Meet Nayzak Wali-Ali '21

June 24, 2021

L&S Student Spotlight: Nayzak Wali-Ali ‘21
Majors: Ethnic Studies (College of Letters & Science); Legal Studies (Berkeley Law)

Nayzak Wali-Ali, Recent Graduate; Photo by John Henry Stewart IVAfter navigating serious obstacles over the past year -- the pandemic, racial uprisings, and remote learning -- most college students are eagerly awaiting a break from all things educational this summer. However, Nayzak Wali-Ali is not “most students.” 

Honored as a University Medal finalist this spring due to her outstanding breadth of work, Wali-Ali will continue to work with UC Berkeley this summer. During her first semester, Wali-Ali published an article to the Berkeley Political Review outlining how educational reparations can benefit Black American students. “I will be supporting Kerby Lynch (a Ph.D. candidate in the department of geography) and the National Coalition for Educational Reparations this summer. I’m conducting research to support a bill to start the conversation about educational reparations in California. Getting that kind of experience in race theory work will be a really interesting start to my legal education. Berkeley has given me so many opportunities like this, and I’m grateful.”

When first applying to college, Wali-Ali thought she was going to major in political science. However, she quickly realized that she was craving a more intersectional look through her education. With that, she opted to pursue both legal studies and ethnic studies so that she could examine the structures of the legal system and understand how they interact with communities of color. “I know many students have come to legal studies wanting to practice corporate law, but for me, that was never an option. I’ve always believed that if I had this wealth of knowledge, I’d use it to bring it back to my community.” 

As a transfer student from UC Davis, Wali-Ali had a relatively short period of time as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. With the benefit of focus fueled by passion, she hit the ground running. Over the course of one semester on campus and half a semester online, she joined the board of the Black Student Union, the Black Recruitment and Retention Center, and worked with the National Council for Negro Women. Asked if it was difficult transitioning to the Berkeley campus, she says, “It took me a couple of months to get my footing, but people here were really welcoming. Also, a lot of what I was learning in my courses intersected with my experiences on campus. They lent a practical, informational slant to my theoretical studies.”

Her academic experience has also been largely shaped by her professors at Berkeley. Judge Trina Thompson was one of Wali-Ali’s first professors in legal studies and invited her, along with other students, to an event. She encouraged them to “go talk to people and come back with business cards.” Wali-Ali met her future employer and has been working at her law firm for over a year. “I took two classes with Judge Thompson...she’s been extremely foundational in my educational career.” 

Wali-Ali also credits graduate student instructors, GSIs, for having a strong impact on her academic experience. “I collaborated with Caleb Dawson (a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Education) for my current research. He’s been the best support system. Since my undergraduate experience was truncated, it could have been difficult to find mentors, but he checked up on me and made sure I was taking care of myself. He and my faculty sponsor for research, Professor Leigh Raiford from the department of African-American Studies, were both great. Professor Raiford helped me with my thesis all senior year.” 

Looking ahead, Wali-Ali is looking forward to joining Columbia Law School in the fall. Currently, her interests lie in public interest and civil rights, or perhaps criminal defense. “I turned down some scholarship opportunities to attend Columbia because of the wealth of resources they have there. Their critical race theory department is one of the best in the country, with Kimberlé Crenshaw. I realized that at the end of the day, these higher education institutions are often about access. Having access to the people who are at the top of their field - that interaction is priceless.”

As Wali-Ali reflects on her time at Berkeley, she is thoughtful about her experience. “Berkeley has always been a dream for me, and not just for its reputation -- it’s always been associated with home for me. But it is an institution, and institutions come with violent structures that I see and am still learning about. I believe it’s important to be critical of institutions, even if you love them. That’s what I appreciate about Berkeley as opposed to other universities - it can encourage that criticism, even within its own curriculum.”

“Still, I’m most grateful for the people I’ve met and the community at Berkeley. We have a lot of students who put in extra work and time to help other students and leave an impact here. I truly would not have wanted to go to any other school.”