They arrived as strangers. They leave as four best friends – “spiblings” in a Pomona College tradition that goes back nearly a century.

Individually, each of the four young women is impressive. Together, Cierra Howard ’18, Kadija Yilla ’18, Olivia Onyilagha ’18 and Mahala Bryant ’18, are a force – always looking out for each other.

All placed in the same sponsor group, they bonded soon after arriving at Pomona. Yilla and Onyilagha were paired as roommates while Bryant and Howard lived just next door. “Our friendship has stayed very consistent during the past four years,” says Howard. “If you see one of us, you’ll probably see at least another.”

Mahala Bryant headshot

Mahala Bryant '18

In 1927, Pomona College created a system of sponsors for incoming women students. Older women students, typically juniors, served as sponsors to help new students ease into college life. In 1950, the College expanded the sponsor program to men.

Today, all first-year students are housed in groups of about 15, who become each other’s “spiblings.” Each sponsor group is led by two sponsors, who are sophomores and live in the same hallway and with the same goal: to help new students transition with ease into college life at Pomona.

The four started off as “spiblings.” Thanks to Yilla’s friendly one-word invitation of “Lunch?” in a group chat, they became friends and a support system for each other at Pomona, where, they note, the friends would often feel invisible as Black women.

“If I hadn’t met the three of them – if we hadn’t bonded so quickly – I wouldn’t be at Pomona now,” says Onyilagha, who is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and attended a predominantly Black high school. “I underestimated how difficult it would be for me… even now as a senior, I feel the impostor syndrome sometimes. It’s so different here from where I’m from that I ask myself, ‘Do I really belong here?’ But just having these three friends who understand the unique and often discouraging experience of navigating a predominantly white institution as a Black woman, and who I can lean on is so helpful and has allowed me to stay here for as long as I have.”

Cierra Howard headshot

Cierra Howard '18

Bryant agrees, “These are three people I can really count on for anything because they’ve always been there for me… I feel so lucky to have them.”

They also support each other in their vastly different academic interests – reading over papers and projects, editing resumes and cover letters, and practicing with mock interviews. Onyilagha, a neuroscience major and sociology minor, hopes to apply to Ph.D. programs in Africana studies in the coming future,

and knows she can count on her friends to review application materials. Same with Howard, a native of Chicago, who is a psychology major applying to medical school this summer.

Bryant, a media studies major from Belleville, Illinois, is planning to work in the entertainment industry and knows she’s got great friends to look over cover letters. Yilla, an economics and mathematics double major who was born in Sierra Leone but claims Ewing, New Jersey, as home, recently accepted a job offer with Goldman Sachs in New York – a feat she accomplished with the support of her friends through the application process.

“They really supported me through it, telling me ‘All right Kadija, you can do this!’ So I’d go to all these networking events and even though they wouldn’t be there physically, they were a text away supporting me,” says Yilla.

 Olivia Onyilagha headshot.

Olivia Onyilagha '18

It’s more than school work. With a smile, Howard adds, “It’s good to have three people you can always hang out with, someone out of the group is always interested in something you’re interested in. Someone always wants to go to a party with you.”

During their junior year, Howard and Yilla spent the fall semester in a domestic exchange program at Spelman College, a historically Black college for women, where they lived together and got to share in Spelman’s unique traditions and community. For Yilla, the experience also proved to provide powerful inspiration to take back to Pomona: “Having Black professors in both econ and math, specifically, I had two Black women professors, was amazing. Seeing that representation validated my identity in that space and gave me the energy to come back and finish both majors.”

That same semester, Onyilagha studied abroad in Scotland and Bryant in Ireland, which gave them the opportunity to travel through Europe together. “I look back very fondly: the best parts of my time abroad were the times I got to spend with Olivia,” says Bryant. Even though the group was apart physically during this semester, their connection never dwindled-- texting stories, giving advice and supporting one another whenever they got the chance.

This school year, the four friends went on a trip together that was a high point of their college experiences.

Kadija Yilla headshot.

Kadija Yilla '18 

For three years straight – really, since they first arrived to Pomona, friends Howard, Yilla, Onyilagha and Bryant would avidly follow via their social media accounts the annual Black Solidarity Conference, which brings together nearly 800 undergraduate students from across the country at Yale University every February. The conference features workshops, lectures and presentations on issues pertaining to the African diaspora, each year with a different theme.

As the four friends embarked upon their fourth and final year at Pomona, they started getting organized as early as October. They were determined to be at the conference. With a plan in place and greater knowledge of how to apply for funding and where they could solicit support, they booked their trip.

“This conference was a big part of my senior year. Coming into college as a first year, I think I perceived the experience to be simply for one thing: to get an education and get a job. But as I’ve been here for a few years, I’ve come to understand that the relationships, activism and experiences that have catered self-growth, towards mine and others, are what I’ll truly cherish. So being able to travel across country and attend this amazing conference with my best friends meant a lot, and is something I’ll never forget,” says Onyilagha.

With graduation just around the corner, the four friends are definitely counting on staying in touch after they leave Pomona. They plan to do this via video chatting and, of course, group chat, the same group chat that kicked off their friendship four years ago.

“Ultimately, we understand that even though life will pull us apart physically and we won't see each other every day like we are used to, the relationship we've built during college serves as a strong foundation for the future and will always remain dear and important to us all,” say the friends.