When she came to William & Mary in the fall of 2017, Jamelah Jacob knew the demographics. About 8% of the student body’s population was Asian, and less than 1% was Filipino.
Which to Jacob, who would major in Asian & Pacific Islander American studies along with public policy, only meant she had work to do.
“Knowing it’s a predominantly white institution comes with the realization that you have to create your community and nurture your community,” said Jacob, who is set to graduate in the spring. “What this work has largely been is being there for my community. That became more significant to me when I entered college.
“It took me that long to make the connection between my identity and my community and find ways to be involved. I think that’s a common experience for children of immigrants. We grow up having these different pressures to act a certain way or suppress our cultural identity, and it really took until college to find all these places that welcomed it.”
Nearly four years after getting started, Jacob has been awarded the 2021 James Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership. Since 2005, the honor has gone to “a student who has demonstrated sustained leadership of an unusual quality, leadership combined with initiative, character and an unfailing commitment to leveraging the assets of the William & Mary community to address the needs of our society.”
The award will be acknowledged during the Charter Day ceremony Feb. 11. Because of the pandemic, that will be done virtually.
Jacob is in select company.
“Since meeting Jamelah on her first year at William & Mary, her potential for superior excellence had always been apparent,” a professor wrote in a nomination letter. “To be clear and emphatic, she belongs to the top 1% of students I have worked with since teaching university level starting in 1998.”
Another professor wrote, “As an educator, I am happy to be able to provide this recommendation for such a deserving student. I have a great amount of respect for her and truly believe that she is a deserving prize recipient.”
Jacob, who graduated from Lake Braddock Secondary School in Northern Virginia, is a firm believer that classroom should meet community. APIA Studies, she said, has taught her about race, justice and systems of oppression and has helped her make that connection.
Among Jacob’s many activities on campus, she’s the APIA studies chair of the Asian American Student Initiative. She’s also a programming assistant with the Center for Student Diversity and editor-in-chief of Art & Hatsuye, the official journal of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies program.
What consumes most of Jacob’s time is her role as president of W&M’s Filipino American Student Association. The group’s mission is to promote a greater appreciation of the Filipino-American culture to the student body as well as the Williamsburg community.
“I joined my freshman year, and looking back at it as a senior, it’s exactly what I needed to find people who are like me,” said Jacob, whose parents were born in the Philippines. “William & Mary is a predominantly white institution, and going to college is such a big change. Definitely finding my people and getting acquainted with that community has been such a great experience.
“I never expected to become president because I was really shy and awkward my freshman year. But the people I met in the organization not only became my best friends, I also found some great mentors. … The environment we’ve created for the organization is such a welcoming space. That’s something I’m really proud of.”
One of her main accomplishments was launching the Solidarity Series, which strives to educate non-Black people of color — primarily Asian and Asian-American communities — on the importance of standing in solidarity with Black communities.
“It’s very important that we make sure we aren’t staying silent during the Black Lives Matter movement and that we’re there for the Black community,” Jacob said. “There is still so much anti-Blackness that needs to be dismantled within the Asian community, and we can start the work on campus.
“The Solidarity Series has been in cooperation with the Asian American Student Initiative, the Center for Student Diversity and the South Asian Student Association. We’re hoping to continue into the next semester and have these conversations about standing in solidarity and make sure what we’re doing for our communities is not stagnant.”
Jacob also carries a 3.62 grade-point average and has made all A’s since the fall of 2019.
“I do like to stay busy,” she said. “I like being productive. And I mean it when I say I’m really passionate about this community and about what I’m studying. I’ve gotten really lucky that my academic passions have aligned my extracurricular activities.
“I’ve never seen them as two separate things. When I’m doing schoolwork, I know this will somehow apply to the work I’m doing outside of school. And that brings me back to why I’m working so hard in the first place. When that passion is there, you honestly don’t think too much about everything else you have to sacrifice for it.”
In what spare time she has, Jacob loves write poetry, which she calls “a life-long thing.” She took a creative writing class taught by Jon Pineda, a Filipino poet and novelist and assistant professor of English at W&M.
“That experience was really great,” Jacob said. “I was able to find my own voice in poetry and connect my identity to writing and art.”
The Class of 2021 is already being referred to nationally as the COVID Class. The pandemic cost Jacob the opportunity to study in Singapore last summer. And because of the uncertainty that lies ahead, Jacob is planning to take a gap year after graduation.
After that, she hopes to attend graduate school and teach college. All she has accomplished at William & Mary, capped by winning the Monroe Prize, makes for a strong resume.
When the congratulatory email showed up in her inbox, Jacob was in a Zoom meeting. She wasn’t sure how to react.
“I had to turn off my camera for a little bit because I had this freak-out moment,” she said. “I never expected it. But obviously, taking classes in the Asian & Pacific Islander American studies program and being involved with these different groups on campus helped me grow. I’m just really thankful for all of it.”