By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Esther Uma didn’t dig through employment and salary data before deciding on a college major.
She simply followed her heart.
“My main goal is to help people in any way I can, and I think social work can really help me do that,” she said.
A freshman at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Uma chose this career because she wants to make a positive impact in the world by advocating for children and families, promoting mental health, empowering communities and supporting vulnerable populations so they can overcome the everyday challenges they face.
“I don’t think many people recognize the struggles there are growing up, especially for people of color,” she said. “It’s really hard. I feel like representation is really important in this field because to truly understand what someone is going through, you need someone who looks like them and who can really communicate with and help them.”
Uma’s own experiences fueled her passion for the profession.
“I can’t think of someone who understands the intersectionality of helping minoritized communities better than Esther,” said Luis Olivas, assistant director of UNK’s Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion. “She understands that it is not about privilege or special treatment, but of guaranteeing equitable access to resources that will help upend generational cycles of oppression.”
The oldest of four siblings, Uma was born in Delta State in southern Nigeria.
In her hometown – about the size of Lincoln, Nebraska – she was known by her middle name, Uchechi, an Igbo word meaning God’s will. When her family moved to the United States – Uma was 10 at the time – she started using her English first name because it was easier for people to pronounce.
“Coming here was entirely different, because it was like a change of my identity,” said Uma, who also spoke with a strong accent that’s faded over the years.
Although the U.S. offered an opportunity for a better life, the transition wasn’t easy. She didn’t understand the culture, communication was difficult and the educational system was completely new to her. On top of that, she lived thousands of miles away from her father, who works as an engineer in Nigeria, and other family members.
Uma turned to school activities as a way to “fit in.” She participated in choir, musicals, bowling and art and book clubs while attending Boone Central High School in Albion, using her warm, friendly personality to connect with other students.
“Esther has a specific quality to her that makes people gravitate toward her energy,” Olivas said.
That was obvious the day she arrived at UNK.
The recipient of a full-tuition Diversity Service Scholarship, Uma made an immediate impact on campus. She’s part of the Student Diversity Leadership Program and a recently created committee that promotes diversity and inclusion through campus artwork. Uma also serves as vice president of the Black Student Association (BSA), an organization that encourages people from all races and backgrounds to come together and support each other.
“I think there’s this misconception that you have to be a person of color to be in BSA, and that’s totally not true,” Uma said. “It’s a really open, safe environment that anyone can participate in. Our goal is to spread awareness so more people know about the Black community and the struggles we face. We want people who are willing to listen and make change.”
As a first-year student, Olivas said, Uma has stepped into these roles “with ease and determination.”
“Her commitment to making UNK a welcoming and affirming environment for all is undeterred,” he said. “She embodies the future of leadership at UNK.”
Uma hasn’t forgotten about her past either. She represented Nigeria during a Cultural Fashion Show hosted last semester on campus, donning a traditional skirt, tribal face paint and jewelry her aunt made.
“That was a really nice way for me to showcase my culture,” she said. “It was an amazing experience.”