Assata Zerai, associate dean in the Graduate College, is the recipient of the 2015 Larine Y. Cowan Make a Difference Award for Leadership in Diversity. In addition to her position in the Graduate College, Zerai is director of the Center for African Studies and associate professor of Sociology.
Zerai’s contributions to the campus are numerous. In the Graduate College she oversees the Educational Equity Office, which provides programming and services to enhance diversity in graduate education at Illinois. In 2014-2015, she collaborated with campus leadership to secure a one million dollar grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to create a Sloan University Center for Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) at Illinois. The grant is aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented graduate students in STEM fields. In the Department of Sociology, she initiated a standing Diversity Committee that continues today and created a database of emerging scholars in inequality and transnational research in sociology.
An active member of the African Studies Association, Association of Black Sociologists, and ASWAD (an organization committed to scholarship on the African Diaspora), she typically organizes panels of young scholars to present their work at these conferences and other relevant professional associations. She also chairs an Illinois Program in Humanities Research (IPRH) reading/writing group on Africana Feminisms.
Zerai’s research interests include promoting the voices of marginalized people and works toward greater inclusion. Most recently, her book “Intentionality in Intersectional Communities” (Lexington Books, forthcoming) examines volitional communities that have made strides to include African American and LGBTQ members and analyzes successful strategies to bring about enhanced diversity and inclusion.
“Professor Assata Zerai through her professional scholarship, administrative expertise, and outstanding example is making a profound difference in the lives of underrepresented minority students and faculty across our campus and beyond. It is difficult to imagine a faculty member at the University of Illinois making a greater impact than Professor Zerai. Assata Zerai’s creative, collaborative, and theory-driven research agenda has made her a leading authority and a national change agent and she richly deserves to be named as a 2015 Larine Y. Cowan Make a Difference Award recipient,” said Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, dean of the Graduate College.
The award is given in honor of Dr. Larine Y. Cowan, past director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access (ODEA) at the University of Illinois. There are four categories for the award including Advocacy for LGBTQ Affairs, Excellence in Access and Accommodations, Leadership in Diversity, and Teaching and Mentoring in Diversity. All four are awarded by Illinois’ Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access. Zerai received the award at the 30th Annual Celebration of Diversity on Friday, November 6, 2015.