own. In a very difficult time, they showed me by example how to live life with unwavering love. It is because of them that there is nothing I appreciate more in life than the power of people.
There is hardly anything that exposes the power of people more than migration does. People risk their lives and travel by foot, boat, or trucks, largely without water or food and in grave danger, in pursuit of a better future. Despite all odds, people who have lost their family, homes, and livelihoods from the threat of war and persecution have hope. It is tragic yet beautiful.
I believe there are tangible ways to manage migration crises, ways that bring huge economic and cultural benefits to host nations and respect the human dignity of migrants. I hope to create a better system.
What was the process of designing a major at Duke?
DW: While at Duke, I have lived the idea: “What if students weren’t defined by their major, but what problem they want to solve in the world?” I am pursuing a self-designed major titled “Global Migration Policy & Narratives: US and Latin America” and an experiential certificate in Innovation & Entrepreneurship.
In order to design my own major, I had to prove to the university through a written petition that I had a real intellectual interest in a subject that I couldn’t sufficiently explore through a standard major. If I was serious about this issue, I needed to study across disciplines to understand the political, economic, social, and cultural factors of migration that inform making good immigration policy.
What inspired you to design this particular major?
DW: When I came to college, I started volunteering with Iraqi refugees and an ESL tutoring organization for the Latino community. In the latter, I was paired with a mother of two who would become one of my best friends in college.
On a Tuesday night, I learned her story of struggle and strength, of how she crossed the border while pregnant, lived in an apartment with 16 others, and eventually became fluent in English, divorced her abusive husband, went to community college, and started her own business. I first cried at her story, then became angered at our broken immigration system, and from then on acted toward bettering it.
For the first two years of college, I was miserably pre-med, fitting in whatever courses I could on migration as a spark in my schedule. Eventually, my dean suggested that I design my own major, and I haven’t looked back. If you asked me three years ago what I would study in college, I wouldn’t have guessed this in my wildest dreams.
What motivates you to pursue a career in service?
DW: I believe in the power of community. All it took for me was one meaningful relationship across cultures to jumpstart this path. When people come together and learn from each other, they can achieve the impossible.
What are some challenges you’ve faced throughout your journey?
DW: You need a good bit of relentlessness and tunnel vision in order to pursue this sort of thing, and sometimes it’s easy to question whether what you’re doing is actually making a difference. Sometimes I question whether or not I am being naive. We have been trained since a young age to climb the ladder of success- with the ultimate rung being having a high-paying job. This has been ingrained in us, and it takes constant self-talk and friends to help us rewire our brain!
Success is what you define it as. It could be a high-paying job or it could be working toward your goal of solving the migrant crisis or it could be both! A lot of times, other people don’t understand your unique vision and the journey can be lonely or disillusioning. Remember: Other people don’t have to get it, as long as you do, and you have at least one friend on your side (and you do, because even though you don’t know me, I’m right here for you!).
Why do you think it’s important for youth to get involved?
DW: There is so much potential in harnessing the power of youth. Youth see the world with fresh eyes, are more likely to be idealists, and are super impacted by current events as compared to older generations. Therefore, they are more willing to make change! If we empower youth as a society to pursue their ideas and visions, we will all be better for it!
I currently serve on the State Farm Youth Advisory Board, which is a board of 30 youth charged with distributing $10 million of funding to youth-led, service-learning projects across the nation. I read grants written by youth who have designed unique projects to transform their communities. Their projects are incredible; they understand the root of the problems in their communities and take tangible steps to better them sustainably, bringing together all stakeholders. I am blown away by the thousands of grants I read—and I truly believe youth are the driving force behind community change.
What advice do you have for a young person wanting to make a difference?
DW: Get out there and do it! Make sure what you’re doing isn’t about you, and is truly about your community. The first step is volunteering and learning. Don’t act until you’ve taken it all in, listened to all the members of your community, so that you understand the real need in the community and not the imagined one. Then, it’s time to start building a plan that targets the root of the problem. For instance, if people are going hungry, donating food is merely a Band-Aid solution. How can you help these families earn more money so that they can afford food? How can you give them easier and cheaper access to childcare so that they can work rather than stay at home?
Finally, never go about it alone. Change is made by building bridges between all community members, getting as many people involved as possible, and starting at a grassroots level while also possibly lobbying for policy change! Use the skills you learn in the classroom in your community.
Who can people contact (or what website can they visit) if they want to learn more or get involved with the work you do?
DW: You can visit the State Farm Youth Advisory Board website to read my bio and learn more about my work, the Community Empowerment Solutions website, and the Autonomous University of Social Movements/Mexico Solidarity Network website.