Creating Change at Georgetown and Beyond
May 26, 2015—“I’ve always wanted to be Oprah,” says alumna Aya Waller-Bey (C’14), “but with a Ph.D.”
Waller-Bey, who majored in sociology, will take the first step toward that goal this fall, when she moves to England to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge. She is the recipient of a 2015 Gates Cambridge Scholarship—a highly competitive, full-cost award aimed at students who live outside the United Kingdom. Award recipients can pursue a full-time postgraduate degree in any subject at Cambridge. For Waller-Bey, that means a master of philosophy in education, with a focus on arts, creativity, education, and culture.
“My senior thesis was about hip hop and education in music, so the arts, creativity, education, and culture route was very attractive to me,” Waller-Bey explained.
Education has long been a passion in Waller-Bey’s life, but it wasn’t until she came to Georgetown that the issues of access, education inequality, and social justice, became clear. As part of the Community Scholars Program, Waller-Bey read Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol.
“I was flabbergasted by and upset and angered about the state of education and inequality and lack of access,” she said. “Being first-generation and low-income, coming from an inner city, coming from poverty, a lot of those things resonated with me.”
A native of Detroit, Michigan, Waller-Bey attended a predominantly African American college-preparatory magnet school. Her parents did not graduate from high school, and early on, Waller-Bey was determined to make the most of the opportunities in her life. That’s why she was intrigued, when, at a Princeton University summer program during junior year of high school, the college guidance coordinator (a fellow hoya) suggested Waller-Bey check out Georgetown.
After being admitted, Waller-Bey attended Hoya Saxa Weekend, where she was soon hooked.
“The community was there, there was a strong representation of other students of color, [and] no matter who I met—from my host to just random people in Leo’s—everyone was so nice and so welcoming and I knew it was the best fit for me. Hands down, the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Waller-Bey channeled that enthusiasm across many activities and passions throughout her days as an undergraduate at Georgetown, several of which involved the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (CMEA). Through CMEA, Waller-Bey lived in the Black House for two years, serving as co-chair of The Student of Color Alliance (SOCA) and later as the house’s resident director. She also founded the Being Black at Georgetown (#BBGU) campaign and was part of Georgetown’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter.
Waller-Bey also had the opportunity to participate in several discussions with university leadership regarding diversity and the student experience at Georgetown, which she feels demonstrates her commitment to the university.
“I truly love this place,” she said, “and that’s why I challenge it to improve.”
She also feels that sociology was a “natural marriage” for her interests. “It’s because of sociology—that lens and that framework, and my senior thesis—that I’m able to be in the positions that I am now.”
One of those positions has been working as a Georgetown undergraduate admissions officer for the past year—a role not typically given to recent graduates. Waller-Bey’s hands-on perspective, advocacy, and involvement with the university, however, made her uniquely qualified for the role.
In her position, Waller-Bey focuses on diversity and inclusion by working on multicultural recruitment, coordinating African American recruitment efforts, and conducting outreach to encourage discussions about race and standardized tests, low-income students, and undocumented students. She has also been involved in discussions about adding a diversity requirement.
“I think all of my experiences [as a student] have contributed to my ability to sit at the table at an institution that I wanted to challenge to be better, more supportive, and more inclusive,” said Waller-Bey. “Being able to be that voice on the administrative side has contributed to my growth.”
Waller-Bey will continue to nurture these passions at Cambridge, where she also hopes to complete a Ph.D. While her career path will continue to evolve, Waller-Bey hopes it will involve a stint in her hometown.
“I cannot leave this earth without being in Detroit for some period of time, effecting change, whether it’s a program that works to facilitate access for middle school students or girls’ empowerment. Whatever it may be, I know that’s something I would love to do back in Detroit,” she said. “I think it’s important for people, particularly in low-income, impoverished communities, to see people who look like them and have gone on to do great things—and then come back.”
Waller-Bey will wrap up her responsibilities as an admissions officer in June, but the Hilltop won’t be far from her thoughts—and she hasn’t ruled out a career in higher-education administration.
“I feel that as a woman of color and as someone very passionate, I have certain sensibilities that I can bring to an institution of higher education. I would love to be in a position that represents various stakeholders—like a dean of admissions, a provost, or a president—that can implement curriculum changes, influence policies, and impact what goes on internally. If it happens one day to be back at Georgetown—which I would love—that would be great.”