Baylor Student Is One of Nine Champions for Change Recognized by White House

February 29, 2016
Riya Rahman

Riya Rahman courtesy photo.

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WACO, Texas (Feb. 29, 2016) – Riya Rahman, a senior political science major, was recognized recently at the White House for her work in ending child hunger.
Specifically, Rahman was named as a Champion of Change for Summer Opportunity. Summer opportunity refers to learning, jobs and meals for children during summer vacation in the United States. When school lets out for the break, most students are excited, but many lose their only consistent source of meals.
To ensure children succeed and do not lose the progress they make during the school year, local, state and federal leaders, as well as volunteers like Rahman, work to keep children who are stuck in the "opportunity gap" safe, healthy and engaged until school starts up again in the fall.
For the past two years, Rahman has worked to end child hunger with the Texas Hunger Initiative and Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.
"I found myself in this issue. I found something to wake up and be passionate for. I found something to fight for. I found a value in my voice that I didn’t know I had," Rahman said. "I would never have thought that I would be recognized for doing work that I love, work that has already given me so much, let alone be recognized by the White House."
Rahman was recognized at the White House on Friday, Feb. 26. Although she was the youngest Champion for Change, she spoke on a panel facilitated by the Acting Secretary of Education with some of the other champions.
"I felt so humbled to be speaking to such a large group of inspiring people. I got to represent THI, No Kid Hungry, Baylor and every single person who has supported me in my life," Rahman said. "I was also representing the Summer Meals Program and protecting it for the one in five kids in the U.S. that will need it this summer. My passion for this cause was reignited, and I will work every day to make sure I’m worthy of such an honor."
Laura McBride, temporary full-time lecturer in the English department in the College of Arts & Sciences, has known Rahman for years and said she has always been impressed with Rahman's kind and caring personality.
"I have always thought that Riya would find herself in service to others because she possesses such compassion and love," McBride said. "She never stops trying, no matter what. Once she has made up her mind, she is going to tackle any project that comes her way and she will do it with such grace. She sees the good in everyone and every situation and will work tirelessly to complete what she sets out to do."
Doug McDurham, director of programs for the Texas Hunger Initiative, called Rahman "bright, hard-working, committed and creative."
"There are few students who commit their time and energy for the cause of social justice in the way that she has," McDurham said.
The summer opportunity gap is a very real issue in this country, McDurham said, and he told the story of a high school student he once met who purposefully failed all of his classes so he would have to go to summer school and would therefore have access to food.
"Hunger is real in our country," he said. "It doesn’t look like hunger in developing countries, so it is easier to hide – and easier to ignore."
THI works at the local, state and federal levels to bridge the gap between the resources that exist and the people who need them most, increasing access to existing programs, maximizing the efforts of charities and creating collaboration to strengthen the work of the community.
Rahman got involved with THI two years ago on a service learning mission trip to Washington, D.C.
"Her eyes were opened to the breadth and depth of childhood hunger right here in our own backyard," McDurham said. "Riya returned to her hometown of Dallas with a heart burdened for those in need. She started volunteering in Baylor’s Texas Hunger Initiative Dallas office and has been part of our team ever since."
For Rahman, the issue of child hunger hits very close to home.
"My parents are from Bangladesh, a third-world country, and they grew up without a lot of money," Rahman said. "My father is actually from a very rural village, and he often spoke of his youth and how he would wake up hungry, wondering where he would get his next meal. My dad worked extremely hard to get himself out of Bangladesh and build a better life for his family. When I heard about food insecurity in the United States, I was astonished. The mission trip opened my eyes to this issue, and I couldn’t rest until I did something about it. I expected food insecurity in developing countries, but never in my own country – in this better life that my father had built for us."
When she returned from the mission trip, Rahman reached out the Texas Hunger Initiative’s Dallas Regional Office and began working in Summer Meals Outreach.
"I saw a whole new Dallas that summer, and I was moved," Rahman said. "Seeing children in low-income communities benefitting from these meals made me realized how lucky I was to grow up in a home where food was always available, and I really struggled with the fact that kids don’t choose their lives. No child wants to be hungry, and no parent wants that for their kids. I wanted to be a voice for those kids, especially since they did not have the ability to speak up for themselves."
During the mission trip, Rahman also had met with staff from Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign, and she applied to be its youth ambassador for the fall. She worked at THI’s Central Office on student engagement for the first semester and then incorporated public policy the following semester.
"I remembered feeling like I had made a difference in Dallas during my summer there, and I was just one student," Rahman said. "I couldn’t help but think of the large population of Baylor students that might now know that hunger exists in their communities too. I wanted grassroots mobilization on a college campus, and I wanted to raise hunger awareness and give students an opportunity to be a champion for the one in four kids in Texas that needed them."
After she spent one year as youth ambassador in THI’s Central Office, Rahman went back to the Dallas Office as a Summer AmeriCorps VISTA. She piloted the Excellence in Summer Meals Campaign, an objective evaluation process created to discover what was working and what wasn’t with the Summer Meals program in Dallas, while recognizing sponsors that were doing excellent work.
"Every day I got to go to multiple sites and see the kids in my community who needed these essential programs," Rahman said. "My summers in Dallas fuel my work during the school year. As an undergraduate policy analyst, I work on child nutrition policy on a state and federal level. I get to take the experiences I had over the summers and funnel that into my policy work. I saw good things about the Summer Meals program, and I also saw some challenges."
Rahman said that Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which happens only once every five years, is up this year, and she wants to use her experiences to talk to legislators and hopefully influence policy.
"Systemic change occurs when there is good policy to back it up," she said. "Anything related to Child Nutrition and government relations, I can work on it and be the voice for those kids who don’t get to go talk to their legislator."
Rahman is also organizing the very trip that got her started on this path two years ago.
"This May, we get to take a whole new group of Baylor students to D.C.," she said. "Hopefully, their lives change like mine did."
McDurham said THI has benefitted from the best that Baylor has to offer, including graduate assistants, interns, student workers and volunteers.
"Without exception, our students excel," he said. "They bring their passion and skills for social work, theology, journalism, nutrition, public health and a half-dozen other majors to our work every day. They are gaining professional skills and growing their professional networks while making the world a better place. Riya stands out, but she is part of a team of Baylor students who stand out!"
This year, THI will partner with Baylor Missions on its fourth "Hunger in America" trip to D.C. and its first "Hunger in Texas" trip through West Texas. The organization will announce its summer internship and jobs on its website
Rahman is looking for a job that will allow her to continue working in child hunger advocacy.
"I don’t know where exactly I’ll end up, but I know that I would be happy as long as I could make a positive difference and work to the best of my ability," Rahman said. "I know I’ll find the right opportunity when I see it."
by Jenna Press, student newswriter, (254) 710-6805
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.