As a first-generation student, UNC’s support systems meant a lot to Jenaya McGowan Zarrad ’08. The Greeley native came to UNC from Aims Community College and found a degree and a community that made a difference in her education.

“I’m the first person in my family to complete a college degree, let alone going to graduate school. At UNC things really just kind of started to click for me in terms of what I was studying. And I think what really helped were the support systems that I had in place at UNC through programs like Stryker, the McNair Scholars Program, and my department of study — Africana Studies,” Jenaya says.

When she started at UNC she took the Intro to Black Studies class — and it impacted not only her course of study but also offered her something she’d been missing through her school years. “As a person who is African American, really, there were no black people when I was growing up in Greeley, and so it was a part of my identity that was missing, and that certainly wasn’t supported in any of the curriculum I was seeing in my K-12 years. It was really important to me at UNC finding black teachers. For the first time in my life, I had multiple black teachers, and it was a really encouraging, supportive environment. I just fell in love with the coursework and learning what I was learning.”

Beyond her courses and academic goals, as a first-generation student, Jenaya says that she sometimes felt like a fish out of water navigating college. Becoming a Stryker Scholar through the Stryker Institute for Leadership Development helped her excel.

"I always was a very good student, but none of my teachers or school counselors had ever even talked to me about college. I really had no idea how anything worked or what I was doing. The Stryker program was such a nurturing environment for people with similar backgrounds that I could ask questions,” she says.

Through Stryker she found a community of women supporting women in addition to the financial support she needed to earn her degree.

“To get such a generous stipend through Stryker, along with a laptop, that was a really big deal and helped me significantly to accomplish my schoolwork there at UNC. I’m just very grateful to Ronda Stryker. She doesn’t know me personally, I don’t know her personally, but I think what she’s been able to do for — I don’t even know how many women at this point, but hundreds, I’m sure — that’s a pretty incredible legacy. I’m just grateful for her for setting this up for the women of UNC.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in Africana Studies, Jenaya, who was also a McNair Scholar, went on to earn her master’s degree in Global Policy Studies at the prestigious Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. She now works as the vice president of people and culture at Joust in Austin, Texas, a startup company that does business banking for the self-employed.

“With an ethnic studies degree, because I’m really able to see things from a very broad length and from a lot of different lenses, I tend to have a great sensitivity around the fact that people come from a variety of walks of life,” she says. “I’m able to deploy that when communicating with people or even encouraging people to communicate with each other.”

And, as she works in a field that helps others communicate, work and grow, she knows how important those support systems and the people who provide them can be. “I feel like the professors at UNC are really in it to support students, and teach students, and help students set the course for their lives.”