CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Nia Jelani Wilson-Thomas keeps herself pretty busy as a senior attending Centennial High School. From serving as an executive member of Student Council to captaining her school volleyball team. However, she feels there’s always time to make a change.

One of those “changes” comes in the form of being more vocal in certain settings. When I visited Nia at school for this story, she shared her concerns as a woman of color. For example, she says sometimes the board would meet and her ideas, voice and contributions would go unheard, or even unaddressed. Now, drawing inspiration from her mother, Nia says she aims to be assertive. Respectfully, of course. But Nia also recognizes you have to be the change you want to see first.

“My junior year I did a lot in Student Council. We had a fair that I came up with. We also did Powderpuff. I made the t-shirt designs, I planned the practices. Especially during COVID, I know a lot of seniors and juniors didn’t get the experiences they deserve. So I wanted to do the same thing for my friends.”

Through her Student Council opportunities, Nia has also recently helped put together a display for Black History Month, which you’ll experience when you walk through the front entryway of Centennial High. But outside of school, Nia’s impact is truly felt with the younger generation as well. She not only volunteers time at the Freedom School, but the International Prep Academy. She’s also preparing a blood drive this year through her church, New Generation, among other outreach programs they host. Overall, Nia says it’s not enough to just get your basic education.

“School is important. It’s going to be important throughout your entire life, especially those first 22 years. That’s all you know is your education. So if you’re going to be here you might as well make the most of it.”

That mentality has opened the doors to success, which for Nia means becoming a three-sport athlete (volleyball, track and cheer) on top of taking AP classes, and participating in a cotillion. But if you ask her who inspires her most, it’s her mother Cessily. Cessily not only teaches but is Dean of Students at Centennial. But it’s not just Nia’s mother who’s taking notice of her efforts. Amy Esteves, a school Social Worker and Student Council Advisor, has nothing but praise for her.

“She takes an idea and runs with it and she’s gonna push to make that happen as much as possible. If there’s a barrier she’s going to try to go around that barrier in the right way to make it happen. Not being defeated at the first no or wall that hits. I think it’s a really great thing to be that resilient.”

Nia and Amy came together in September 2021 during a Student Council endeavor. Ever since, Amy has been impressed with Nia’s initiative to pursue her passions regardless of any setbacks. Whether ethnic or gender related. As a Social Worker, Amy constantly faces students who may struggle with their identity or background but she enjoys seeing them realize their potential no matter how long it takes. She recently learned of Nia’s interest in the Cybersecurity field, which is not only male dominated but lacking in familiar ethnic faces. Still, Amy says to own who you are.

“Just her knowing what she might face but what are your strengths and how can you overcome something male dominated. Add in a person of color. There’s always things stacked against. If you know your inner strengths and you know how good you are at something don’t let those walls keep you from doing what you need to do.”

Stay tuned for another “Celebrating Central Illinois” story next week as we continue honoring Black History Month. This time, we highlight a Rantoul athlete who won an MLK Living the Dream Award while also raking in accolades on the track. Her story airs next Tuesday when we learn how she still finds time to give back to nursing homes, the Hope Center and much more!