October 14, 2022
By Jillian LoveJoy Photo by Chris Sponagle
Ariel Henderson ’22 is clear on her life trajectory: attend law school and become an attorney, ultimately working on revamping the criminal justice system to better serve underrepresented communities.
“I’ve always been interested in law and I’m a true believer in racial and social justice,” she said. “Activism is important to me, and so is representation. I recently saw a statistic that only two percent of attorneys in this country are Black females. That needs to change.”
This past May, Henderson crossed the academic finish line with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in criminal justice. She is pursuing her paralegal certification while studying for and retaking the LSAT. She is also working as a judicial intern for the Honorable Stephanie M. Sawyer in the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania.
“I love being in the courthouse daily. I frequently tell Judge Sawyer how important this experience is to me. Seeing her success and being part of her work solidifies my dreams and shows me every day that this is a reality within my grasp.”
BEING A LEADER
Henderson chose to attend Kutztown University because it wasn’t far from her home in Philadelphia and she was offered a financial aid package.
“I love KU and it quickly became my home,” she said. “However, there were times I felt like I – and my fellow minority students – faded into the background or weren’t properly understood or heard. Because of that, I made it my personal mission to elevate our presence on campus and become a leader and mentor for our community.”
Henderson got involved with the Black Student Union, an organization for all students of color that encourages and promotes Black excellence, and Black Flame, a diverse dance team specializing in hip-hop and modern dance.
Henderson credits these organizations for helping her hone her leadership skills. “Kutztown allowed me to rise to leadership positions relatively early on, which I’m grateful for,” she said.
“I’ve been dancing since I was a child, so I knew I wanted to be part of a dance team in college,” Henderson said. As a first-year student, she became a choreographer for Black Flame. In her sophomore year, she served as creative director; as a junior and senior, she was vice president.
Through her involvement in the Black Student Union, Henderson felt she could help unify students of color at KU, especially during the racial injustices made prominent in the U.S. during the summer of 2020.
“BSU has always had a strong presence on campus, but it became evident that we needed to do more. Our community was grieving and needed to activate,” Henderson said. Throughout the past year, their programming tackled topics like stereotypes, relationships, health and wellness including mental health, and racism in America. They hosted a gala, trivia nights, movie nights and partnered with other student groups in April for “It’s On Us,” a week of action during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
But, according to Henderson, the most impactful event during her tenure with BSU was the Black Lives Matter march in Kutztown. “This was BSU’s first official Black Lives Matter event, and it was important to host this so that our voices were heard. It’s an achievement I’m proud of, and it felt surreal to hold such a successful, uplifting event.”
Throughout her time at KU, Henderson has been a mentor to many of her fellow students – a role that comes naturally to her.
“Students need to get involved and stay involved – that’s the best way to make your voice heard,” she said. “BSU and Black Flame were my on-campus family, my sense of belonging. But it’s not just about creating community; it’s about making sure your purpose is greater than yourself. It’s about motivating and influencing people to elevate themselves so they can help others do the same.”
It’s no coincidence that Henderson has strong mentors of her own. In addition to having a strong role model in Judge Sawyer, she referenced many members of KU's faculty and staff as individuals who profoundly impacted her.
“Dr. Arthur Garrison ’90, professor of criminal justice, worked with me on my application essay for law school,” said Henderson. “I would think it was done, but he’d push me to revise and edit until it was perfect. He knew what I was capable of, and he wouldn’t let me get away with less. That was an important lesson.”
Henderson also credits people and places from all areas of campus as being instrumental in her KU experience:
Dr. Thomas Robinson and Dr. James Jackson in the psychology department, Dr. Donavan McCargo in student affairs, Baron Vanderburg M’20 in admissions, Matt Barrett from recreational services, Lloyd Smith Jr. in residence life, the Writing Center, and the Career Development Center were a few of the influences that made a difference to her.
And now, the workplace has brought Henderson a new mentor – a fellow Philadelphia-based Golden Bear. Kevin Harden Jr., Esq. ’07, a member of KU’s Council of Trustees and an attorney with Ross Feller Casey LLP, spoke at the orientation for Henderson’s internship. As her internship progressed, she and Harden were formally introduced, and they discovered that they had more than KU in common.
“As we talked, we realized that he grew up in the same neighborhood as my parents, and they were actually acquainted. Knowing that this person, who I already looked up to, came from the same circumstances as I did was incredibly powerful. He is living proof that you can overcome difficult circumstances and go on to be successful and make change for the better. You don’t have to be a product of your surroundings – you control your destiny.”
This article appeared in the 2022 Tower Magazine