Inaugural Social Justice Scholarship Recipients Use Architecture, Dance to Advocate for Diversity and Inclusion

Melinda and Abena
Wednesday, June 9, 2021
First recipients of the UNC Charlotte Alumni Association Scholarship are CoA+A students.

Two COllege of arts + Architecture students, Abena Atiemo (pictured above right) and Melinda Erickson (left), have been named the inaugural recipients of the UNC Charlotte Alumni Association Scholarship for Social Justice. Each student will receive $1,500 to assist with their tuition and fees. This funding recognizes their dedication to the pursuit of social action on campus and in their communities.

“Our University is committed to aiding students as they work to help others and create inclusive spaces that benefit UNC Charlotte, their fellow students, their hometowns and the greater Charlotte region,” said Chancellor Sharon L. Gaber. “This scholarship will empower Abena, Melinda and future students to use their talents to advocate for causes that impact us all.”

Established by the Alumni Association in 2020, the UNC Charlotte Alumni Association Scholarship for Social Justice provides support to returning undergraduate students with a demonstrated financial need who show potential for academic success and have a record of service and advocacy. While not automatically renewable, the scholarship may be awarded to the same recipient more than once. 

“We want this scholarship to be representative of those who have gone forth to pave the way for our future leaders,” said Frenchie Brown ’91, who serves as president of the UNC Charlotte Alumni Board of Directors. “As alumni, we have a responsibility to speak up about injustices and inequalities and ensure that we are representing our University’s mission and purpose of equality for all.”

Atiemo, who is a junior, chose to major in architecture because her dream is to create structures that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also improve the world. Through her role as a student aide in UNC Charlotte’s Sustainability Office, Atiemo is able to explore her interest in the intersection of architecture, sustainability and accessibility. 

“If the work I do doesn’t help my neighbor, my classmate or my friend, there is no use in doing it,” said Atiemo, who is from Portland, Oregon. “Black women compose less than .03% of the architectural field, so I am a part of a community that is not well represented. I want to use my voice, no matter how small it is, to make this field more inclusive and build opportunities for members of marginalized groups.” 

This fall, Atiemo was selected as the 2021 recipient of the School of Architecture and American Institute of Architects Traveling Fellowship. She’ll travel to Ghana in July to study how colonialism shaped the architecture of the Gold Coast. As the child of Ghanaian immigrants, Atiemo is looking forward to exploring how architects are bringing the country’s cultural identity back to the region. After graduating, she would like to focus on architectural projects that are accessible to all individuals and empower her community.

Erickson began to explore her love for dance as an adult. She surprised her friends and family when she returned to college to major in the subject. Her work with migrant and indigenous populations as a research associate with the United States Environmental Protection Agency led her to enroll as an early-entry graduate student in Latin American Studies. She combines these two passions when teaching capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that incorporates dance, as an instructor for Upstate Capoeira. 

“Educating others about capoeira, which is resistance in motion by brown and Black bodies, allows me to change hearts and minds one class at a time,” said Erickson, who is a mother of two and originally from Lake Vermilion, Minnesota. “Thanks to this scholarship, I am able to continue offering free classes and provide kids with a way to connect to a rich culture and history that empowers them to live as conscious and global citizens.” 

After graduating from UNC Charlotte, Erickson wants to study Latin American studies and dance at the doctoral level. She hopes to work with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to expand her teaching of capoeira — and other cultural demonstrations — to refugee populations in Charlotte and abroad.

"I am impressed with the quality of our first class of scholarship recipients and their passion for making a difference on our campus and beyond," said Sallie Sistare, executive director of Alumni Affairs at UNC Charlotte. "I look forward to seeing the many ways that Abena and Melinda will enact change and inspire others to make a difference in their own fields, workplaces, communities and our world."

To support the UNC Charlotte Alumni Association Scholarship for Social Justice, visit