As an advocate for social justice, Holyoke Community College student Nicole Ouimette believes in speaking up. She also believes in taking action. During her time at HCC, she has not only excelled academically but established superior credentials as a campus and community organizer.
For her accomplishments both on and off campus, she is being recognized by the state Dept. of Higher Education as one of the "29 Who Shine" for 2013. She will receive her award May 2 at the State House in Boston at an annual ceremony that honors one student from each of the state's 29 public colleges and universities.
"I feel honored and proud to be representing Holyoke Community College," said Ouimette, a 22-year-old resident of the Feeding Hills section of Agawam, who will graduate from HCC on June 1 with an associate degree in liberal arts.
Ouimette will be accompanied to the State House by her faculty mentor, Vanessa Martinez, HCC assistant professor of anthropology. Martinez will also be receiving an award from the Dept. of Higher Education.
"Vanessa has been instrumental in helping me to find my voice, inside and outside the classroom," said Ouimette. "She develops students as leaders on campus and in their communities. She is truly a unique teacher."
In the fall of 2011, under the guidance of Martinez, Ouimette founded an HCC club called SAAVE, Students for Affordable, Accessible and Valuable Education. As its president, she organized a speakout about student debt attended by more than 100 students, faculty and staff. In the fall of 2012, she led a second speakout on student debt in conjunction with the Anthropology/Sociology Club, which she serves as vice president.
On campus, she works as a peer tutor in HCC's CAPS center (Center for Academic and Program Supports) and takes notes for students with disabilities. Off campus, she volunteers for Universal Community Voices Eliminating Disparities, a Springfield nonprofit that works in low-income communities to help residents become better advocates for themselves.
In the summer of 2011, she started working as a student organizer for the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts. She is now president of PHENOM's executive board. In that leadership position, she worked as liaison between PHENOM and CEPA (the Center for Education Policy & Advocacy at UMass-Amherst) to organize activities for Lobby Day on March 5, 2013, at the State House, where she was a featured speaker advocating for increased financing for higher education.
While majoring in liberal arts, Ouimette developed an academic focus on anthropology. As a social action project in her Human Diversity course, she created and distributed a self-published magazine exploring the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality in everyday life. She gathered poems, art and stories from classmates and wrote her own scholarly articles.
"Both in her academic and extracurricular work, Nicole has shown that she is self-motivated and a student leader," said Martinez. "I couldn't be happier for her or more proud. She truly deserves this award."
For an independent study, she researched ways to more fully engage community college students in the classroom and is turning that project into an article for Student Anthropologist, an online, peer-reviewed student journal.
This spring, she co-facilitated a faculty training workshop with Martinez to develop anti-oppression strategies for the classroom. She has returned numerous times to her former classes as a guest lecturer and worked as a substitute teacher at both HCC and Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut.
Ouimette will attend Westfield State University next fall to pursue her bachelor's degree in gender and ethnic studies. Her career goal is to be a college professor.
Photos: (Left) Nicole Ouimette leads a speak-out on student debt at HCC in 2011. (Right) Vanessa Martinez, HCC assistant professor of anthropology, and 29 Who Shine" award winner Nicole Ouimette, at HCC.