Banner with headshots of two student athletes (Jenny Walker and Race Agcaoili) in uniform.

For student athletes at NYU, recognition usually comes from physical prowess and points scored in a game. But in February, women’s basketball captain, Jenny Walker, and men’s volleyball captain, Race Agcaoili, were recognized for additional reasons. In acknowledgment of their athletic achievements, academic accomplishments, and positive community impact, Jenny and Race received NYU’s MLK Jr. Award for student athletes.

To qualify for the award, student athletes must be on a current intercollegiate team roster. However, their good academic standing and active role in their communities are equally important. “Our student athletes see their roles as a privilege. They have a unique platform to effect change,” explains Carl Villanueva, senior associate director of athletics. “Having a positive impact on their communities is as important to them as any other part of their university experience. Because athletics holds a unique platform in society, it is also important to recognize student athletes for their academic and civic engagement.”

Student athlete Jenny Walker receiving high fives from teammates.
Space for All: Promoting Female and LGBTQ+ Athletes

For Jenny, serving the community has long been a priority. A junior at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, she’s majoring in Media, Culture, and Communication and minoring in Business of Entertainment, Media, and Technology. And at NYU, she’s discovered several powerful ways to combine her passion for service with her athletic ability. During the 2020–2021 academic year, Jenny cofounded the NYU LGBTQ+ student athlete union with her team. “Providing a safe space for LGBTQ+ student athletes to talk about their experience was the ultimate goal. And then to think of ways to improve that experience,” Jenny says. “Being part of the LGBTQ+ community is a unique experience. So I wanted to give everyone a safe space to express themselves.”

In addition to LGBTQ+ student athletes, much of Jenny’s work centers on female athletes’ challenges and achievements. She researched student athlete mental health and brought Title IX violations to light during an internship with Voice in Sport, a company dedicated to connecting and inspiring girls and women in sports. In addition, she coached for Grow Our Game, a Harlem-based organization that teaches young girls both basketball and life skills. “Young women are often told sports are for boys. Furthermore, the lack of representation of women in the media can be discouraging,” Jenny shares. “I want to act as a role model for these young athletes and encourage them to keep playing.”

The back of a volleyball player and a volleyball net with a game crowd in the background.
Paying It Forward: A Path to College

Race, a senior majoring in Public Policy at the NYU College of Arts and Science, channeled his passion for volunteering into a cause close to his heart: the Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities (PUEO) Program at Punahou School, his high school alma mater in Honolulu, Hawaii. The program offers young scholars a seven-year academic scholarship that includes a summer learning program, high school and college credits, and other tools to cultivate college readiness. As part of the administrative team, Race is directly involved with more than 350 student and family participants. “Many of the scholars come from unstable family situations and impoverished conditions. We provide support so they can improve their lives by receiving a college education,” Race explains. “It’s so rewarding. We know the PUEO Program works and has a huge capacity to positively impact students’ lives.”

For Race, the NYU volleyball team provides yet another avenue for service. And being its captain has been both a privilege and an opportunity for him to grow. In addition to mentoring teammates on the court, he encouraged them to register to vote. What’s more, he participated in the United Volleyball Conference’s Racial Equity Council. “It’s a great opportunity for me to develop my leadership skills,” he says. “Helping younger student athletes adjust to life at NYU and the unique set of challenges they’ll face here is my favorite part. It’s an honor to fill the spaces where the team needs me the most.”

On the court, Race and Jenny rely on their understanding of sportspersonship to help them compete with grace, collaborate with people who have different opinions, and approach teammates and opponents with respect. As NYU’s MLK Jr. Award recipients, they bring these principles to life in their volunteer work as well. “The generosity and compassion of others have greatly impacted my life,” Race shares. “So it’s very important to me to pay that forward in any way I can—to any community I’m lucky to be part of.”