Miriam Kamya needs look no farther than her family tree to find the seeds of her passion for public policy and service.
Her dad is chief information officer for the New York state attorney general and her mom is a specialist in the state Office of Children and Family Services.
“Always, my family has been with public service. That’s the biggest influence to me,” says the 24-year-old Albany, New York, native who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at NC State in 2013.
Since graduation, Kamya has tutored boys and coached girls’ track at a public high school in inner-city Chicago. She’s been a field organizer for a Democratic congressional campaign and an intern in the White House Visitors’ Office. Last spring, she joined the Big Shoulders Fund, which supports 82 Catholic schools in Chicago’s neediest neighborhoods, as events and service coordinator. The job is helping sharpen her career goals.
“Whatever I do will be dealing with public service and education as much as I can,” says Kamya, adding, “I wish I knew exactly what that would be, but I don’t.” She is due to complete graduate studies in public policy and administration at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 2018.
Meanwhile, Big Shoulders is her full-time job. In addition to planning fundraisers, she helps organize volunteers who do everything from reading to students to helping paint and repair their schools.
One of Kamya’s favorite parts of the job is working with financial pros who teach eighth-graders about money management. The kids — more than 60 percent of whom are from low-income households — learn how to open bank accounts and make their money grow. As part of the program, students in 50 classrooms become make-believe investors, creating and tracking mock portfolios through the academic year. For the class whose portfolio does best, there’s a return on investment: Each youngster gets a 1 percent “management fee.”
“It’s a really good way for kids to learn to manage money at a really crucial time,” Kamya says. “And it’s a great way for financial professionals — people that normally wouldn’t have an opportunity to volunteer — to get involved with the community.”
Big Shoulders also provides money for academic and special education programs, equipment and grants at participating schools. And it awarded more than $8.5 million in scholarships to close to 5,500 students this year, according to its website.
Scholarship winners also get a mentor. Kamya is one of them. The experience has been an eye-opener, she says. For the girls, it’s a chance to see an African-American woman who is pursuing a graduate school degree and a public-service career. For Kamya, it’s also been a case study in public vs. parochial education.
“I would say that a lot of my students in both (public and Catholic schools) have troubled backgrounds. Their parents had different things going on, and some of my girls do, too, but they are so focused and their education is so important to them,” she says.
It wasn’t like that in the inner-city public school where she worked for almost a year and a half, Kamya recalls.
“When I’d walk into the Chicago public school, I’d be like, ‘Where am I?’ They’re fighting and things like that. I had trouble getting the kids to class. I’d find them in the hallway or the cafeteria,” she says. “You walk into one of our schools, and it’s this calm, peaceful, respectful environment. It makes a difference.”
Someday, when she looks back on her career, Kamya hopes she’s made a difference, too.
“If I could be anything in this world, it would be to be someone people could trust and respect and believe in,” she says. “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”