Current Students: Student Profiles

Student Profile: Breanna Wilkerson, C'2015

Note: This article originally appeared in Spelman's 2012-2013 Report on Philanthropy. Wilkerson recently participated in the 2015 Spelman College Commencement ceremony after overcoming major health challenges.

BreannaWilkerson-200In a life marked by upheaval, as a teen, Wilkerson began dreaming of something nobody in her family had achieved: a college education. After all, she already knew she wanted a career in public health researching the incidence and treatment of HIV /AIDS among women of color, after the premature death of her mother from the disease.

“I found Spelman through my own research,” says the San Antonio, Texas, native who lived with her grandmother to avoid foster care placement. “I didn’t know anybody that went to Spelman.” While balancing high school and, along with her brother, taking care of their disabled grandmother, Wilkerson learned of Spelman’s top ranking for African-American women going into healthcare professions. She applied, was accepted, and packed her bags for Atlanta.

“I was in a bad place,” she remembers. “I can’t get any private loans because I’m independent, and I don’t have a co-signer or any real credit....Brewer Scholars saved my education.”

It’s been two years now since Wilkerson arrived on campus. These days, she continues to exemplify a purpose-filled life. The professors guiding her women’s studies major and public health minor recognize her hard work. What may not be as visible is her focus outside of the classroom in her work as a resident adviser, her service on her class council, her position as a social justice associate, and her commitment to Spelman’s Student Health Associates and Peer Educators organization also known as SHAPE.

Wilkerson has also found time and energy to start a Spelman chapter of GlobeMed, the first such chapter on the campus of a historically Black college or university. “It’s a grassroots organization with a mission to end healthcare disparities in underserved communities,” she explains. Through GlobeMed, Wilkerson will partner with a community in Kumasi, Ghana, on a public health intervention.

When asked what drew her to to GlobeMed, Wilkerson said: “My grandmother (Mima), always taught me that if you move with love, everything else will take care of itself. I truly believe that GlobeMed moves with love, and that has been the core to all of its groundbreaking successes. GlobeMed embodies everything that I genuinely love and have been searching for as a woman-student-activist-scholar-global health-enthusiast. I’ve always described my activism as being “bigger than myself”, and GlobeMed has transformed that phrase into such a literal sense. GlobeMed continues to cultivate and mold my voice.  I truly believe that our lives begin to end the moment we are silent about things that matter. Well, the power of GlobeMed is alive, and there’s no doubt that global health matters. It’s humbling to know that will never fade.”

“These purposeful students are on a mission. But as first-generation students they face several challenges, including carrying a lot of responsibility,” says Spelman board chair Rosalind Gates Brewer, who established a scholarship to support students like Wilkerson. “When they think the odds are against them, I think they’re in their favor because they are fighters. Nine times out of ten these students are breaking the mold when they come to Spelman College.”

And while most students worry about grades, Wilkerson’s path has also involved finding solutions to very real concerns about money. In the middle of spring semester last year, she thought she wouldn’t be able to continue at Spelman because of financing. “I was in a bad place,” she remembers. “I can’t get any private loans because I’m independent, and I don’t have a co-signer or any real established credit.”

Wilkerson had begun packing her bags to leave when she learned she’d received a Rosalind Gates Brewer Scholarship, one of nine annual grants (eight at $10,000 and one at $20,000) established by the chair of Spelman’s board of trustees and renewable each year. “I was thankful and blessed,” she says of the scholarship, which is awarded to first-generation college students. “The Brewer Scholarship saved my education. I don’t know what I would have done or where I would have gone.” Instead of leaving Spelman, she was able to dive back into her coursework.

Grateful, Wilkerson sees scholarships not just as important in her life but as an important equalizer in the world of education: “They allow students who come from underserved communities to have the same chance as those around them, dispelling the assumption that you have to be rich to be smart.”

Wilkerson, talked about her experience at GlobalMed's 2014 GROW Institute in Chicago:

"There are not many spaces in this world constructed for me. As a parentless, low-income, first generation student and Black woman, I find myself in a reoccurring situation of having to negotiate or explain my seemingly complex narrative. Not only has GlobeMed become a central and necessary space for my vision and voice, but it serves as the most consistent driving force in my intellectual activism." 

She is a Social Justice Fellow under the Spelman College Social Justice program and a research assistant at the Environmental Protection Agency where she examines various environmental pollutants and its effect on the exacerbation of asthma in minority communities. Her previous research includes social and health behaviors among HBCU students under the supervision of Dr. Younge in the psychology department at Morehouse College, state testing procedures in relation to mass incarceration and the transmission of HIV/AIDS in collaboration with Dr. Cox in the economics department at Spelman College, and public health research entitled “The Sleep Disparity: The relationship between Race/Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Status, and Sleep Quality” under the supervision of Dr. Carnethon at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Wilkerson is a member of TRIOTA Women’s Studies Honors Society, and has been named The Maroon Tigers “Woman of the Year”. She has attended, presented, and guest lectured at the Yale Black Solidarity Conference, Women in the World conference, American Public Health Association Expo, and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minorities. She enjoys thrift shopping, taking selfies, eating mangoes, and discovering new music.