Alumni Spotlight - Nichol Bourdeaux
Nichol Bourdeaux has many titles - a CSBS alumna, board member for the College of Social and Behavioral Science, and Chief Planning and Engagement Officer at Utah Planning Authority. However, it's her unique family history and connection to Utah that sets the foundation for her values on education, public service, equity, and community.
Bourdeaux reflects on her rich family history and how it informs her love for Utah, higher education, and her opportunity to shape the future of Utah.
In her family, “education has never been taken for granted,” Bourdeaux shares with a smile. Growing up, “it was never a question”. Her father, a former University of Utah football player, attended the U on an engineering scholarship. He taught her education is priority number one.
Bourdeaux traces this family principle all the way back to the settlement of Utah. Bourdeaux’s fourth great grandfather, Green Flake, was brought to Utah as a slave by Brigham Young to help settle the area. Young ultimately freed Flake before slavery was abolished. “So, my family has been free longer than the history of black men and women in this country,” Bourdeaux explains.
“Also,” she adds, “he was given land and his daughter went to school and could read and write. So now you’re looking at a black family in the history of my family that had education for a lot longer than others, and land ownership. We know those two things bring wealth and access and prosperity, right.”
“I haven’t always understood it” Bourdeaux admits, but as she’s gotten older she sees clearly, “I’ve had privilege beyond other blacks in the United States that are descendants of slaves.” And she doesn’t take that lightly, especially when it comes to education.
“All the women in my family have had education. We’ve had homeownership. They could all read and write.”
Today, she passes this wisdom on to her children, just as her father taught her, offering the powerful reminder, “Your number one weapon is education.”
Bourdeaux’s family legacy has informed her decisions throughout her life. After earning her Bachelor's of Science in Mass Communications from the University of Utah, she went on to earn her Masters of Public Administration from the College of Social Behavioral Science, where she currently serves as a board member.
Bourdeaux credits her education in social sciences to giving her professional opportunities in the non-profit sector, the Olympics, the government, and now as the Chief Planning and Engagement Officer at Utah Transit Authority. “It’s been an amazing trajectory,” she says as she reflects on the diverse positions she’s held over the years. “I’ve been lucky to have a degree that doesn’t limit me.”
“A social sciences degree gives you an opportunity to open your mind to a lot of different venues,” Bourdeaux notes. It helps people “navigate through society while also giving back.”
Additionally, Bourdeaux makes sure to acknowledge those that helped her on her journey. “I couldn’t have done anything without the support of so many people along the way.”
In her current role, Bourdeaux has been able to implement policy consistent with her goal to make education more accessible to young people. When she began at UTA, she recalled an issue while working at Sorensen Community Center, located on the west side of the valley with a high Latinx population. “Most of the kids I worked with spoke Spanish and were from immigrant families,” she remembers. During her time at the community center, she identified huge transportation barriers for young students to attend and engage in school.
“One of the things that was hard for me is East High was supposed to be their high school but it’s all the way on the other side of town. If they get kicked out of school, they go to Horizonte, which is also on the east side of town.” This presents several transportation barriers. For students living on the west side, it’s too far to walk and generally they can’t rely on parents for transportation because of their parents’ work. Additionally, students living on the west side can’t engage in school activities because they depend on school buses which don’t run all day.
This year, Bourdeaux and her team at UTA collaborated with several community partners, including the Salt Lake City School District and Mayor Mendenhall, to address these issues. They started by giving every student K-12 a free city bus pass. “It seems little,” Bourdeaux explains, “but now if they're late, or they wake up early, they can still get to class, they can still do their work. They can also go to chess club, or cheerleading, and really engage in school.”
Additionally, Bourdeaux created a bus route that travels from the Rose Park area to the University of Utah, a connection she says that hasn’t been in place since 2007.
This initiative has set the stage for newly appointed CSBS Dean Michelle M. Camacho to fulfill her goal to make the University of Utah a Hispanic Serving Institution.
“Every urban city has exclusionary spaces,” Camacho explains, “and a flagship university campus in a major city can either amplify or dismantle these boundaries. Under Nichol Bourdeaux’s leadership at UTA, new transportation from the west side to the University of Utah facilitates access and fortifies educational pathways for all of our community members.”
Bourdeaux doesn’t plan to stop there. She continues to show her gratitude to the many individuals that helped her by supporting young people and the community. She aims to make more east-west connections. “Parks, museums, hospitals, those things are on the east side. How are how are we letting our communities get connected in that way? Now, I'm going on to West Valley. We need to make sure east west connections exist there as well.”