Opportunity and Inspiration Senior student-athlete Laura Kipnusu relies on her family and new opportunities for motivation.

Valley High School senior Laura Kipnusu never says no to an opportunity. From competing in male-dominated sports to joining leadership programs and earning 33 Des Moines Area Community College credits as a high schooler, Kipnusu strives to always be ready when opportunity comes knocking.

“If someone gives me an opportunity, I take it,” she said.

The oldest of seven siblings and the daughter of immigrants, she credits her family with motivating her to do her best. Now looking forward to graduation on May 30, it’s her experiences with equity and activism that have helped her choose a future path.

An Unexpected Opportunity

When Kipnusu first joined Valley’s Community of Racial Equity for Advancement (CORE) group as a sophomore, she was not planning to get involved. She just wanted to learn. The first thing she learned was that she could take Advanced Placement (AP) classes. She signed up the first chance she got.

“One of the objectives in that club was to get more (people of color) in AP classes, and I never knew about AP classes until I went there,” she said, “so they scored their objective right there.”

CORE and Valley’s SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) chapter also helped Kipnusu uncover leadership opportunities inside and outside of school. This year, she helped plan and facilitate a virtual event for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and took part in student-led education during Black History Month and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“She helps propel projects forward that make a huge impact in our community,” Valley language arts teacher and CORE adviser Petra Lange said.

Creating Opportunities for Others

Beyond Valley, Kipnusu has participated in community-based youth equity activities and was selected for the Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI), a program through the Greater Des Moines Partnership. YLI offered exposure to opportunities in the arts, entrepreneurship, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), as well as a variety of career fields and equity.

“(YLI) was learning a lot about the Des Moines area and even small things that affect the way people live and the way we live,” Kipnusu said. “That was my favorite experience, meeting a lot of kids from different schools, not even from the Des Moines metro.”

Kipnusu was part of the YLI Class of 2020, but her mentor reached out to her this year and invited her to take part in an event that became one of her favorite high school experiences: planning a virtual visit with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Iowa native Nikole Hannah-Jones. It gave Kipnusu a chance to hear Hannah-Jones speak and connect with other students and adults who shared her interests.

Kipnusu has acted as a leader among Valley students engaged with equity work since her junior year, and Lange credits her with energizing her peers and bringing them together. Originally a student panelist for the Hannah-Jones event, Kipnusu recommended another Valley student for that role, choosing to stay behind the scenes. Lange says lifting up others is a hallmark of Kipnusu’s leadership style.

“Community is (something) she encourages,” Lange said. “She elevates other people’s thinking to make sure everybody gets heard.”

A Future Filled with Opportunity

Kipnusu says her ability to lead comes from her experiences as an athlete and from being the oldest of seven siblings.

“Not only did my leadership come from all of these activities, but also from at home,” she said. “All my siblings look up to what I do. Knowing that I’m involved in all of this stuff, my sister is way involved in this stuff too now. They had a huge impact and were motivation to continue doing what I’m doing.”

Her family is also her inspiration to remain ready for every opportunity she encounters.

“I believe having parents/family who immigrated here for better opportunities or moved here doing a civil war in their country drives and motivates me to do my best I can do as a thank you,” Kipnusu said in an email.

As Kipnusu starts the next stage of her life, she is figuring out how to balance her wide variety of interests. Many of her equity extracurriculars so far have centered on race, but as a competitor in male-dominated sports like wrestling and rugby, she also wants to address the gender inequities she has seen and experienced. She will wrestle for Grand View University in the fall and plans to pursue a degree in criminal justice, with a minor in biology or political science. Long-term, she wants to examine data around prison systems and education or go into forensics. She credits joining CORE with helping her find a lifelong passion.

“It was really a huge uphill moment,” she said. “I was very much a sports person and just stuck with that and nothing else, or I went from the musical to sports. Now it’s like I feel like I wouldn’t discover something that I really enjoy or something in the future that I’d really enjoy if I hadn’t joined CORE or had someone show that to me.”

All photos provided by Laura Kipnusu.

Created By
Alexandra Wade