American Library Association Awards Seven iSchool Students Spectrum Scholarships
Congratulations to the 2021 Spectrum Scholars!


The American Library Association awarded a total of 60 highly competitive Spectrum Scholarships this year to “exceptional students” across the U.S. and Canada who are pursuing a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. Seven of those recipients are students enrolled in the fully online and ALA-accredited MLIS program at San José State University’s School of Information.

Begun in 1997, the Spectrum Scholarship program aims to diversify the library profession. American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern and North African, and/or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander graduate students are eligible to apply. This year’s scholarship application asked candidates about their leadership, commitment to community building, and planned contributions to social justice.

“Social justice was a really big part of it, which was why I was actually interested in applying,” says Okunyi Chol, one of the 2021 Spectrum Scholars.

Chol and fellow scholarship recipients Brittany Butler and Karina Cardenas enrolled in the iSchool’s MLIS program with significant experiences and accomplishments already on their resumés. Chol works in Student Services at Spokane Community College, Butler has completed a fellowship in West Africa and works with individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, while Cardenas advocates for undocumented youth in California’s Central Valley. All are life-long learners, balancing work, study and extracurricular activity as they explore the new opportunities the Spectrum Scholarship program offers with curiosity and enthusiasm.

The Creative Writer

Okunyi CholA first generation American and college student, Chol has always been a library user. In her youth, the library gave her books, access to the Internet and provided “a place to go after school,” she remembers. At Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. where Chol earned a BA in Creative Writing with minors in Political Science and Women and Gender Studies, the library meant access to academic articles and the ability to dive deep into research. Library school was a natural next step. “It just popped into my head, ‘Oh yeah I should probably think about library services,’” Chol describes her decision to get her MLIS degree.

Chol continues to nurture her creative side by participating in the Diasporic Peoples Writing Collective, a student group at SJSU that works to build a platform for BIPOC and marginalized literary artists. Although she’s still exploring possible library career pathways, Chol can imagine teaching writing courses to public library users, work that would incorporate her work experience at Spokane Community College.

“We want to make sure that our voices are also heard in these spaces,” says Chol on the efforts to diversify the profession, “so we can help community members that look like us, so they have a reflection, as well.”

In her Spectrum Scholarship application, Chol wrote that her experiences as an American-born woman of the African diaspora have “given me empathy for the plight of other marginalized people and the determination to fight for our collective freedom.”

“It’s nice to get recognized as someone who advocates for social justice,” says Chol. She’s looking forward to next year’s ALA Annual Conference, and meanwhile has started to learn from the librarians on the Spectrum Scholarship listservs. “Seeing librarians and LIS professionals who are currently working, the kinds of things that they talk about and the kind of conferences that they attend, the kind of support that they offer each other is really insightful and helpful,” she says.

Spectrum Scholars receive $5,000 for tuition costs, $1,500 to attend the Spectrum Leadership Institute at ALA’s Annual Conference, as well as networking and mentoring opportunities that include a one-year membership to the ALA.

 “It’s also nice to have a little bit more financial security while I’m working on my degree,” Chol adds.

The Untraditional Student

Brittany Butler Butler agrees with Chol. “Getting your higher education funded is always really nice,” she observes, adding that the knowledge that she had been picked from a crowded field of applicants was another reward.

Butler calls herself an “untraditional student.” She attended community college for two years before finishing her BA in Black Studies and Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked in the African Study Center’s collection as a library assistant. Her supervisor there urged her to apply for a West African Research Association Fellowship, and “the rest is history,” she says.

The fellowship sent Butler to Dakar, Senegal, for two months, where she observed university classes, worked with students and learned about the information literacy and access issues they faced. After observing the outdated texts students were using, Butler created a digital library of more than 300 works of literature from the African diaspora.

Her Berkeley library supervisor also advised Butler to apply for library school, telling her, “the doors are opening up in the library world.” Butler applied for a Spectrum Scholarship twice, winning the scholarship this year after being rejected in 2020. “Because what is there to lose?” she says of her persistence. In her successful application she described her experience in West Africa and her job as a re-entry coach. Her desire, she wrote, is to “use those past experiences to be a beacon of light for the future.”

“I try to be intentional about the classes that I enroll in,” she says, describing her approach to work/life balance as she speeds through the MLIS program. When she finds a professor she really likes, she sticks with them: she’s completed one course in data visualization with Dr. Michelle Chen, with a second on big data; she’s also on her second course with Dr. Alyssa Kroski. “They’re really exceptional educators,” she says of both instructors.

The Community Activist

Karina Cardenas Community building and interest in social justice come naturally to Cardenas, who grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the daughter of Mexican-born parents. “I was always surrounded by that kind of stuff,” she says. Although her family was too focused on survival to have time for protests, she recalls, she still absorbed the activism and cultural pride that were a part of her community.

Through the years, Cardenas has been involved with a number of social justice organizations, working on housing issues, academic outreach, and cultural and political empowerment for marginalized peoples. Now based in Fresno, California, Cardenas currently volunteers with the Central Valley’s REFORMA chapter, helping to organize book giveaways for undocumented youth in detention centers. Part of the group’s appeal for her is the connection to community elders, such as Sandra Ríos Valderrama, a retired librarian and past president of the chapter. “It’s really nice to have older mentors,” says Cardenas.

Like Butler, Cardenas has already benefited from more than one library mentor. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine with a BA in History and Spanish, Cardenas earned an MA in History from California State University, Los Angeles. There she found a job in special collections, where her supervisor made sure Cardenas was exposed to all aspects of archival work; in so doing she sparked Cardenas’s passion for archives.

“You never know who’s going to come through the door and ask you the most interesting question,” says Cardenas, who enjoys the mix of intellectual research and hands-on work archives offer.

A colleague and past Spectrum Scholar alerted Cardenas to the Spectrum Scholarship program, which appealed to her for the opportunity to connect with others trying to make change. She’s enjoyed connecting with the wider community of 2021 Spectrum Scholars and instigated a recent virtual hangout with her iSchool cohort. And she’s enthusiastic about her course work as well, recommending Dr. Leigh Gleason’s class on managing photographic collections. “I love her classes, I wish I could take them more times!”

Currently working in the Special Collections department of California State University, Fresno, Cardenas plans to continue on the archival track after completing the MLIS program. “A Latin American archive dealing with industrialism, unionizing, suppression,” she describes her dream archive, a place where she’ll have the company of colleagues who share her love of archives.  

Even before they finish the MLIS degree program, Chol, Butler and Cardenas are beginning to shape not only their own futures, but the futures of those who will follow them into the library and information science field. Cardenas sums up her commitment to social justice in the library world and beyond: “The work is never-ending. You just keep doing what you need to do.”

Congratulations to all seven 2021 Spectrum Scholars from the iSchool!

  • Brittany Butler
  • Karina Cardenas (NCNMLG Scholar)
  • Okunyi Chol
  • Helen Christian
  • Jessica Nombrano Larsen (ProQuest Scholar)
  • Jessica Lee
  • Chantra Tham (ALSC Scholar in honor of Ellen Fader)

Applications for 2022 Spectrum Scholarships are being accepted now through March 1, 2022. An informational webinar for prospective applicants is available for viewing on the Spectrum Scholarship information page.