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Senior signoffs: Kaiya McCullough reflects on how UCLA strengthened her voice as a Black student-athlete

UCLA women’s soccer defender Kaiya McCullough looks back on her time in Westwood and how it helped her find her own voice. (Kanishka Mehra/Photo editor)

By Kaiya McCullough

June 10, 2020 6:43 p.m.

It’s hard for me to put into words what my experience in Westwood has given me, as a student, as an athlete and most importantly, as a person. There’s a lot I could say about my athletic career here – playing in a national championship game, making it all the way to two College Cups and developing into an athlete that was capable of being drafted into a professional organization. However, that’s not what I want to talk about.

I was born Black. I never had the option of not being Black. I could write a whole new piece about my experiences while being Black, but that would take too many characters for this. I got accepted into UCLA while playing a predominantly white sport, and coming from a predominantly white neighborhood. Though my experiences before college definitely shaped who I am, I full-heartedly believe that UCLA transformed me into the powerful Black woman I was always destined to be.

Here’s how:

It gave me a space to develop my empathy. I was surrounded by people of all different creeds, colors, backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender expressions and religions. I was able to have uncomfortable conversations that helped me grow as a person and showed me new ways of thinking. Being on campus gave me the opportunity to put myself in many different pairs of shoes and gave me an appreciation for the perspectives of others.

It gave me a space to create my circle of trust. I found people who supported me and people who didn’t. I was able to reflect on my own values and apply them when choosing the people I wanted to surround myself with. I found coaches, teachers and leaders that I trusted, and eventually made them my mentors. UCLA introduced me to many of the people that will be important to me for the rest of my life.

It gave me a space to find my voice. Though I was always very vocal in my beliefs, my experiences while at UCLA encouraged me to be even louder. Empowered with an elite education and experience, I felt even more confident in the beliefs I held and more energized to speak up about the injustices I saw all around me.

It gave me a space to find my platform. Kneeling in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick during my sophomore year – and for the rest of my career – was one of the scariest and most empowering things I’ve ever done in my life. UCLA gave me a way to protest police brutality and encouraged me when I chose to do so.

Most importantly, it challenged me. Every aspect of my morality, my thinking and my conscience was tested and transformed in one way or another. For that I’m thankful.

There’s a lot more to be said about my experience at UCLA, but what is most important to me right now is making sure that the police officers who kill unarmed Black Americans are brought to justice. UCLA enhanced my ability to stand up for what I believe in and express what I am passionate about, and I think the lessons I learned there are perfectly exemplified in that belief. I hope the acceptance of my activism during my experience at UCLA as a Black student-athlete continues to be the precedent the university keeps when supporting others who choose to walk the same path.

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