Ponies With a Purpose

Kennedy Coleman and Matthew Merritt: A Royal First & The Alpha Male

The homecoming candidates waited for their cue to walk onto the field Oct. 22 at the start of halftime during the SMU Homecoming game against Cincinnati. Kennedy Coleman and Matthew Merritt, the Homecoming Royalty candidates for the Association of Black Students (ABS), stood together on the field with the other candidates anticipating the results.

“As we were standing there, I just knew that they were going to say my name first if we won. You know, just alphabetically,” Coleman said, explaining her delayed response when the results were announced.

Coleman and Merritt won first runner-up for Homecoming Royalty and made SMU history. This was the highest ranking that any Black student has finished in homecoming.

“I was very proud that we were even recognized and acknowledged on a platform like that,” Coleman said. “We couldn’t have won if just ABS had voted for us. There was just no way. I think it showed us that some people at SMU really do support us and see us as students.”

Although Merritt wanted to win first place, he says that he and Coleman being acknowledged as first-runner up was something to celebrate.

“Them calling our names and recognizing us at halftime for being first runner-up was a really big statement for us as an organization and for us, as individuals on this campus, because we put in a lot of work,” Merritt said. “I say Kennedy is probably like the hardest working, servant leader we have in our class, and just to see her be recognized on stage…she made history.”

These two ABS senior advisors have contributed much to the SMU community during their four years on campus. Coleman and Merritt are involved and hold leadership positions in many on-campus organizations. Coleman, an English and political science major, is the Student Senate scholarship committee chair and secretary for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Merritt, a music education major, is president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council and director of educational activities for the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

When the pair first came in 2019 to SMU, they knew they wanted to be involved in the Black community. SMU is a predominantly white campus and the culture was different from Coleman and Merritt’s high schools, which were predominantly Black and Hispanic.

The culture at my high school and the culture at SMU are just noncomparable, so I wanted to find my people, in a sense, here on campus,” Merritt said. “I think I did that through getting involved in the different organizations that we have on campus and the other organizations I’m involved in.”

Coleman knew that having a sense of community would help her adjust to the new setting.

“When I came to SMU, it’s just a huge culture shock,” Coleman said. “So, having that sense of community, I felt like it would encourage me to keep going, or if there were issues or trouble, I’ll be able to turn to that community.”

ABS was one of the organizations that provided a sense of community for Coleman and Merritt. As they became leaders in ABS and other organizations, they wanted to cultivate an environment that made everyone feel welcome.

“I think one of the things that we tried to ensure was that people could come there and feel comfortable no matter who you are because although we’re all Black students, we’re all different,” Merritt said. “We all have different interests and values, so we wanted to cultivate a space and make it inclusive for everybody that came.”

Coleman said there is now a noticeable growth in both attendance and community engagement.

“This year, we are hitting record-breaking numbers as far as attendance for events,” Coleman said. “The fish fry went so crazy. There were more alumni involved, students of all races came, and even parents of all races came. This was probably the most diverse fish fry we had with the most people we had.”

Both are proud of the growth in participation with ABS. Coleman said that this success is because of hard work and consistency.

“I honestly say we really moved a lot of dirt,” Coleman said. “Like we definitely moved a lot of dirt and planted the seeds. Now, we get to really see all of our work just sprout. There’s so much joy now and there’s so much pride in being a Black student at SMU.”

Good leadership helps foster a sense of community for other students. Coleman and Matthew stepped into their leadership roles with clear goals.

“My main goal was to have fun events for the students, especially because my sophomore year, we were really heavy in the Black@SMU stuff,” she said. “It was like all the conversation around Black people was always focused on tragedy, so as program coordinator [of ABS], I wanted us to have moments of celebration within that.”

Merritt wanted to use events to create a sense of belonging and community.

“I feel like my goal was to just have a lot of events where we could genuinely meet as a community and have fun, and not have to focus on the fact that we are, you know, underrepresented students on a predominantly white campus,” he said.

The ABS Fashion show and the MPHC Forum, an event that educates the community on the MPHC Divine Nine Greek organizations, were among Merritt’s favorite events. He is especially proud of the growth in attendance for the MHPC Forum.

“This year, we had 30 to 35 [non-Greek] people compared to last year’s 10,” Merritt said. “We had to move to a larger space…I think the growth from last year to this year shows how much we’ve matured as people and how much our organization has grown as a presence on campus.”

The Black Excellence Ball hosted in February 2022 was Coleman’s favorite.

“[It] was a really impactful event,” she said. “I think it really showed all of our hard work has come into fruition. The whole year we were working on celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. The Black Excellence Ball is basically the staple of just celebrating Black excellence in the community.”

Coleman would like for future Black SMU students to continue to have a sense of pride.

“It speaks for itself if we come back and students are proud of who they are and they’re proud to be on campus,” Coleman said. “I hope that whoever continues to be leaders after us is also comfortable and proud enough to be like ‘I can speak up for myself and I can advocate for our community like you guys did 5-10 years ago.’”

Merritt hopes that ABS will continue to serve as an outlet, a space to congregate and have fun– for Black students alongside advocacy.

“I think it’s easy to forget that we are still students at the end of the day,” Merritt said. “Our sole responsibility is not to change the culture of the campus but it’s to be students–to have a good time. I want them to realize that the weight of the world isn’t on their shoulders.”

Shara Jeyarajah: Audio Advocate:

Racial justice work forced Shara Jeyarajah to take a break from school in 2021. A year later, the senior human rights major is back to finish what she started with her self-produced “Maladjusted” podcast.

Jeyarajah created “Maladjusted” to encourage people to formulate their own opinions and organize for anti-racism reformation at SMU. The audio project documents and investigates the past, present and future of SMU through a racial justice lens.

