The College of Arts and Sciences selected Jovonna Jones as this year’s winner of the 2015 Lucius Lamar McMullan Award, which grants $25,000 to a College senior who exhibits leadership skills and a penchant for community outreach, according to an April 3 College press release.
Faculty members who nominated Jones, an African American studies major and philosophy minor from just outside of Boston, highlighted her revamping of the Black Student Alliance and founding Black Student Union, as well as her work as an intern at the Center for Women and her research for two fellowship programs.
Faculty and staff write recommendations for McMullan nominees — “exceptional members of the senior class” — and send their nominations to a committee of College faculty members who select a recipient, according to Associate Director of the Honor Council Jason Ciejka.
Jones will officially receive the accolade, an endowment given by corporate lawyer William L. Matheson (’43C, ’47G) that was first awarded in 1996, at this year’s College diploma ceremony during Commencement on May 11. When she heard the news last Tuesday, Jones said she was shocked, as McMullan recipients aren’t notified when they are nominated — only when they’ve won. On Monday, March 30, Jones received an email from Andrea Lentz, the assistant to Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Joanne Brzinski, requesting that she meet with Brzinski and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robin Forman without specifying the reason.
“When I sat down with Dean Brzinski, she asked, ‘Do you know why you’re here?’” Jones recalled.
Jones mentioned several ways she might use the money: a vacation for her parents’ wedding anniversary in May, a foundation to support photography education and scholarships, traveling and simply saving most of the $25,000 prize.
While Jones plans to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in photography at Georgia State University and received highest honors for her thesis on the work of black women photographers last week, much of her time at Emory has been rooted in social activism. As a sophomore and president of the Black Student Alliance (BSA) in 2013, she allied the group with other campus organizations, changed its name to the Black Student Union, helped redefine its goals and mentored its new leaders. Following University President James W. Wagner’s controversial reference to the three-fifths compromise in a column that year, Jones wrote a Wheel op-ed from the BSA’s perspective and later joined a live-streamed discussion with three other speakers for a Huffington Post video debate.
“That was remarkable, the way she turned [the BSA] around,” said African American Studies Professor Nagueyalti Warren, one of the nine faculty members and administrators who nominated Jones. Warren added that, at the time, the BSA came close to becoming obsolete.
“Given the history of black students on Emory’s campus, what a loss that would’ve been,” she said.
As an intern at the Center for Women since fall 2012, Jones brought the American Association of University Women’s “Elect Her: Campus Women Win” campaign, a training session for college women interested in running for student government positions, to Emory in February. She also helped organize the Center for Women’s weekly discussions for black women, called “The Kitchen Table.” Back in Boston, she’s been working for Visions, Inc., a non-profit diversity and inclusion consulting organization.
In the classroom, according to those who nominated Jones, she excels equally well if not more.
Associate Professor of African American Studies Dianne Stewart said that though she believed the ability to think deeply and articulate those meditations in writing “seems to be disappearing,” the same could not be said of Jones, who took Stewart’s “African American Religion” course as a sophomore.
“Jojo just soared — I think the paper I assigned was 12 to 15 pages long, but she wrote 17 pages,” Stewart said, using Jones’ nickname. “She has that unique ability to push deep into academic inquiry. Jojo has that rare ability to translate theory into practice.”
Jones said the McMullan Award represented, to her, the importance of finding and learning from mentors — in her case Stewart, Warren and many others — as an undergraduate student.
“This award makes it really evident how necessary mentorship is — to really be vulnerable to the people who help grow you,” she said. “This award makes me really thankful for that.”
After earning her master’s degree, Jones said she wants to pursue a Ph.D, though she hasn’t yet decided on the subject, and to become what she calls a “public scholar.”
“I think ‘public scholar’ takes on a lot of meaning,” she said. “It just means taking all this knowledge, all this processing, and taking it out of the ivory towers and seeing how you can use it to make a difference in the world.”
—By Lydia O’Neal