Carnegie Mellon University
October 02, 2020

Servant Leadership Helps Senior Empower Others

Kai Huizenga works to build inclusive residential experience at CMU

By Katy Rank Lev

Jason Maderer

Kai Huizenga came to Carnegie Mellon University knowing they wanted to serve as a resident assistant (RA). Their older sister had been an RA at her university a few years prior, and Kai saw how she benefitted from that role as a servant leader.

Kai hails from New Jersey, where, as a nonbinary person, they did not see a lot of queer or gender-nonconforming representation around them. Kai wanted to become the type of RA who created an expansive, inclusive space for students to live, learn and explore their identities. As they enter their senior year, Kai is preparing for a third year of service and helped lead this year's new virtual Pre-College programming.

"CMU has really helped me transform into a confident, professional individual who knows how to engage with a community while also really engaging on social justice action," Kai said. "Just the fact that I could even say that sentence shows the language I have developed through my time here, and that's been really important to me and my ability to express and represent myself."

Inspired by Orientation

In 2018, Kai was invited to perform during Community Collage, an Orientation event where upper-class students showcase their talents for incoming CMU students. "As a sophomore, my first time as an RA, I performed a spoken word poem I had developed in response to the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando," they said.

That particular mass shooting struck a chord with Kai, who saw an act of great violence committed against their community. That experience performing on stage cemented Kai's drive to bring their full self to CMU, unapologetically. During the fall of their junior year, Kai decided to create their own interdisciplinary major centered on storytelling.

Kai's performance in the 2018 CMU Community Collage was a turning point in their college career. 

Self-Defined Path

They entered CMU as a student in the College of Engineering and will graduate with a B.S. in mediated storytelling through performance and technology. Campus opportunities such as the theater group Scotch'n'Soda, as well as a network of students, faculty and staff called the Trans, Intersex & Nonbinary Alliance (TINA) have allowed Kai to continue to tell their own story, wield it into action and also build the capacity for other students to do so.

"Part of CMU culture is this message that 'your story is important, and it is going to change the world.' That is powerful," Kai said. They particularly felt this message from M. Shernell Smith, executive director of the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, who was also Kai's housefellow in 2019 when they were an RA. Smith helped Kai feel welcome and encouraged them to meet with leadership through residential education to discuss housing access for all students, regardless of gender identity. "The staff in Res Ed has really shown me a human-centered, daring leadership environment where people are allowed to be vulnerable," Kai said.

While this type of environment was not necessarily echoed throughout the university for Kai, they have felt and seen an open lane to speak up when they saw an opportunity for change. For example, Kai is honored to be a part of CMU's Fifth Year Scholar Class of 2021-2022 and will take advantage of the scholarship's opportunity by working on all-gender equity in housing spaces. They seek to positively impact the campus community by transforming the housing and residential experiences for first-year and upper-class students.

David Chickering, associate director of Residential Education, says his office supports students individually to find housing assignments. "In the past, that put the onus on students to identify that they need support in finding housing that works best for them. Kai's perspective on housing is what we aspire to become," he said.

In the summer of 2020, Kai helped lead remote programming as a community advisor with Carnegie Mellon Pre-College programs and will be spending both fall and spring semesters on campus in that role for the Residence on Fifth and Fifth Neville Apartments. They hope to be hired in Student Affairs after graduation and to pursue a master's degree in social work.