Striving for Success; Oballa runs for LeadMN president, aims for hunger-free college campuses

Published 9:08 am Friday, April 5, 2019

Leading by example, Riverland Community College student Oballa Oballa is making changes to help fellow students, and he’s not slowing down anytime soon.

The LeadMN vice president is looking to take the next step and run for the organization’s presidency in order to help solve some pressing issues that college students face, including food insecurity and mental health. LeadMN connects college students for change and represents 180,000 two-year college students statewide to help transform their lives and communities.

If elected, then Oballa would become the spokesman for the association and would be responsible for testifying on behalf of LeadMN to the Minnesota State Board of Trustees, as well as other Minnesota Senate and House committees. The president is also be responsible for media relations.

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“As former Riverland Student Senate president, public relations coordinator and also Austin Human Rights Commission member, I had so much experience by working on great projects and addressing different issues,” Oballa said. “Through support from the community and the college, I was able to accomplish great stuff such as establishing a food pantry at the college, which has led to a statewide movement.”

LeadMN is leading an initiative called “Hunger Free Campuses” which seeks to address food insecurity on community and technology college campuses by making sure no student goes hungry while pursuing an education. Data from the Wisconsin Hope Lab indicated that 42 percent of college students don’t have a steady source of food or cannot afford to feed themselves or their families.

Oballa Oballa

Oballa shared that a Hunger Free Campus would include the following:

A food pantry, partnership with a food bank or some type of food distribution system on campus that’s available to students.

A designated staff person on campus to educate students on SNAP and other public services aimed to reduce food insecurity.

Emergency funds to assist students who may be experiencing basic needs insecurity.

A task force dedicated to addressing food insecurity concerns.

Participation in at least one hunger awareness event every year.

From stories collected on campuses, Oballa shared that often times students choose between paying tuition and textbooks or buying food to feed themselves. Some opt to skip classes because of hunger, while those who do attend class struggle to pay attention because they’re hungry.

LeadMN leaders also learned that many students didn’t know where to go for help on campuses and many live in anxiety from not being able to provide food for themselves or families. Often times, students resort to using a campus food pantry as the only steady source of food they have, but pantries struggle to stay open because of troubles associated to donation sources or staffing.

This had led Oballa to run for LeadMN president as a way to continue advocating for students.

“These reasons showcase a growing issue on our campuses and the need to address food insecurity at a state level,” he added.

Hungry for change

Oballa was born in Gambella, Ethiopia, and grew up in Kenya prior to moving to the United States with his family in December 2013 as refugees in search of a better life and opportunities.

That search became a journey into who Oballa became as a leader for higher education. In 2014, he attended his first year in a vocational school and served as president of the Student Government Association at Boxelder Job Corps in Rapid City, South Dakota. He is also graduating from Riverland this May with his associates degree in human services. He was also accepted at St. Scholastic College for social work and will be attending classes starting this fall.

“It helped me grow as a person and improve my leadership and communication skills,” Oballa said. “This experience motivated me to become a better leader and join the Student Senate when I enrolled at Riverland Community College.”

Oballa eventually was elected as the public relations coordinator of the Austin senate for 2016-17, and in April 2017, became Student Senate president for Riverland during the 2017-19 school year. He was also elected as LeadMN platform representative for southeast Minnesota. Oballa also serves as a board member for the Austin Human Rights Commission, which advocates for diversity and equality in the city.

As LeadMN vice president, Oballa dedicated time to fighting food insecurity among college students statewide and traveled to different campuses to discuss how schools were addressing food insecurity. Because of LeadMN efforts, more than 25 campuses now have action plans for addressing student hunger.

“I am so proud of the work we have done so far, but I believe that we have more to do,” Oballa said. “We need to have our legislators backing us up in addressing this issue and I am working with them to create a ‘Hunger Free Campus’ for our students by providing grant funding to students in need.”

Through connections and relationships he built, and hopes to continue building in the future, Oballa believes that LeadMN can accomplish more to eradicate food insecurity in college. He has made plans to travel to every city in Minnesota and connect students with local communities to help address issues they’re facing.

If elected president of LeadMN, Oballa wants to continue addressing food insecurity on college campuses. He has testified at the state to help encourage lawmakers to establish food pantries and food shelves across Minnesota campuses.

“I want to work on a system that will help all students struggling with food insecurity and that is why I support the Hunger Free Campuses Act to support and create a food pantry for every campus,” he said.

Another primary focus for Oballa is addressing mental health on college campuses, noting that some college campuses don’t have places to address the issue and help students who are struggling to seek assistance.

“I want to tackle this issue and I look forward to learning more about how mental illness can affect our students and listening to our students in order to learn more about how to address the issue next year,” he said.

Lastly, Oballa believes that PSEO students face “a greater challenge of discrimination at their high school,” and stated that he would be working with LeadMN PSEO students to look for ways to resolve conflict. He said he would be open and listen to any issues students were encountering.

“I am running for LeadMN president because I am still hungry for change,” Oballa said. “I would like to continue advocating for students and fighting for their rights.”