Jacob Odom finds his voice at UND

Junior wide receiver Jacob Odom helps lead conversations about race and diversity on campus

In the past year, Jacob Odom has found places on campus where his passion and perspective help move the conversation forward regarding race and inclusivity at UND. Photo by Sam Melquist/UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

When Jacob Odom came to UND, he knew he’d be playing football. But he didn’t know he’d be sharing policy ideas with the University’s president, let alone leading the student body in a campus-wide dialogue about race and inclusivity.

In other words, the younger Odom wouldn’t have guessed that his early recognition on campus would come from his performance off the field, rather than on it.

But Odom chose UND because he knew the environment would give him the chance to grow as a person. And in the years since, his experiences have surpassed the expectations he’d had when he left Wheaton, Ill., his hometown about 30 minutes west from downtown Chicago.

Now suiting up for an unprecedented spring football season and in a new conference for UND, Odom says the team went into its first kickoff with a new sense of culture and unity based off of conversations he helped start, as well as activism he has helped lead.

This past year, Odom became one of the few undergraduates and athletes on the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion initiated by President Andy Armacost. He’s also the representative of the football team for the Student Athletes for Inclusion and Diversity (SAID) group.

Both of those are in addition to his personal charity work, as well as his ongoing effort to establish a Black student-athlete organization at UND.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Odom, a junior and kinesiology major, of his UND career thus far. “UND has been the place where I’ve achieved the most growth in my life, so I feel blessed to have the opportunities I do now. And I’m excited for what’s to come.”

When past and present ignite

Football – the sport that Odom saw as his “ticket out” from the project housing and seemingly limited opportunities of his youth – is in a way a microcosm of society, Odom said. There are many types of people on the roster that a team needs in order to win.

“Even from that basic analogy, you get an idea of unity, and how important it is for society,” he remarked.

So in 2020, as George Floyd’s name became known by nearly every American, Odom started looking around the virtual locker room. The team was gathering on Zoom for meetings, and the topic of Floyd’s death weighed heavily on the hearts of many.

“In the conversation about Floyd’s death, it really sparked something inside of me,” Odom said.

The “something,” it turned out, was Odom’s life experience as a Black male in America. For generations, the Odom family’s history has been impacted by the forces of systemic racism and oppression, Odom said. It’s a history that he grew up gradually understanding, as well as witnessing in real time in a poverty-line neighborhood threatened by drugs and violence.

“It all just kind of snowballed into leading up to this conversation with the team,” Odom recalled.

And, going back to why he chose UND, Odom felt that the distance from home and the radical shift from urban to rural would give him the best opportunity to mature. Though he knew from the start that he’d be surrounded by people who mostly hadn’t grown up the way that he had.

“There’s an interesting dynamic between the small-town kids from North Dakota and kids from the inner-city who have seen more and ultimately have a perspective on life that’s a lot different,” Odom said. “You can see when it’s tough for people on the team to really empathize with their Black teammates, or even just Black people in general.

“And that’s not to blame them; it’s just a representation of where they’re from. And I think we’d be naïve to not take advantage of the opportunity to try and mend together, to really learn from each other.”

From the team to the top

So Odom did just that, and brought his experiences to bear for the team. He told them some of the experiences that he and his family had gone through, and how his upbringing in Wheaton could have easily been in the notorious South Side of Chicago if not for his grandfather’s skill as a brick mason during the Great Migration.

Odom’s honesty and vulnerability resonated, and it changed his trajectory at UND as a student-athlete, advocate and activist. Head Coach Bubba Schweigert noticed Odom’s passion, and soon enough Odom and teammate Jaxson Turner were sitting for a discussion with President Armacost, just as the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion was coming about.

“Jaxson was someone who had previously spoken up about things that have happened on campus involving racism, and we both met with the president to talk about things we could possibly do,” Odom said.

The conversation inspired Armacost to select Odom to take part in the Task Force comprised of administrators, faculty, staff and students.

At around the same time, Coach Schweigert saw a chance for Odom to serve as an ambassador for the football team in an up-and-coming group housed in UND Athletics: Student Athletes for Inclusion and Diversity.

In Odom’s eyes, both SAID and the Task Force were organizations that were striving toward the same goal: making UND a better, more inclusive environment for everybody, no matter what they look like, where they come from, or how they identify, Odom said.