“Tangible reformation might be as small as not recommending SMU to a future student and as big as using the institution’s resources and actively redistributing them,” Jeyarajah said.

She began interviews in 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, featuring guests such as SMU President R. Gerald Turner and Jerry LeVias, the first Black football player at the university and scholarship recipient in the Southwest Conference.

“I feel lucky that I got to record all this information during this fever-pitch time when everyone was interested in talking about race,” Jeyarajah said. “But now we’re here and people are a lot more passive. Engagement with my podcast has been lower than it was in 2021. It no longer has the same social currency.”

Jeyarajah took a year-long break after facing mental health challenges that were compounded, in part, from the strain of pouring time into human rights work. She returned this fall prioritizing her health, but her sights have stayed set on continuing “Maladjusted”.

Her mentor, SMU professor Dr. Brad Klein, told her that people may be feeling a sense of fatigue after experiencing the magnitude of the BLM Movement. He said “Maladjusted” will be useful for future movements sparked by racial injustice.

“People are going to be able to find this resource,” Jeyarajah said.

Jeyarajah intends for the podcast to function as a documented history of how racial justice movements occur at SMU, holding the university accountable for how movements have been ignored in the past.

She plans on sustaining the podcast through her internship at Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, a non-profit dedicated to creating radical inclusivity.

Her next steps include working on a symposium for North Texas institutions and developing a forum to talk about racial justice initiatives that started in 2020, gauging their level of progress and success.

“I don’t know if I can give a definitive answer about whether it’s the right choice to come back,” Jeyarajah said. “But one thing I know for sure is that the podcast’s legacy is going to continue.”

Raleigh Dewan: Entrepreneur Extrordinaire

Raleigh Dewan, a senior in marketing and creative writing, noticed his grandmother with Parkinson’s disease struggling to feed herself. That’s when he started developing the Steady Spoon, a self-stabilizing eating device for people with Parkinson’s or other diseases with hand tremors.

“I noticed that my grandmother was too embarrassed to eat with others,” Dewan said. “That’s when I knew I could do something to help.”

Steady Spoon performed at a 95% efficacy rate where it allowed users to feel accomplished again when overcoming the struggles of feeding themselves, Dewan said.

With proceeds donated to various Parkinson’s foundations across Oklahoma and Dallas, Dewan plans to partner with more charities and give back to the community.

Dewan also gives back to SMU as a residential assistant and teacher’s assistant in ESL classes. Off campus, Dewan focuses on growing the two companies he started, Steady Spoon and Sister Shaq Tea.

While Steady Spoon was inspired by family, Sister Shaq was inspired by a friend who was kidnapped and human trafficked during his sophomore year in high school.

“It just rocked my world view,” he recalls in a video posted on the company’s website. “Up until then I’d only understood human trafficking as what I saw on ‘Law and Order SVU.’”

Dewan knew that he had to do more than listen. He started Sister Shaq Teas, a business that took off in 2021, his junior year in college.

The company is a socially conscious and helps fight human trafficking with its products. Every bag has a QR code that customers can scan and see what a partner organization does to fight trafficking in their community.

“Everyone may not be able to donate money but supporting them through tea drank on a daily basis empowers our consumers to not only drink tea that tastes good, but does good,” Dewan said. “With each sniff, sip and sigh, you’re saving lives with Sister Shaq.”

Sister Shaq is not only about saving lives, but it’s about the social purpose and impact that drives individuals and incentives to those who care. With his focus on bettering health and society, Dewan thanks his community, Indian father and Southern Belle Arkansas mother for having “tea and hard love” in his blood.

“SMU has been too accommodating in allowing me to pursue my passion,” Dewan said.

Isis Kazadi: Chief Empathy Officer

The easing of hostile or strained relations is the definition of Détente. The French named non-profit organization in Dallas helps the homeless, local domestic abuse survivors and elementary schools. Human connection is at the forefront of one Detente board member’s mind.

Isis Kazadi, 21, a junior studying political science and human rights at SMU, serves as the women’s initiative chair on Détente’s board and one of her priorities is to make sure people in the greater Dallas community have a chance to live with dignity.

“We are not just trying to do things to put them on a piece of paper … we really want to get at the heart of these communities,” Kazadi said.

While helping the homelessness initiative, Kazadi recounts a moment where she was handing out food and toiletries when a woman approached her.

“She was like, ‘I really appreciate this blessing bag but next time can you throw in some condoms?’ ” Kazadi said.

The woman then explained that she did not need them for her and her husband, but instead she needed them to make some extra cash.

“That broke my heart in the moment,” Kazadi said.

In addition to Kazadi’s work with the non-profit organization, she is also a member of Chi Omega sorority and was elected as a panhellenic delegate to represent her sorority. She is also a resident assistant at Peyton Commons where she strives for residents to feel safe.

“I kind of hate the term ‘safe space,’ I’m not gonna lie,” Kazadi said.

She’d rather have residents living within her commons to feel empowered through making sure students feel comfortable enough to watch a movie on the couch and not feel animosity from other students due to racial or gender differences.

After graduating, Kazadi hopes to see people feeling like they belong in SMU classrooms and around SMU’s campus. She is already starting to see changes in the campus culture, but even after she graduates she wants to make sure she is leaving her mark and legacy on campus that focuses on Black students having a voice.

“It’s a little abstract, but I would love to see a bunch of opinionated Black girls talking really loud in class,” Kazadi said. “That would make me be like, ‘Yes, I left my mark.”

Kazadi is a leader wherever she goes and leaves the SMU community with one piece of advice:

“If world changers are shaped here … let’s get movin’,” she said.