Samantha O'Brien: Creating a Summit, Voice for USD's Womxn of Color


Samantha O'Brien: Creating a Summit, Voice for USD's Womxn of Color

Samantha O’Brien’s chapter as a University of San Diego student is rapidly coming to a close. She’ll complete her undergraduate psychology degree and graduation requirements at the end of the fall semester. Along with minors in Women and Gender Studies and Leadership Studies, O’Brien will complete her degree in 3 1/2 years. That’s quite an accomplishment, but perhaps the Chicago native’s greatest accomplishment at USD will ultimately be a product of what she’s invested her time in since sophomore year and what it could mean after she's gone.

O’Brien coordinated a Womxn of Color small-group discussion program and it served as a worthwhile outlet for female students on campus to gather, to share their thoughts and experiences and gain a circle of support that made them feel genuinely connected. Last year, the discussion group continued and, O’Brien noted, “students were looking for more.”

Inaugural Womxn of Color Summit

This semester, the Womxn of Color student club began and had a table at the Alcala Bazaar to gain additional visibility. And now, this Saturday, Dec. 1, the “more” that was sought by many will come to fruition at the inaugural Womxn of Color Summit in Salomon Hall (inside Maher Hall) from 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

Salomon Hall’s room capacity of more than 100 has already been reached and there is a waiting list should last-minute openings become available. The free summit is an all-inclusive event O’Brien and a committee of students, staff and faculty have worked hard to put together. The summit will have participants across campus — undergrads, graduate students, faculty, staff and administrators — thus breaking down silos and bringing people together to really explore intersectional identities, have meaningful conversations and to build greater awareness of themselves and campus resources.

“I wanted to give space for everyone,” O’Brien said.

The summit’s schedule was revealed this week on the @USDWOC Instagram account. It will have many components, including a keynote speaker, educational components, breakout sessions, an interactive panel, a special Kumeyaay Nation welcome, table talks, a self-care session and more.

O’Brien’s role to create summit wasn’t hers alone, but her leadership, both academically in the classroom and through USD’s Student Leadership, Involvement and Changemaking (SLIC) as its Lead Involvement Consultant, has contributed to the awareness that exists today.

“Sam is the epitome of what a Womxn of Impact entails,” wrote Manda Sayegh, assistant director of student organizations and involvement, in nominating O’Brien for a Women of Impact Award. “Sam has the ability to fight for social justice while inspiring and educating those around her with her calm, kind, compassionate demeanor. Sam made it a priority for herself to help womxn of color at USD find their voice, find community, and empower one another.”

Sayegh said through O’Brien’s role in SLIC, “she finds ways to help students find community at USD while inspiring the other involvement consultants to lead from a place of inclusion and compassion. Sam also serves as an Emerging Leader facilitator as she is helping first-year students find their voice and understand their own leadership style through a social justice lens.”

Motivated by Her Own Adversity

O’Brien’s leadership has been impressive on the topic of womxn of color because of her own experience. Attending public schools in Chicago, O’Brien, who is half-white, half-Filipino and has lighter skin, was used to being in a student population where racial minorities were the majority. She was used to being seen by others and considered as white.

But her experience changed when she arrived at USD. “When I came here, there was this whole confusion where there’s a majority of white students and I started getting questions like, 'If you’re not white, then what are you?' or 'You’re not white, so where are you really from?' I hadn’t given it much thought before college. But I took a course, Women of Color in Literature, and that really helped me understand intersectionality. I had never really heard of it before,” O’Brien said.

“I came to understand there are a lot of different experiences at USD, but unfortunately, a lot of privileged individuals don’t think about it or they don’t encounter it on a daily basis,” she said. O’Brien considered transferring schools, but ultimately, her decision to stay turned into her motivation to organize the Womxn of Color discussion group.

Her leadership has been applied to other organizations and clubs. O’Brien has been involved with Outdoor Adventures, Be Blue, Go Green, and Student Vegans United. She’s been a scholastic assistant (formerly preceptorial assistant) to help first-year students acclimate to USD’s academic rigor, been in USD’s chapter of Psi Chi, a national honor society in psychology, to tutor students, and she's done peer coaching. Much of the latter stimulates her interest to attend graduate school in a mental health counseling program, but she’s leaning toward applying for the Peace Corps and to hopefully land a South America opportunity.

O’Brien’s life is certainly on the upswing. She’s graduating, she’ll go back to Chicago to be with family, has post-graduation goals and a future that is bright. But first, and foremost, O’Brien’s 100 percent attention is on Saturday’s Womxn of Color Summit. Her idea, and with the support she’s received to make it happen, is a fitting way to conclude her USD undergraduate story and inspire more womxn of color to step up and keep it going.

“When I told people about it people were thrilled and were excited to sign up immediately. That’s huge,” she said. “That shows me there is a group, a community at USD, that is missing something. By talking to so many people about it, it reinforced just how much of a need there is. There’s something so powerful in giving people, minorities, especially, the space to come together, connect with one another, tell their stories and learn from each other.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Graduating senior Samantha O'Brien has built a foundation for womxn of color on the USD campus slowly, but surely. On Saturday, Dec. 1, she'll host the inaugural Womxn of Color Summit.Graduating senior Samantha O'Brien has built a foundation for womxn of color on the USD campus slowly, but surely. On Saturday, Dec. 1, she'll host the inaugural Womxn of Color Summit.

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