What Odom brings to the student-athlete conversation is vulnerability, said lead advisor Tyler Burmeister, and a willingness to share experiences that help others ‘connect the dots’ through complex topics. Photo by Sam Melquist/UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Value of honesty, vulnerability

As recruiting for all sports at UND expands geographically, the diversity of students coming to UND increases, too. In fact, 29 states and 16 countries are represented by University athletes, said Tyler Burmeister, UND’s director of student-athlete development and a lead advisor for SAID.

Thus, more support has been needed to connect athletes to resources and help introduce them to the Grand Forks and campus communities.

“What Jacob really brings to SAID is a willingness to tell his story, to put himself in a position of vulnerability among the group,” said Burmeister of Odom’s SAID contributions. “It lets all of our student-athletes who attend our meetings put themselves in his shoes, and connect the dots as we’re tackling complex discussions.”

For his part, Odom said he has embraced the responsibility of being the ambassador for the football team. As is the case at many colleges and universities nationwide, football rosters are the most diverse representation a school has, he said. Ongoing efforts of SAID include developing jersey patches to show unity across the community, supporting diversity, and connecting with Black student-athlete alumni to talk about their UND experiences.

“What I’ve tried to bring to SAID are the perspectives that come with representing that many more Black athletes and athletes of color as an ambassador,” Odom said. “And there’s a burden that comes with being a Black student on campus, in that people immediately assume you’re an athlete as opposed to another regular student attending UND. It’s been a great opportunity to speak to that and represent that.”

Positioned to learn and contribute

Meanwhile on the UND Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion Odom was one of the youngest people out of nearly 30 participating. The Task Force’s perspective was also much broader than UND Athletics’ role on campus.

“I was really just soaking up a lot of knowledge from the people such as Assistant Professor Tamba-Kuii Bailey and Dr. Don Warne, who have committed themselves to the Black and Native American communities, respectively,” said Odom of his participation. “The wider perspective on everything happening at UND opened my eyes to just how big of an issue we’re dealing with when we say ‘diversity and inclusion.’”

Odom found himself able to speak on the importance of having a diverse teaching staff, meaning people leading the classroom who are better able to empathize with what people such as Odom have been through. It made a difference in the recruiting process, and it certainly makes a difference when it comes to academic performance, Odom said.

“That was a perspective that I think perhaps the higher-ups on the Task Force don’t get to see as often, and I was honored and privileged to offer my two cents on what that impact is like. Because, at the end of the day, the University is all about helping students succeed.”

Making change sooner, rather than later

On a personal level, Odom also has worked outside of an organizational structure, doing things such as raising money for Thanksgiving meals for the less fortunate. He and his fiancé put signs up across town with information on how to donate, and the couple ended up providing holiday fare to 16 families in the Grand Forks region.

Photo by Sam Melquist/UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

“Growing up, I was one of those kids that had their holiday meals at the local church or community center,” Odom said. “And now being in a position where I feel wealthy in comparison, with my own apartment and bed to sleep in, it just felt like the right thing to do.”

Being on the other side of charity was an unforgettable experience, and it only emboldened his spirit of wanting to help others, he said.

“It was incredibly humbling, and it felt like affirmation that everything I’ve been through wasn’t just for nothing,” Odom said. “It’s definitely something I plan on doing again in the future.”

And, back at UND, Odom is setting the foundation for a student-driven group with the help of his teammates. The Black Student Athlete Association, as he’s hoping to call it, won’t be exclusive to Black membership. Instead, all student-athletes will be welcome to take part as an educational venture.

Odom envisions mentorship programs, book club-type discussions around literature and films, as well as more chances for UND student-athletes to connect with people outside of the Athletics realm, such as campus police and academic leaders.

“I think there are a lot of great things that we can do within that student-led structure, and I think we have the ability to move forward with the organization sooner rather than later,” said Odom.

If someone had told the freshman version of himself that he would have the admiration of not only his head coach, but the Athletics Director and the University president, Odom wouldn’t have believed them.

But he’s a believer now and is grateful for the opportunities he has encountered at UND, both on and off the field. “I intentionally made myself think about the growth that I would experience coming here,” said Odom. “I had a goal of, by the time I left, to grow in every aspect of being a man and becoming the person that I’m really destined to be.”