By Shannon Sigafoos

As she grew up in the South Bronx as a member of a marginalized community, 2023 George Wharton Pepper Prize winner Fatimata Cham ’23 experienced a number of injustices. At an early age, she dedicated herself to improving not just her own life, but the lives of others around her—particularly young women who deserved the autonomy to have control over their own lives and have their voices heard. 

Fatimata Cham smiles

In 2018, drawn to their mission to center young people’s voices within the movement, Cham became a member of the United Nation Foundation’s Girl Up mentorship program. As she worked with the various chapters around the world where girls have the autonomy to raise money, host events, and protest in their respective communities, she was able to provide feedback on programming and run a club at her high school—giving her a taste of the front-line community work she would inevitably bring to Lafayette College just a few years later. 

“It was a yearlong process to get Girl Up started at Lafayette. I started talking to members of student government during the fall semester of my freshman year when I joined Student Government. I wrote out a constitution, a three-year plan, roles and responsibilities, and it was brought to a vote shortly thereafter,” she recalls. “Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, a lot of plans had come to a halt. Last year, we were finally able to gauge interest from the student body and start hosting events. Many students were aware of the broader organization because they had previously had chapters at their respective high schools.” 

Through her continued work with the organization, Cham has continued to help bring awareness to some of the most pressing issues she sees girls and women facing not just in the U.S., but around the world. These include period poverty and an added tampon tax to products that are a necessity, over 130 million girls not having access to education or transportation to attend school, and forced childhood marriage. These injustices, she says, “are a huge problem when we think about the future of the world and the many contributions that girls can make to the education system. Furthermore, forced childhood marriage plays a role in why some girls aren’t even allowed to go to school in the first place.”

Cham, who plans to continue her work with Girl Up post-graduation, has been proud of the numerous times she has visited the Capitol to advocate for legislation, including the 2019 Protecting (Refugee) Girls’ Access to Education bill that was later signed into law. She was able to speak to state representative Jose Serrano about where she grew up and why the bill being passed was important to her, personally, because as a first-generation low-income student, she once didn’t have access to equitable education. 

It was at that time, as a young woman herself, that she looked to her mother for inspiration and guidance. 

My mom is a huge source of inspiration and influence for my getting involved within the movement. She didn’t have access to higher education growing up because of gender socialization within her community and cultural norms,” Cham says. “She taught me to speak up when I see something wrong, and that pushed me to become an advocate.”

Cham is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in government and law and a Bachelor of Arts in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Among her more recent accomplishments, she is a 2022 Harry S. Truman Scholar, a 2022 GLOW Global Fellow, a 2022 Basta Fellow, a Center for Integrated Teaching and Learning Fellow, a first-generation member of the Tri-Alpha Honor Society, and a member of the Triota Honor Society.

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