CLASS OF 2024: Call to nature helps Danait Issac build community and cultural bonds


Danait Issac is passionate about environmental justice and strengthening cultural ties for people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. She’s tackling these issues in a unique way—taking students out of their comfort zones and into the woods.

Danait Issac, Class of 2024 (Harrison McClary/Vanderbilt)

“I want to make this world a better place and create thriving Black communities, and one way I’m doing that is through my ‘Blackness and the Great Outdoors’ initiative,” said Issac, who is double majoring in medicine, health and society and gender and sexuality studies, with a minor in environmental and sustainability studies, within the College of Arts and Science.

Issac offers free outdoor recreational trips with activities like paddle boarding, fishing and horseback riding.

Her initiative got off the ground in her junior year with the help of a grant from the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, though she had been unofficially organizing nature trips long before that.

“I love leading these free outdoor trips where we also tie in a discussion or host dialogue groups around Black people and the outdoors and find ways to decompress and heal in nature,” she said.

“A lot of times this is the first time a student is able to explore something like kayaking or horseback riding, and I've just seen a full transformation by the end of the trip.”

Issac also works on the diversity, equity and inclusion committee for the Vanderbilt student-run Wilderness Skills 101 to address what she says are historical and financial barriers to outdoor spaces for BIPOC students.


Issac first exercised her love for the outdoors as a child in the suburbs of Atlanta. As a teenager she earned an internship with The Nature Conservancy—living for a month technology-free on three preserves in Florida (Disney Wilderness Preserve, Tiger Creek and Blowing Rocks) learning about and helping protect animal habitats.

After her first year at Vanderbilt, she earned a Doris Duke Conservation Scholarship, which took her to California and sparked her passion for environmental justice.

Danait Issac on Lobbying Day as a Greenlining Institute summer associate (Submitted photo)

“Being in that space was so empowering to see because it was the first place where we all came from diverse backgrounds and diverse passions. But we all had this commitment to advocating for our communities,” she said.

Her sophomore year, one of her key initiatives on Vanderbilt Student Government was spearheading Vanderbilt’s Inaugural Environmental Justice Symposium.

“The event unpacked Nashville’s history of redlining, as well as highlighted the incredible work of community members, organizations and local governance in tackling environmental justice issues in Middle Tennessee,” she said.

The event also served as a networking session where students learned more about internship and volunteer opportunities in the Nashville area.

While at Vanderbilt, Issac took part in study abroad programs focusing on the environment and other issues in places such as the Galapagos Islands, India and Korea.

“My dad inspired my sense of adventure. He has such a spirit of being fearless and venturing into the unknown and knowing that it will be brilliant,” she said.


She says working with and respecting the earth is part of her family's long heritage in the northeast African country of Eritrea, where her parents grew up.

Danait Issac's parents immigrated to the U.S. from Eritrea. (courtesy Britannica)

“My family’s history can be traced back 30 generations to the Horn of Africa. I’m not sure about all of my ancestors’ full backgrounds, but the last four generations, up to my dad, were really successful farmers,” she said.

Because of border conflicts in their home country, Issac’s father, Tesfalem, put his name in a lottery to receive a U.S. visa. He and his wife, Mieraf, moved to the U.S. in the late 1990s and into a close-knit Eritrean and Ethiopian community in Atlanta.

“My parents left everyone and everything they knew to come to the U.S. and build a new life, which is not easy to do. And they worked tirelessly to support my dreams, to foster a love of education and learning,” she said. “My name is a traditional Eritrean name that means ‘who is the judge,’ which is deeply rooted in my culture.”

After Commencement, Issac plans to delve into the robust environmental justice work happening in Atlanta. Then she will travel to Eritrea.

“I’m interested in learning more about how women farming cooperatives are being established in the country and helping improve the nation-building efforts that are happening,” she said.

Danait Issac as a child visiting her parents' home country of Eritrea in Northeast Africa (Submitted photo)


When she’s home in Atlanta, Issac volunteers in the Eritrean Community Center there, leading college application workshops and helping other first-generation college students.

At Vanderbilt, Issac is closely tied with the Ethiopian-Eritrean Student Association. They host welcome events for students and workshops for families to help them become comfortable with their student’s college experience.

“The unique ways that we [in the Eritrean community] eat together and celebrate together and mourn together really taught me the importance of being a part of a collective and the power of community,” she said. “That feeling of community is something that I brought to Vanderbilt and I am so immensely grateful to experience.”



“One way that I’ve found immense belonging on campus is through my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Being a part of an organization filled with like-minded, incredible Black women who share similar passions of academics, excellence, public service and social action—and really finding ways to address the most pressing issues on our campus and in the Nashville community—has been incredible.”


I think dare to grow means being brave. I think it’s trusting in the parts of you that are growing and being able to sit with that uncomfortability, knowing that sometimes it’s so easy to envision where you want to be and where you want to go, but you have to grudge through all that mud to get there.”


“I would tell younger Danait to believe in herself and to know her worth. And sometimes it can be hard to see that. So, lean on your friends and the people that can uplift you and help you see that you are enough.”

Hear more from Danait in Four with a 'Dore below!

Learn more about VU2027’s Danait Issac via our Instagram. (Link in bio) #fyp #Vanderbilt

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Danait Issac, Class of 2024 (Harrison McClary/Vanderbilt)