Former VSU Health Leader Speaks on Collegiate Life, Career Goals, and how Sweat can make you Smile!
Erika Neal has a story that can motivate any #SweatSister! The Richmond, Virginia native is currently a fourth-year Provost Scholar at Virginia State University, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Spanish. After her freshman year, Erika decided to hang up her spikes and focus on academics instead. Now that she was no longer running Track and Field, Erika struggled with maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which consequently led to body image issues and depression. After finding fitness, Erika was able to do a complete 360 and turn things around for the better!
You will be graduating from VSU soon. Congratulations! How did your health journey change from your Freshman year to now?
When I came to Virginia State, my health journey relied on running track and field. After freshman year I decided to hang up my spikes and focus more on my academics. I fell into a depression because athletics has been a part of my life since I was in elementary school. My diet didn’t change after I stopped playing sports, so I gained weight and I was just so uncomfortable with my body. When I found PRETTY GIRLS SWEAT, I had low self esteem and wore a lot of athletic clothes to hide my stomach. PRETTY GIRLS SWEAT not only helped me make the transition from being an athlete to a normal college girl, but I gained so much confidence in my body in just one semester! My sisters encouraged me to stopped focusing on my weight and start focusing on my health. Now as a senior about to go into the adult world, I know the importance of making sure that I still go to the doctor once a year (even though I don’t have to get a physical for athletics) and that its okay to take time for myself. PRETTY GIRLS SWEAT showed me what sisterhood looks like and now I want to make sure that I support women in the same way that my sisters have supported me.
Why did you decide to become a health leader on campus and how did the role shape your collegiate experience?
I think the main reason I decided to become a health leader is because of the area that we live in. Petersburg, VA has a high concentration of poor African American families that have access to plenty of fast food restaurants, but little to no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. When I joined PRETTY GIRLS SWEAT, I really took it upon myself to lead by example. That means getting water in the cafeteria instead of juice, getting the baked chicken on Fried Chicken Wednesdays, or simply making sure that I had at least 3 vegetables on my plate (that aren’t drenched in butter or sauce). I also had positive attitudes at the workouts. I wasn’t able to do everything, but the things that I did do, I did my best! Becoming a health leader really changed my overall leadership dynamic. I started to lead by example in other aspects like mentoring, tutoring, and other organizations. Instead of preaching about being organized or studying for x number of hours, or even just coming to meetings on time I first made sure that I did that myself.
How have you been able to stay motivated while in school? What keeps you going on your “off days”?
My friends and my career goals help me to get out of bed in the morning. God blessed me to be able to see my purpose early on in my college experience and it has been a driving force ever since. My ultimate goal is to empower women professionally, spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically and educationally. There are so many ways that goal can play out, but my purpose is to represent those who feel like their voice isn’t heard. Thinking about the communities that deserve to have their story told, and the people within them drives me to be the best person that I can be.
The anticipation of Post-Grad life seems very exciting! With so many endless possibilities and the world in your hands, what will be the next step for you?
After graduating Virginia State University, I am planning on attending graduate school in the Fall of 2020 (stay tuned for when I decide which school!). I hope to start my professional career in health policy analysis or working with a nonprofit organization that benefits Historically Black Colleges and Universities and their students. My ultimate career goal is to become the Governor of Virginia and a United States Senator representing the commonwealth of Virginia.
How are you staying fit now?
Staying fit and healthy for me involves trying new things! I love going to those free first-time classes just to see if I will like the activity (I usually do!). I know its really hard to commit financially to a gym membership, but I really encourage my sweat sisters and other women that can get to an off-campus gym to commit to it simply because of the equipment and trainers they offer.
Do you have any advice to give younger readers who may be interested in attending your university?
Attending Virginia State University or any HBCU is the first step I took to helping my community. We are tight knit and a big family! Our campus has a lot of organizations so there is always a place for you to find your group. I always encourage interested scholars to come to VSU ready to work for their degree and to interact with people of all backgrounds that can take you to new heights.
Who’s your biggest fitness inspiration right now?
I have two and they have been role models for me ever since I started playing sports. Serena Williams and Allyson Felix are two women that demonstrated to me what strength and owning your blackness looks like. I appreciate them so much more for being transparent on their own terms when it came to their pregnancy because they shed light on a topic that needs to be heard around the world: black women and the racial disparities with clinical care in the medical field. Pregnancy is not about how fast you can “snap back” to your old body, but it’s a journey that all women should have the opportunity to enjoy if they choose to bring a new life into the world. I aspire to have as much strength as both of these women someday (and meet them!)
What are your current fitness goals, and how have they changed since you first started the program?
When I first started my health journey, I was focused on weight and what my body looked like. Now I am focusing more on how I feel, which means making sure that my mental state is in tact and that I am healthy! I can’t stress enough that my journey has taught me that my little pouch is fine as long as I am healthy! I enjoy my workouts more when my mindset switched and when I started working out with my sweat sisters!
As a health leader, what do the words PRETTY GIRLS SWEAT mean to you now?
PRETTY GIRLS SWEAT is a lifestyle! It means that you committed to making sure that you are living the best, healthiest, and positive life you can and sharing how you do it with women who wish to do the same. It means that you support women of all shades, shapes, and sizes in their journey towards a healthy lifestyle. It means that you are no longer concerned with society’s health standards but focused on what healthy means to you! This organization has given me so much confidence in myself and my abilities that I decided to start my own business called Creating Your Crown LLC and it is dedicated to fulfilling my purpose in life. I am so blessed to have served as a health leader for my campus, and I hope that when I go to graduate school if there is not a PRETTY GIRLS SWEAT chapter, I want to start one!
Wow, what an amazing story! Guess what? You can do it too! If you want to join the #SweatSisterhood and become an ambassador, you can find out more info here.