Leyanis Diaz ’15 envisions a bright future for Miami. Currently representing our city as Miss Black Florida USA, Leyanis is using her platform to inspire young girls while promoting and advocating for health, education and entrepreneurship among minorities. She’s also shining light on Florida as a hub for diversity, creativity and opportunity.
Despite facing her own obstacles as a minority, an immigrant and as a first generation college student, Leyanis moves forward – embracing her next goal, to become the next Miss Black USA – with compassion and unwavering optimism.
For Leyanis, pageants offer the chance to connect with her community and inspire change. Although pageants aren’t about beauty for Leyanis, I think it’s safe to say this alumna is beautiful, both inside and out.
Read on for our Q&A with Leyanis and learn how you can help her become the next Miss Black USA.
Tell us about your years as an FIU student. What were your goals?
People say college is supposed to be the best four years of your life and I can definitely say that mine were. Even before graduating high school, I knew FIU was my dream school; I didn’t want to go anywhere else. FIU was the perfect place for me. It had the career program I wanted to embark on and I would be able to stay close to my family.
As a first generation college student, I was a little nervous. For the most part, I went into it alone. My freshman year, in fall of 2011, I went to classes and then straight home. I spent a lot of time on campus with a busy schedule, but I didn’t take advantage of all the opportunities FIU had to offer.
The next summer, I took a public speaking course and befriended two young women. They talked to me about getting involved and the upcoming sorority recruitment. I decided I wanted to join a sorority, mostly to meet new people and get out of my comfort zone. Then, I became a Phi Mu! The sorority was more than I could’ve ever imagined – Phi Mu was a sisterhood, with people I could count on who would be there for me, support me and motivate me to get involved. They’re still motivating today.
Following my initiation into Phi Mu, I became a Peer Advisor, got involved with the Student Programming Council at BBC and eventually became the Vice President of Communication, planning FIU’s first ever Bayfest music festival. I went on an Alternative Breaks trip to Atlanta and studied abroad in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand with the Honors College, teaching English to natives. I became Miss Black and Gold for the Tau Delta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and had the opportunity to intern and work for Univision, CNN en Español and Radio Caracol. FIU was a home away from home. The memories created and the bonds I made will be cherished for a lifetime. I can tell you, without hesitation, that I am a Proud Panther.
Has FIU supported you in meeting your career goals? If so, how?
FIU has supported me both directly and indirectly. What I mean is, even if someone hasn’t directly provided me with an opportunity, the fact that I graduated from FIU carries a lot of weight and has opened a lot of doors for me. The university has supported me directly because I have mentors I can still go to for advice. I have sisters and friends who reach out to me when they hear of opportunities that sound like a good fit. Likewise, many departments still send me job opportunities and fellowship opportunities. FIU is always there when I need it. I haven’t reached my career goals yet, but I know that when I get there, I’ll have FIU to thank.
So far, what accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
I graduated almost a year ago now. As a first generation student, graduation was one of the proudest moments for me and for my family. I was the first of many in my family who will now do the same! Becoming Miss Black Florida USA is another accomplishment I am proud of. For a long time, I wanted to win a title that would allow me to make a profound impact in our community. This title gives me the flexibility, the autonomy and the support that I need to do just that.
Tell us a little about your career journey and how you ended up where you are today. Where do you hope to be in the next five years?
My journey is just getting started. Before graduation, I interned and worked for various media networks and companies. After graduation, I joined Florida National University as the Social Media and Marketing Representative. I was there for about eight months. When I became Miss Black Florida USA, I realized that role didn’t align with what I wanted to be when I grew up.
One day, I want to host my own talk show and own my own media company. Because the industry is moving toward digital media and more and more people are creating their own content, I knew the time to start was now. There’s really no need to wait. Currently, I am blogging and hosting events as well as speaking to our youth. Being Miss Black Florida USA has helped open these doors and I have been encouraged by the organization.
What are your goals as Miss Black Florida USA? What do you hope to achieve if you become Miss Black USA 2017? Where and when can we vote for you?
Honestly, I have too many goals to count! As Miss Black Florida USA, I plan to promote and advocate for health, education and entrepreneurship among minorities. I also want to work with organizations and businesses to promote Florida as a hub for diversity, creativity and opportunity. If I can contribute to bettering the lives of minorities in Florida, I will feel like I have made a difference. I am a minority and an immigrant. I grew up in a single-parent home and I am trying to use education to better my situation and my family’s. I also want to be a role model for young women, showing them that anything is possible.
To achieve my platform, I am working with the Embrace Girls Foundation, Health in the Hood, Dream Defenders, South Florida Black Business Directory and I am a leadership fellow for FIU’s Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center for the Advancement of Women in Communication hoping to make a profound impact in Florida and then, hopefully, the United States if I become Miss Black USA. No one has won from Florida yet, and I hope to be the first. This year, my ultimate goal is to fundraise and support 50 Florida organizations that are positively impacting the minority community. The pageant is next August in Washington, D.C. I don’t have much information on voting just yet. It’s too far out, but I do know there is a Viewer’s Choice.
Fundraising is most important right now. All the funds I raise will support the organizations I work with and allow me to continue helping and making a difference.
