Knocking Down Barriers for Black Students in College: Q&A with Shaquinah Taylor Wright

In recognition of Black History Month, we are examining issues of education equity for students of color. This week we speak with Shaquinah Taylor Wright, our national director of advising, about the challenges that Black students face in college and how schools can best support them. (Also check out our blog post about the challenge of ensuring equity in our schools and workplaces.)

Shaquinah leads iMentor’s strategy on high school advising and post-secondary transition. Before joining iMentor, she worked on postsecondary guidance in NYC public schools at CARA (College Access: Research & Action) and served as a founding college counselor at a high school in the Bronx. Shaquinah is currently an adjunct instructor in the clinical and counseling department at Teachers College, Columbia University. She received her BA from Cornell University and her master’s in counseling psychology from Teachers College.

What drew you to working in the college success space?

Shaquinah: I am a product of education reform as well as a student of education reform. Growing up in the South Bronx, there weren’t a lot of options when it came to high school education. I was fortunate to get into a program that changed my trajectory, and I went to a very well-resourced high school, had a lot of support when it came to the college process, and was able to matriculate to a great school. In college, I met a lot of students of color who didn't come from the same high school background I did, but did well in their school as the biggest fish in a small pond. When they got to college, they really struggled. It made me think about how I was set up before college and how that really allowed me to flourish when I got there. And there are so many other students who didn't have those same opportunities.

I think about college success as a social justice issue. Who has access to great advising, one-on-one support, and the ability to do things like college visits? It tends to be more well-resourced students. But all types of students want to go to college, and some face a lot more barriers. I definitely wanted to be a person who was really helping to knock down those barriers for our students.

I got my masters in school counseling and decided to focus specifically on college and career access. I worked in a high school in the Bronx about 15 minutes from where I grew up. It was really important for me to return to the same community that I was from and help those students understand what it would take to get to and through college.

What kind of support makes the biggest difference for high school students as they're applying to college and when they're in college?

Shaquinah: Our students need all the supports. Because so many of our students are first-generation college-goers, their parents feel like they can't help in this process. So part of it is just helping students understand where their supports are—who can help with this process, whether it's a cousin who went to college, or peers who are in the same process.

Students need exposure to different career interests and pathways. They need tangible support, like having someone sit down with them, help research colleges, create a list of what they need guidance on, and actually help manage all those steps. To say, “Hey, did you remember to fill out the FAFSA?”

Students need to see that it's a reality for them. The research shows that 95 percent of high school students have post-secondary aspirations, but so many of them are not actually getting there.

This idea of “what do you want to be when you grow up”—we talk about it a lot when students are five and six years old. But by the time they get to high school, somehow their goals have become disconnected from the path that they're on. So I really want to make sure our students are having those conversations with adults who can encourage them, and also give them real resources to help them with that power.

You mentioned that some students of color at your college didn't quite have the support and resources that you had. Can you talk about the difference there?

Shaquinah: Graduating from high school isn't always the same thing as being prepared to go to college. Academic skills are an important foundation, and a lot of our students need some sort of remediation. Everything from how to study to how to manage your time can get really overwhelming.

When students get to a school where everyone was the top of their class, they face this real identity issue, almost like an imposter syndrome, where they're like, do I belong here? In college, you have to seek out support. So if you don't have experience with asking for help, you don't get any. I think that can also really be hard for students. Students need mentorship. They need people who can understand where they're at, and then also encourage them to get where they need to be.

What challenges do Black students in particular face in college?

Shaquinah: Isolation is a really big issue. With Black students, there's this campus environment that they have to fit into, and if they go to a predominantly white institution, they're automatically feeling “othered”. Curriculum that doesn't really speak to students’ experiences is a big issue. Not having professors who look like them and can understand their needs is another big one.

In college, I might have been the only Black person in a classroom, and then suddenly, I can't speak from my experience because I'm thinking about representing the experience of all Black people. It can weigh on a student when they feel like they're positioned in a way where they just can't be themselves. A lot of my students have talked about having to code switch, but in a way that makes them feel like their primary identity is not the acceptable one. They have to sort of perform in spaces in order to feel like they belong there.

All these things create an environment where Black students aren't necessarily set up to succeed.

What else could our schools and communities be doing to better equip students of color, and specifically Black students, for success in college?

Shaquinah: We need to start having real conversations with students. I think college in a lot of ways feels like an abstract concept. And we keep telling our students, all you have to do is apply and apply and apply, without really thinking about what it means mean when they get to college.

I want our schools, as much as possible, to mimic what it means to be on a campus, whether that's using a syllabus in class and setting academic expectations, or having conversations about what it means to be the only Black student in a room or what it means to go to a school that is eight hours away from your family.

We already know what students need. So how can we provide scaffolding so that our students feel heard? And make sure that our definition of success isn't something we're imposing on them, but that they are making decisions they feel really good about. I want to make sure we're raising students’ voices.

To learn more about how iMentor supports students of color, see our program model.