We had an opportunity to sit down with Sierra Weiss, Gann class of 2014 and now a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, GA to learn more about her work on disability inclusion and how she’s used her Gann education to realize her passions while helping make the world a better place.
Gann: We know you’ve got a lot going on. Tell us a little about your transition to Emory and your academic focus.
Sierra: It has been busy for sure, but also a great experience. When I arrived at Emory University after graduating from Gann, I found that there wasn’t any one major that fit my specific interests. So, in true Gann style, I worked with Emory’s Interdisciplinary Studies Program, which allowed me to create my own major. Gann showed me how powerful an education unique to your interests and passions could be. Since I was exposed to studying a topic that I loved during my time at Gann, I was not ready to lose that momentum in college. Gann taught me how to self-advocate and to design the education that I wished to receive, which gave me the tools to create a major that I am truly passionate about.
My curricular focus is on disability studies and bioethics. I am also deeply involved in Emory’s Undergraduate Disability Studies Initiative and last semester I assisted Professor Jennifer Sarrett in her research on how to make the workplace more inclusive for people on the autism spectrum. In addition, I’m involved with Hillel, Chabad, and Meor on campus and I recently declared a Jewish Studies minor.
Gann: How did your time at Gann influence your path and where you are today?
Sierra: Gann taught me the importance of inclusion and supported me advocating for people with disabilities. During my junior year at Gann especially, I was given two amazing opportunities to delve into my budding interest in disability inclusion. Throughout my junior year I studied one on one with a teacher about the genetics of Down syndrome through Gann’s Independent Research and Design program. And, during Exploration Week, I was given permission to travel to Israel for the purpose of learning more about their innovative programming for people with disabilities. These experiences shaped the path I have decided to follow in my studies in college.
Further, in my advocacy work for people with disabilities, I find myself returning to lessons I learned while at Gann. Gann taught me to stand up for what I believe in and to campaign for the rights of each and every person. Gann provided me with the skills necessary to eloquently explain my point of view, while always considering how others see the issue as well. And, finally, Gann instilled the values of tikkun olam in me, which inspire my passion for the inclusion of people with disabilities.
Gann: And you also work for the Ruderman Foundation while running your own non-profit, is that right?
Sierra: Yes, I started as an intern at the Ruderman Family Foundation while I was at Gann. The Foundation is dedicated to the mission of disability inclusion and has been an incredible learning experience for me. I have worked as an Outreach Associate full-time in their Boston office during the last two summers and part time during the school year.
And, in my not so free time, I am the President of a non-profit organization called dance4empowerment. My non-profit started as a Tikkun Olam project during my Diller Teen Fellowship sophomore year. It got some early momentum and I decided to turn it into a formal organization. We’ve been recognized in several local newspapers, by the Boston Celtics as a Hero Among Us, and by an official letter from former Governor Deval Patrick, The program’s impact continues to expand as we host dance programs for children with disabilities each year.
Gann: That is impressive. A last question: why is inclusion so important to you?
Sierra: Inclusion is so important to me because I believe that every person deserves equal rights and access to independence, education, and a fulfilling life. I think that I bring a unique perspective to the fight for full inclusion because I do not have a familial connection to disability inclusion, just a deep passion for the equal rights of people with disabilities. I learned the importance of fighting for what you believe in and making the world a just place at Gann and continue to take these lessons with me today.