Help me continue to make an impact in our community and beyond and get to the Miss Black USA 2017 national competition in D.C. Donations can be made at gofundme.com/MissBlackFLUSA.
Can you tell us more about your volunteer work with Embrace Girls Foundation, and any other organizations you spend time with?
I mentor young girls in the Embrace Girls Foundation program. I also assist with after school tutoring and the planning and execution of events, including tea parties with notable local guests, field trips, rap sessions and more.
The Embrace Girls Foundation Embrace Girl Power! After School Program & Camps is a non-profit organization established in 2001. Little girls learn to be healthy, confident, ambitious and educated young ladies. The lives of elementary and middle school-aged girls are improved through academic tutoring, leadership training, life and character educational skills coupled with social and cultural opportunities and exposure they might not ordinarily experience.
With Health in the Hood, I assist mostly in the gardens and with the promotion and advancement of the organization.
Health in the Hood implements and maintains community gardens in food deserts, along with nutrition and fitness education, in order to break barriers between low-income communities and healthy choices. Putting children on the path to healthy futures, Health in the Hood is teaching parents valuable information and creating environments that support healthy choices. The gardens are community-driven, making them more sustainable. Not only do the gardens increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables, they serve as living classrooms for kids to connect to their food choices and learn to grow their own!
I recently became a member and supporter of Dream Defenders, and look forward to working with them to make some noise in Florida.
Dream Defenders is an uprising of communities in struggle, shifting culture through transformational organizing, believing in people over profits and that nonviolent resistance is the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.
With the South Florida Black Business Directory, I am working to get the word out and helping to plan their launch event in December.
Concerns in the community have caused South Floridians to create a solution centered on the “Black Dollar.” It is said that a dollar only circulates within the black community for 6 hours. Set to release in December, the directory will shed light on thousands of legitimate Black owned businesses in Miami-Dade and Broward County; thereby increasing the longevity of the Black Dollar’s time in its community.
And I still feel like I’m not doing enough! (Well Leyanis, we’re impressed!)
What obstacles have you encountered since graduating? Since entering the pageant world? How have you overcome them?
As a young professional or as a “millennial,” I think one of the biggest obstacles we face is not being taken seriously. I’m constantly told I need to pay my dues and to get more experience, but many entrepreneurs had an idea and had the passion, didn’t pay their dues and were still successful. I know a lot of them today. There’s no perfect formula for success and the way I see it, what worked for you might not work for me, so I’m creating my own definition of success.
Recently, someone told me “We’re not here for us, we’re here for others,” and to me, that’s the true meaning of success: making enough money and gaining enough power to do something for others.
As for pageants, I struggled for a long time to find a system that was tailored to women that look like me. I started competing with natural hair this year and would often get so close to winning, but would never take the title home. I don’t know if it was the judges, my look, or something else, but I became extremely frustrated. To me, pageants aren’t about beauty or setting the foundation for a career; they represent rolling up your sleeves and making a difference in your community. That’s all I’ve wanted and still want to do. As an afro-Latina, I felt it was my duty to other little afro-Latina girls to persevere despite my frustration.
Since I was little, I’ve pictured myself gracing stages and television screens. I idolized the women who competed in Miss Universe, wanting to represent Cuba, but, with the exception of Miss Universe, I rarely saw women who looked like me. Today, I still don’t see many afro-Latino individuals in the media. I want to change that. I found a pageant system that accepted me and appreciated me. That’s why this title is so important to me – it means that I can inspire another little girl, just like me. That’s really what it’s all about.
As an alumna, how are you staying involved with FIU and why do you feel this is an important connection to maintain?
I still have strong ties to the organizations I was a part of during my time at FIU, including Alpha Phi Alpha, SPC-BBC and Phi Mu. I recently hosted the first Mr. and Mrs. HSO pageant and judged the FIU Black Female Development Circle’s Miss Woman of Excellence Pageant. Recently, I was part of the FIU Little Haiti Community Breakfast, invited by Saif Ishoof, Vice President of Engagement, whom I met at the Black Professionals Summit. FIU is everywhere I go and FIU is always on my mind.
I think it is important to maintain a strong connection to FIU to remember my roots. I came from a low-income family, and if it wasn’t for the financial aid FIU provided me, I may not have been able to afford college and may not be where I am today. To me, it’s important to stay connected to pay it forward. There’s someone out there that needs my help like I needed help four years ago.
What advice do you have for current FIU students?
Get started now! Whatever you want to do, just start now! I think that we usually make excuses for starting because we’re scared of failing or rejection, but my biggest regret is not getting started sooner. But remember, we all have our own paths and things happen for a reason. So although I feel like I’m getting a late start, I’m not competing with anyone and shouldn’t compare myself to anyone else. There’s more than enough room for all of us. But start getting experience now! You don’t have to wait until junior or senior year to get an internship. Find a mentor and start working toward your dreams.
Never give up, never settle and most of all, don’t let obstacles like money keep you from doing what you want to do.
For more information on sponsorships, collaborations and working together email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Leyanis, thank you for serving as a steadfast beacon of hope and bravery in our vibrant community.