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University of Missouri

Lighting the Fire

MSA execs ignite Mizzou through pride, progress, truth and vision.

2015 MSA officers

Payton Head and Brenda Smith-Lezama met in the Social Justice Committee as freshmen. Now juniors, they are president and vice president of the Missouri Students Association. Photo by Rob Hill.

When juniors Payton Head and Brenda Smith-Lezama came to the University of Missouri, they both dealt with culture shock. Head, a political science and international studies major from Chicago, grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. Smith-Lezama, a journalism major from Brunswick, Georgia, had never been around so many diverse people.

Despite wildly different origins, both found themselves on the Multicultural Issues (now Social Justice) Committee of the Missouri Students Association (MSA).

“That’s where I started to feel like I had a home at Mizzou,” Head says. “It was other students who wanted to help make Mizzou one, who wanted to make sure all voices were heard inside of student government.”

Head and Smith-Lezama, who was crowned Miss Missouri Teen in 2013, made history earlier this year when they became the first double African-American slate to win an MSA election.

“Especially with the events that have occurred in the past year, I don’t think there is a better time we could have stepped into office,” says Smith-Lezama, referring to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

With their campaign, Ignite Mizzou, they want to feed students’ passion for the university. One approach will be through better communication. Smith-Lezama remembers sitting in MSA meetings as a freshman and hesitating to speak up. “The one thing I wish is that when I was feeling that way, somebody had stopped me and said, ‘Hey, you can make a difference regardless of what position you’re in,’ ” she says.

So they created an ambassador program whose MSA members educate other campus and community organizations about MSA and how they can be more involved.

“I want any student to feel like they can be [president],” Head says. “This is their student government.”