Each year, a graduating senior is selected to serve as the student speaker at commencement. This year, Aja Gregg, graduating with a degree in sociology and social justice and a minor in psychology, will deliver the student address to her fellow graduates. A McNair Scholar, basketball player, and an alumni relations intern, Aja has made a big impact at Northland since leaving her home state of Florida.
In the days leading up to graduation, Northland College writing major Toni Alioto chatted with Aja to learn more about what brought her to Northland, her wishes for her fellow graduates, and her future plans.
Toni: Let’s start with your early years. Can you share a little about what shaped you?
Aja: I would have to say family. My mom and my grandma shaped my will to accomplish a lot. They set the bar pretty high because they both went to college and got their master’s, so I felt obligated to go, too.
My mom is my biggest inspiration because she didn’t leave high school and get her bachelor’s right away. She got her bachelor’s when I was five, then went back to school to get her master’s. Watching her do that I was like, wow, that’s a lot of work. Seeing how hardworking she was, and how she never settled for less, that really motivated me.
Toni: How did you figure out what you wanted to do in college?
Aja: Well, at first, I wanted to be a dental hygienist. I took a biology class here. Then a zoology course. They didn’t go so well. I remember crying to Dr. Andrew Goyke. I ended up passing his class, but he said “please promise me you’re going to switch your major.” And I was like, “Okay!” I just wasn’t passionate about it. So, I switched to sociology and fell in love. I knew it was for me and was what I wanted to do.
Toni: So, now that we know your inspiration, what brought you to Northland?
Aja: I was looking at schools and Northland chose me. They recruited me for basketball. I didn’t know much about the school. I didn’t even come and visit, but I knew it was the best choice for me to break away and figure out who I am. Then I came up and it was kind of awkward at first, because I knew I didn’t look like everybody else. I was like, dang, people might not talk to me.
Toni: Look at you now!
Aja: I know. That changed immediately. Everyone was so friendly, and I’m from a big city where you pass people and they don’t say anything. But here, everyone’s like, “hey, how are you?” You know they genuinely care about you. After being here, I knew it was the place for me. And when I get older, I want to settle down in a place like this, a small community, just because I come from someplace so big. I graduated high school with a class of eight hundred people—that’s more than the people who attend here. I like being part of a community.
When I looked up Northland’s student-to-faculty ratio, I really liked that it was so low. I knew that if I went to a large school, I would be just a number and not get anything done.
Coming to Northland, I formed great connections with all my professors. Not even just professors, but staff, too. Everyone just wants to make sure you’re okay, and they genuinely care. I feel like it’s a great community to be in.
Toni: Over your time at Northland, what all have you been involved in that you can remember? Any clubs or programs that really stood out to you?
Aja: I worked at the Diversity Center, I was on the women’s basketball team, and I was this year’s Don Chase alumni relations intern.
Toni: How did you spend your time as an intern?
Aja: Branching out and getting to know people. Posting what’s happening on campus and keeping alumni updated on Facebook. It was so fun interacting with people on campus, I had to remind myself that this was not for a college audience, this is for alumni, so what do they want to see? It was mainly historical pieces, interviewing people who might have worked here when alumni were here, or talking about traditions we have, and bringing that back to light and hearing what their favorite experiences were when they were here. Because many of our traditions go back a while, and alumni from even the class of ’70 and beyond will talk about being king of Snofest or send in photos of those events.
Toni: What has your favorite Northland tradition been?
Aja: Snofest was fun! I asked myself if it was even real life.
Toni: What has been your highest point during your time at Northland?
Aja: My highest point would have to be my senior year. I had let my GPA fall, but in my senior year, I raised it back up and am graduating with a B average. I would have to say that’s my highest point, seeing all my hard work paying off—knowing sometimes I don’t believe in myself—but to never give up, because once you put your mind to something, you can accomplish it. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned from being at Northland.
Toni: That’s pretty amazing. Because it’s really nice to know other people believe in you, but to believe in yourself, that will get you through your whole life.
Toni: What are your plans after graduation?
Aja: I plan to go to graduate school at West Virginia University. I want to be a sociology professor, so I’m going there to pursue that.
Toni: Are you looking forward to your transition out of Northland?
Aja: I don’t know how I feel. I think I’m still trying to process that I won’t be here anymore. And I don’t think it will hit me until I leave town and realize, okay, I’m not driving back in anymore, this is it. I feel I’m excited to move forward, because it means I’m one step closer to having my doctorate and being a professor. I’m one step closer to being where I want to be, but I also don’t know the community there. I know Northland genuinely cares, and knowing I’m leaving is kind of like leaving home for the first time.
Toni: With what you’ve learned here at Northland, what do you think you’ll carry with you throughout your life?
Aja: Networking. That’s how I got foot in the door to the McNair Scholars Program, just by meeting the right people, interacting with everyone, and getting yourself out there.
Toni: That is what this school excels at.
Aja: Exactly. I went to a banquet for the McNair Scholars Program, and one of my co-workers told me to always say yes to everything. And I was like, you know, the reason I’ve gotten so far is because I really did say yes to everything. I didn’t know Jackie Moore in alumni relations and she came up to me and asked if I wanted to be the alumni relations intern, and I said okay. Dr. Kevin Shanning said I should do the McNair Scholars Program, and I said okay. Dr. Danielle Sneyd asked me to be a research assistant, and I said okay. So just saying yes to new opportunities where you have no clue what you’re doing but learning and figuring it out.
Toni: You can always change your mind. Or fail and learn from it.
Aja: Yes. And after I heard that advice, to say yes to everything, I knew I was going to keep that with me for the rest of my life.
Toni: Now, a little about the big day. What is the topic of your commencement speech?
Aja: How community is a big part of our lives, whether we know it or not. How we should always try to have those genuine interactions with others and be a part of a community. How it is important to always be a part of something. Even if you feel like you’re alone, if you branch out and seek help, you’ll realize there are so many people rooting for you and, so many people care about you. That’s part of my speech, but also never giving up.
Toni: What do you hope the graduating class takes away from your speech to carry with them through their next transition?
Aja: Never let anyone tell you that you what you can or can’t do. If you put your mind to it and believe in yourself, you can do anything you want.
For more of Aja’s story and her wishes for the class of 2022 graduates, attend the Commencement Ceremony in the Ponzio Stadium or tune into the livestream on Saturday, May 28 at 11 a.m.