When UND Football Coach Bubba Schweigert called on redshirt sophomore Jacob Odom over the summer, he wasn’t calling to talk about his performance on the field.
Instead, Odom says, Schweigert asked him to take on a different kind of leadership role: as a team ambassador for UND’s Student-Athletes for Inclusion and Diversity (SAID) group.
The call came soon after a regular team meeting over Zoom this summer in which UND Football teammates and coaches got to talking about the nationwide focus on social justice following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer.
“We were creating a dialog and trying to develop more of an understanding between all of us,” said Odom. “There’s such a need for change in our culture, and I think (Coach Schweigert) could tell that I was passionate about that.”
Jacob Odom's tattoo holds a special meaning. During a particularly tumultuous time of his childhood, he came across the Bible verse James 1:12, "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial." He says the verse motivated him to keep working hard, and today Jacob feels fortunate to have received a scholarship. He studies kinesiology with minor in sports business.
SAID was formed at UND in 2019 as a student-driven organization. The group’s advisor and UND Athletics’ Director of Student Athlete Development Tyler Burmeister says that as recruiting strategies branch farther out geographically, the student-athlete population has become increasingly diverse.
“We’re starting to see an influx of more international student-athletes, so the early talks were all about how we can make sure they feel welcome, safe, part of our campus community, athletics department, and part of the greater Grand Forks community itself,” Burmeister said.
Now in its second year, SAID’s ambassadors represent every sport on campus. During the NCAA’s Diversity & Inclusion Campaign on Oct. 27-29, those ambassadors led their teams’ social media and outreach efforts on campus – the hockey team watched a documentary and held a discussion on race relations, the cross-country team had a Zoom meeting with Professor Casey Ozaki, Department Chair of Education, Health & Behavior who specializes in issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the football team launched a video stating that they advocate for unity, compassion, and brotherhood.
Katie Bierstedt, a founding member of SAID and senior catcher on the softball team, said the softball team adorned smiley-face pins as a visible and lasting symbol of support. “We wanted something tangible that would mark us, for our teammates and others, to know that we have their backs,” she said. “It kind of marks us as allies or safe people to speak to when things are hard or you need support.”
Katie Bierstedt is studying biology with a focus on pre-dentistry. After an internship with a local pediatric dentist, she wants to care for children and individuals with special needs.
In 2019, SAID hosted a Thanksgiving meal for all student-athletes – with a special focus on international students – so no one would have to spend the holiday alone. In January, the group was able to create a stipend for a student to attend the Black Student Athlete Summit in Dallas. In February, Black History Month, a soul food night celebrated Black culture and history.
This year, SAID ambassadors led an effort to achieve 100% voter registration among UND student-athletes. This being the first opportunity for many of them to vote in a presidential election, many had never registered. And with their residencies spread out across the country, the rules for doing so were varied.
“We felt that it was really important to make sure that our student-athletes were educated and properly using their right to vote as American citizens,” Bierstedt said.
An elevated platform
As student-athletes, Odom and Bierstedt recognize their unique platform as campus leaders.
“When you go out on the field, your actions matter because people are watching,” Odom said. “So, we’re focused on taking advantage of our platform and trying to use it for the better.”
Burmeister, the group’s advisor, says that focus on leadership and answering a call to make a difference has been essential to the group’s success and points to a bright future, as student-athletes take up social justice causes ranging from race issues to LGBTQ+ to mental health awareness.
“Our student-athletes realize that they have these platforms, they’re being vulnerable, they’re putting themselves out there, and they’re doing it because it’s something they believe in,” he said. “And they’re trying to make a positive change.”
He adds that University leadership has backed SAID from the get-go. “We know that we have support from our Athletic Director Bill Chaves and President Armacost.”
For Odom and Bierstedt, SAID has been a jumping off point in their personal development and leadership, both pointing to a need for increased dialog and empathy.
Odom is working to implement a Black Student Athlete Council to create a welcoming environment for Black student-athletes.
“And it’s not to be an exclusive group, but it’s acknowledging the fact that we’re Black people and what we go through is a little different,” he said. “We’re trying to create more of a binding and brotherhood aspect within us so that when certain circumstances do come up, we’re more equipped to handle it.”
As for Bierstedt, who initially joined SAID to help create a more welcoming community for her teammates moving to Grand Forks from a variety of diverse backgrounds, she feels it is her time to step back and listen.
“I think that’s been the biggest thing for me to come out of this group: the ability to empathize better with the people around me and understand how I can help them.”
By Alyssa Konickson
Photos by Sam Melquist