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Commitment to community on and off campus earns Sandra Bourdon undergraduate Brittain Award
profile image of Sandra Bourdon

From co-creating a pre-orientation program to helping students who are facing period poverty and studying water cleanliness abroad, Sandra Bourdon has made service her mission at Emory and beyond.

— Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

When Sandra Bourdon has her heart set on something, there’s no stopping her. She applied to school through the QuestBridge National College Match program and only had one place on her list: Emory University. She had visited campus twice on high school field trips to the Michael C. Carlos Museum, but wasn’t sure she’d be able to attend due to her family’s finances. When Bourdon was admitted with a full scholarship, she was ecstatic about the opportunities that Emory would hold for her as a human health major with a concentration in health care innovation, but she was also ready to help others.

Bourdon grew up in Warner Robins, Georgia, seeing her parents volunteer at church and cook for the sick and needy. She brought that spirit with her to Emory, creating a new preorientation program for incoming students, helping students access menstrual products, researching clean water initiatives in Guatemala and mentoring high school students. Her commitment to service on and off campus has earned her the 2023 undergraduate Marion L. Brittain Award, Emory’s highest student honor.

The youngest of five children, Bourdon says she was the first to move so far from home for college. As a first-generation college student, she stayed in the Empowering First residential community on campus and still serves as a mentor to high schoolers through the Emory Pipeline Collaborative. She also found great support through her roommates Jonna Austin and Jissela Flores, with whom she has collaborated on many of her service projects.

“First-gen students are less likely to ask for help because they’re used to doing things on their own,” Bourdon says. “It’s good to feel like you’re not alone. In our classes, it can be frustrating when people ask where you’re going for spring break or summer vacation. Not everyone can afford to go on vacation or decide to go out to eat — it’s a weighted decision for some people.” 

When Bourdon came to Emory, the first place she found a sense of belonging was in the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life. She has served as president and secretary of the Voices of Inner Strength (VOIS) Gospel Choir. As a leader, she helped promote the VOIS Forever fund, which established a $100,000 endowment to secure the choir’s future.

In his support letter for her Brittain Award nomination, VOIS director Maury Allums wrote, “Sandra is one of the strongest student leaders that I have had the pleasure of supporting. ... Sandra’s involvement with Voices of Inner Strength has been nothing short of amazing.”

With the support of Austin, Flores and others, Bourdon increased her leadership capacity in OSRL by co-creating the Welcoming Interfaith and Spiritual Exploration (WISE) Pre-Orientation Program. In WISE, incoming students talk about, and explore, different belief systems and spiritual pathways before their first semester. To develop WISE, Bourdon visited faith and religious centers throughout metro Atlanta; trained other students in OSRL to serve as peer mentors; and became the program’s first student coordinator. Since fall 2021, WISE has welcomed 50 students and counting.

“WISE sparks conversations and allows students to understand their peers better,” Bourdon says. “It’s okay to have questions about your faith. All of the conversations are in the spirit of asking questions and being curious.” 

Outside of OSRL, Bourdon served as co-coordinator of the Menstrual Product Initiative (MPI), a partnership with Emory’s Office of Health Promotion and Center for Women to provide free menstrual products to students in need. Through a BeWell grant, she helped provide up to three months of products, and her mother helped with packing and shipping during the COVID-19 quarantine. To date, the MPI team has helped more than 100 Emory students who are facing period poverty.

Bourdon’s service also extends beyond campus. In her sophomore year, she earned a coveted Field Scholar Award from the Emory Global Health Institute to study water cleanliness in Guatemala. Due to the pandemic, the work was remote, but she was still able to contribute ideas to a distribution plan for water-filtration systems throughout the country.

As she looks toward graduation, Bourdon knows that her impact at Emory will be felt long after she graduates. Her hope is for other students to discover ways in which they can serve, connect and improve the world around them — something she will continue doing in her next chapter.

“While we’re waiting for policy to be addressed, I want to help as many people as I can,” Bourdon says. “I want to find a career that allows me to serve my community.”

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