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Giving Voice to Vision

Safiya Jafari Simmons '03 was sure she wanted to be an electrical engineer. She chose the science and technology track in high school, took advanced math and science courses, along with some programming courses, and did some elementary circuits and robotics work at a local university.

"That interest, coupled with the fact that Lehigh has a well-renowned engineering program and that my mother Linda (Washington) Jafari '77 is an alumna, made Lehigh an easy decision for me," says Simmons. "I'd been visiting the campus since my junior year, knew some faculty and other leaders, and it already felt like home. I was accepted to a few colleges, but they were never really contenders. Lehigh had me at my first step on South Mountain."

Halfway through her sophomore year, after having earned the lowest grades of her entire academic career to date, she changed her major to journalism and never looked back. "I've always been a writer but thought of engineering as my career. My only regret was that it took me so long to realize I needed to make that change," says Simmons.

Simmons honed her reporting skills in the basement of the University Center as a writer for the The Brown and White, Lehigh's student newspaper. She says she found her voice at Lehigh, literally and figuratively.

"Long before I became a columnist for the school paper, I responded to a letter to the editor that ran in the paper my freshman year lamenting the fact that the university was investing in renovating the existing Black Student Union room," Simmons says. "The student who wrote the original letter likened it to the university consenting to pay for the fraternities' beers on The Hill. At the time it simply felt natural to call stupidity out for what it was. I wouldn't learn for some time, though, that there are so many who don't know they have a right to have an opinion and further, that they have a voice and a right to use it."

By writing that piece, Simmons learned that she'd given voice to individuals on campus who were afraid to speak up about what they were thinking. So when she applied to be a columnist for the paper her senior year, Simmons knew she wanted to continue to elevate the stories of what it was like to be a student of color at Lehigh, out of a sense of duty to her mother and those students of color who didn't have a vehicle through which they could sound their voices.

"I always knew, from the moment I first began visiting Lehigh in high school, that I'd likely be the university's first legacy of color," Simmons says. "And I wore that as a badge of honor and as a call to service. These experiences were critical after I graduated, as I learned that I had to be my own best advocate at all times. There were still many a bump and learning curve along mastering that realization, but Lehigh really formalized all that my parents had poured into me and prepared me to pull from those skills and reserves beyond campus."

After graduation, Simmons participated in a yearlong Paul Franz Advancement Internship, where she split her time between responsibilities in advancement and admissions. In that internship, she planned and hosted the university's first-ever black alumni reunion. As result of that initiative, she raised money for the black alumni to offer a book scholarship to an incoming multicultural student.

Simmons went on to graduate school at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia where she received a master's degree in writing studies. From there, she went on to a rich and diverse career in communications. From spokeswoman for former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to press secretary for United States Representative Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to consulting communications director for the Center for Policing Equity, Simmons has gained valuable experience in her field. She is also founder of a women's empowerment group--the Leap Luncheon Series™--that is now formalizing as a nonprofit, and she remains at the helm of her own PR and communications strategy firm, SJS Communications, LLC.

"It continues to be an amazingly blessed and exciting ride for me."

That ride would not be possible without the education she received at Lehigh.

"Lehigh is a school for the curious, the serious, and the passionate. Lehigh students personify a curiosity for learning, not just for learning's sake, but for the sake of those around them and the world at large," she says. "Quiet as it's kept, we offer the diversity of majors and programming that we do because we know that not everyone knows what they want to be for the rest of their lives the moment they apply or even a year after they begin. But we seek out students who are passionate about living their best lives as their authentic selves and who are looking for an institution that will support and equip them to do that. Everyone's experience is different, of course, but I think few folks who matriculate through the university will argue that Lehigh left an indelible imprint on who they are and where they are now."

To show her gratitude to Lehigh, Simmons offers her time as class columnist for The Bulletin, the university's alumni magazine. She served one term as a director-at-large on the Lehigh University Alumni Association and just last year was appointed to the university's Board of Trustees.

"I remain active because I want to help build a pipeline of alumni of color who are engaged and active with the university, and because, at the heart of it all, I still want to be able to elevate the good stories. I want the university and the wider community to know about the awesome things alumni do, like Patrice Banks, the CEO and founder of Girls Auto Clinic; or Corey Harrison, who was appointed as a 2015-2016 White House Fellow; or Gerrae Simons who's owned and operated Mellow Massage and Yoga in Philadelphia for years. I could go on and on!"

Lehigh holds an even more significant place in Simmons' heart... it's where she met her husband, Enrique Simmons Jr.

"My husband and I have been together for 15 years and celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary in October," Simmons says. "He's a police officer in Washington, D.C., and we have three children. I'm praying that I get at least one to graduate from Lehigh."

When time allows, Simmons enjoys public speaking engagements and is a contributor to The Huffington Post. She enjoys traveling to talk about everything from communications and PR to women's empowerment, social media and faith. "I like good food, warm people and quality time with those that matter to me. I like living on my own terms. And I like elevating and amplifying others."

Story by Leslie Feldman

 

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