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Guilford College senior honored as Barnhill Civic Trailblazer

2018 Barnhill Trailblazer Zaynah Afada. Photo courtesy of Guilford College.

Guilford College senior Zaynah Afada is the 2018 recipient of the John H. Barnhill Civic Trailblazer Award. The annual award is presented by North Carolina Campus Compact to one student in the state who fostered innovative service partnerships and whose leadership inspires others to serve.

A Bonner Scholar at Guilford, Afada is honored for her service with immigrant and refugee communities in Greensboro.

Afada first encountered Guilford’s Bonner program during her sophomore year of high school, when she joined a project called the African Youth Initiative. The initiative supported newly arrived African immigrant youth in Greensboro as they worked to graduate high school and access higher education.

“When I came to the United States,” Afada says, “I had no previous knowledge about the education system here, so I understood why newly arrived African youth struggled. I knew how hard it was to learn a different language, adjust to a different culture, and access resources in a foreign city.”

At the time, the African Youth Initiative was coordinated by Bonner students from Guilford College. The connection was serendipitous: Afada graduated from high school and enrolled at Guilford as a Bonner Scholar, a program she says “afforded me the opportunity to access an education and an opportunity to serve others.”

Afada was born in the West African country of Togo, and she immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was nine years old. As a Guilford student and Bonner Scholar, she sought out opportunities to work with Greensboro’s immigrant communities. She was coordinator of the community garden project at the Newcomer’s School and an intern with the North Carolina African Services Coalition. She is also a member of Guilford’s food justice club and African Students Association.

In 2017 Afada was elected by the community to serve as one of five members of the City of Greensboro’s International Advisory Committee (IAC). The committee reports to the city’s human relations commission and the city council about issues and policies affecting Greensboro’s diverse international community.

Afada addresses CSNAP audience. Photo: Dennis McNair

Perhaps her most important service has been with immigrant and refugee families who lived in the Summit-Cone apartment complex. In November 2016, Afada began serving as the Bonner coordinator for a community center at the low-income housing complex. Andrew Young, former volunteer training coordinator at Guilford, took Afada on her first visit to the neighborhood.

“Ms. Afada was tentative at first, but willing to give it a try,” Young recalled. “As we went door to door introducing ourselves she was a natural, able to get residents to open their doors and converse in halting English or in French.”

For almost two years, Afada recruited volunteers, tutored children after school, and assisted families at the complex. In May 2018, an accidental kitchen fire in one apartment killed five children. Their family had been resettled in the complex from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The apartment had no working smoke detectors. The tragedy focused attention on a number of contributing factors: the lack of affordable housing, city building code enforcement, negligent landlords, and economic insecurity facing immigrant and refugee families.

Afada saw the community center needed to serve residents in a different way. She and other volunteers worked with residents to file housing complaints, created spreadsheets to track data, and arranged conversations with city officials, all while comforting devastated neighbors. Most impressive about Afada’s work, according to one nominator, was “her knowledge of each of the 30 or so families. She knew almost everyone’s name.”

In September the Summit-Cone apartments were condemned by the city, and the Bonner community center project ended. Afada plans to continue her work on behalf of immigrant communities in new ways after graduation.

Created in 2011, the Barnhill Award is named for John H. Barnhill, who founded innovative service programs while a student at Elon University and who later became the founding executive director of North Carolina Campus Compact. Afada is the ninth student to receive the award and the first from Guilford College.

Afada and Bonner director James Shields. Photo: Dennis McNair


Afada was honored at the Compact’s annual CSNAP student conference, held this year on November 10 at Fayetteville State University. The event convened more than 150 students and staff from 23 campuses in the network. In addition to awards and networking opportunities, the conference included student-led workshops, panel discussions, and plenary sessions on diverse community engagement topics around the theme: “The Power of Youth Civic Courage.”

North Carolina Campus Compact is a collaborative network of 37 colleges and universities committed to educating students for civic and social responsibility, partnering with communities for positive change, and strengthening democracy. The NC Campus Compact state office fosters connections between campuses, shares best practice information and resources, recognizes outstanding work, and champions civic and community engagement in higher education.  The network, an affiliate of the national Campus Compact organization, was founded in 2002 and is hosted by Elon University.

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