Igniting Community Activism Through Student Leadership

Vannalee Cayabyab at IGNITE conference

The University Honors Program encourages students to engage in leadership to foster lifelong skills and make an impact in our UC Davis communities and beyond.

Vannalee Cayabyab, Political Science and Spanish double major ’19, exemplified student leadership throughout her undergraduate career at UC Davis, tracing back to her first year. Vannalee made her mark through her leadership roles in women's political leadership organization IGNITE, BRIDGE: Pilipinx Outreach and Retention, and even co-founding Pilipinx in Business and Law (PIBL).  By finding intersections between her identities as a woman, Filipina, and Political Science major, she founded and created the different spaces to foster these passions. Vannalee developed as a leader, scholar activist, mentor, and so much more.

Igniting Political Ambition in Young Women

Vannalee first found her home in IGNITE, an organization that advocates for and develops the political ambition in young women. During her first year, she was mentored by Leanne Bolaño, another Filipina student. Vannalee noticed the parallels between her and her mentor: both women of color going through the same struggles. These similarities allowed her to also recognize that, “I can [be a leader and thriving scholar] too.” She continued to be a general member throughout her first and later the Activities and Events Planning Chair her second year.

Vannalee with Stacey Abrams
Vannalee Cayabyab with Stacey Abrams, nominee in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election

In her third year, Vannalee became president of IGNITE. As president, she aimed to recreate inclusiveness and empowerment within the organization. She intentionally made sure that the space was inclusive and welcoming, and through her presidency she pressed the importance of uplifting one another in this field. Her favorite memory was introducing keynote speaker Stacey Abrams, who ran for Georgia governor 2018, during the 2018 IGNITE summit. She loved the growing membership, and the activism that stemmed from IGNITE.

A Filipina American Leader

Going into her second year, Vannalee took on integral roles in the Filipinx American community at UC Davis by becoming a Pilipinx Youth Conference mentor and a mentor for BRIDGE’s Mentors Always Helping And Leading (MAHAL) program. Through these programs, she was able to mentor Filipinx high school students and a Filipinx first-year at UC Davis. While getting involved in this community at Davis, she also took UHP’s ASA 1: Historical Experiences of Asian Americans with Professor Ho. Through that course and BRIDGE, she realized the importance of knowing history and knowing herself. Her community’s resistance pushed her to pursue these roles and “establish our ground and rise in a space that wasn’t entirely made for us.”

“I come from a community that has been fighting for a long time.”

Inspired by IGNITE, Vannalee also wanted to experience a space that supported Filipinos in law. Working with Cyrina Avila and other Filipinx American students at UC Davis, Vannalee was a part of the founding process during her second and third year. In 2017, they founded Pilipinx in Business and Law (PIBL). Today, the membership continues to grow and the organization has put on a multitude of events that support Filipinx in these fields.

Drawing upon her previous experience in BRIDGE as well as her ASA 1 class, Vannalee became the Student Academic Achievement Coordinator for BRIDGE her fourth year. Through programming such as the Pilipinx Empowerment Conference, MAHAL program, and various workshops, she was able to advocate for educational equity for the Filipinx American community. She hopes the community will recognize the intersection between their various identities and collaborate more on programming.

Vannalee at Fil Grad
Vannalee at Fil Grad 2019, where she was the recipient of the Most Outstanding Filipinx American Student Award.

Translating Leadership into a Larger Picture

When asked why she chose to be a part of BRIDGE her final year, rather than IGNITE and PIBL, she stated that “[I] did my part. You do your part, and trust that the leadership you leave behind will continue your work.” She also said it is important to translate the skills she learned through those organizations and apply them to other parts of her community.

Her leadership roles gave her insight to certain issues and fostered her passion for her communities. During her third year with UHP, she decided to fulfill the Project Activity by doing an Honors contract with Professor Mark Verbitsky in the Political Science department. Through this contract, she developed a better relationship with the professor, an interest in research, and a drive to go to law school. With Professor Verbitsky, Vannalee looked into constitutional law and did research regarding preemption and immigration.

Her work with Verbitsky eventually translated into her fourth year Signature Work on immigration and constitutional law. Vannalee presented her research “The Institutional Determinants of Local Immigration Policy” at the 2019 Undergraduate Research Conference and the Bulosan Center for Filipinx Studies Research Conference. By pushing past her imposter syndrome, Vannalee reassured herself that “I can be a part of this department and I am qualified.”

“[From my leadership roles] I learned public speaking, networking, critical thinking, community building, and other skills.”

When asked how she defines leadership, Vannalee said she is still trying to learn this. “You should center yourself by thinking of who you do this work for. Find out what your values are and have passion. Stick to these values—community, empowerment, authenticity, [and] inclusiveness. Create that safe space.” She also accredits her leadership positions for allowing her to grow outside of academics and challenge herself.

Vannalee Cayabyab will be attending the UC Davis School of Law in the fall and doing research and work related to constitutional law. Her ultimate goal is to become a judge.