ODU student Athena Jones stands outside the White House after speaking on a panel as an advocate for home healthcare workers.
Athena Jones

Athena Jones' voice resonated with confidence and authority as she spoke alongside healthcare professionals and Secretary Xavier Becerra during a pivotal White House panel discussion this spring.

She has been lobbying for greater attention, more resources, and better health care for marginalized communities for years.

“You have to do your homework,” Jones said. “And when you get the opportunity to be heard, you take it.”

Jones will graduate from Old Dominion University on May 4 with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and global politics. Her path to becoming a vocal advocate for equitable healthcare began through personal necessity. After leaving college as a teenager to assist her family, including a brother with disabilities, she immersed herself in the healthcare sector, first as a caregiver and then as a fierce advocate.

Her research illuminated patterns of inequality in healthcare for people with disabilities, and the Virginia chapter of the Service Employees International Union asked Jones to join them to push for equitable worker rights and healthcare for home care workers. Jones is now the chair of the SEIU Virginia 512 Home Care Chapter executive board.

“I realized I'm not just fighting on behalf of a family member, but I’m fighting institutional and structural racism that exists within a system that marginalizes you when you show up,” Jones said.

Jones said the fight for worker and consumer rights can seem overwhelming, and change can be incremental. But she also knows you must be in the room where big discussions happen to usher in the change.

Along her career path, Jones felt she was missing a piece of her journey. She met with other lobbyists, and as they spoke about their college experience, Jones felt an internal pull to return to school.

“I’ve gone toe-to-toe with some pretty powerful lobbyists, and I was doing that without a college education,” she said. “Internally, I had the drive and knew I needed to finish.”

Jones found her way back to college, attending Tidewater Community College, where she received an associate degree in social sciences. Shortly after, she enrolled at ODU, and capitalized on the online program's flexibility to continue her work while getting her degree. She also found that the high-touch online approach through ODUGlobal allowed her to stay connected with staff and faculty.

"When I got to ODU, there were all these systems in place to say, 'If you want to succeed, let’s figure out how to make that happen,’” Jones said. "I cannot count how many times I asked a professor to have a conversation after class. They have never said no. Everyone at ODU has always been available.”

Empowered by the supportive environment at ODU, Jones not only excelled academically but also found a greater calling in advocacy. Her experiences at the university bolstered her resolve to champion the underrepresented and address injustices in healthcare and labor rights.

“Athena is both an excellent student and a difference maker in her profession and community,” said Joshua Zingher, associate professor of political science and geography. “Having students like Athena reflects well on the political science program and ODU as a whole. I speak for the entire faculty when I say we are tremendously proud of everything she has accomplished.”

Jones has worked with undocumented people in Florida and lobbied for the Dream Act and pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals in Washington DC. She has lobbied for workers at the Virginia State Capital, at the U.S. Capitol, and now at the White House.

“If we continue to be silent workers, if we continue to be people that are stepped over and looked around, you’re not valued ultimately,” Jones told the crowd at the White House. “When we value things in the United States, then we invest in it. Unless we decide and demand that we’re worth being invested in, they’re not going to do it."

Jones’ journey from personal caregiver to an advocate underscores a powerful narrative: substantive change can begin with individual action, and with persistence, empowered people can influence national policy and improve their communities.