Aya Waller-Bey on opening up access to education for under-represented groups.
When I was working in admissions I visited inner city schools where most of the students were black and Hispanic/Latino as well as private mainly white schools. The disparity was so stark. I saw how the system favours privilege and doesn’t help create a pipeline out of poverty. With the privilege of being given the Gates Cambridge Scholarship comes responsibility. I am determined to give back.Aya Waller-Bey
How can Hip-Hop culture be used in the classroom to increase underrepresented communities’ access to universities?
Aya Waller-Bey  says Hip-Hop is rich with potential for engaging and educating students. She is studying the five different elements of Hip-Hop, including emceeing, Djing and graffiti, with the aim of evaluating if Hip-Hop can be used by teachers to explore how students understand gender roles.
Aya’s MPhil in Education at the University of Cambridge builds on her undergraduate dissertation at Georgetown University. She says: “The dissertation gave me the space to consider Hip-Hop more broadly, its role in activism and addressing and articulating ideas and emotions around inequality.”
Aya’s interest in diversity in the education system is not limited to research. She has been very active in promoting access issues at Georgetown University, where she did a degree in Sociology, and contributed to a campaign which resulted in the University making two courses on “Engaging Differences” a requirement for all students, beginning with the Class of 2020. She is driven by a determination to open up access for other students from similar backgrounds to hers.
Growing up in Detroit
Aya was born and grew up in inner city Detroit, Michigan, the middle child of five. She is the only one of her siblings to have left Detroit and the first to have gone to college and graduated. Neither of her parents graduated from high school. Her father works for Chrysler and her mother on an assembly line.
Over 82% of people in Detroit are African American. Many live below the poverty line. Aya’s family struggled to pay rent. They had been living in home owned by Aya’s grandfather for most of her childhood, but his house was repossessed during the recession. Aya says the financial hardship her family suffered motivated her. She was a straight A student, was class president for four years running at her high school, was yearbook co-editor, on the student senate and took part in the model UN as well as being on the African dance team. She was also a budding activist, taking part in the organisation Students Against Destructive Decisions such as drug taking. “I was an over achiever,” she says. “I thrived at school. I loved to learn and, though many of the students at my high school went on to higher education, not many of the people who lived in my neighbourhood had gone to college. Everyone I knew was working to make ends meet, but I was very self motivated.”
Aya attended one of the top performing public high schools in Detroit, after being turned down for a scholarship for one private high school on the grounds that her family did not have enough money to cover the ongoing costs there despite the scholarship. At high school she developed a close relationship with some of the teachers. “They believed in me and supported me,” she says. Because of her academic achievement, she was selected for extra support, including summer programmes at university.
When she was 17, Aya took part in a seven and a half week summer course at Princeton organised by Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America [LEDA] which focused on the development of leadership skills, writing instruction, college guidance and test preparation. “It blew my mind,” she says. “All the people on it were low income first generation students. Most of them were black. Being around other young people who had faced adversity and were academically talented was great. In my community and family I was perceived as acting like a white person because of my priorities and the way I articulated my thoughts. It felt a little lonely.”
At Princeton she met a college guidance counsellor who was a Georgetown University alumna who encouraged her to apply. Georgetown has a fly-in programme for admitted students of colour which allows them to spend a weekend with a student host and get to know the university. Aya immediately felt Georgetown was the place for her.
She began her four-year degree in Sociology in 2010. Georgetown has a needs-blind admissions policy so covered all her costs. At high school, she had been thinking about doing a media and communications degree, but Georgetown didn’t offer it. She says now that doing Sociology was “the best thing that happened to me”. She was exposed to a whole range of ideas on equality around race, gender and class which helped her look at the world more critically.
She also became involved in programmes aiming to increase the representation of racial and ethnic minorities at Georgetown. She says this was the result of the support she felt she had received. “I felt it was important to occupy spaces where people of colour were under-represented so they felt empowered to apply,” she says. She helped organised the fly-in programme for admitted students of colour called Hoya Saxa Weekend most of her time at Georgetown and hosted students. She was also a new student orientation adviser for three years and helped new students from transition to university.
Later on in her degree she became more politically active. She was political coordinator of Georgetown’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and campaigned on issues ranging from the marginalisation and criminalisation of ethnic minorities to voter registration. In her third year she became a resident of the Black House, a safe space for students at Georgetown, and organised activities and events there.
While there, she became involved in a Twitter campaign after black students at the University of Michigan started posting about their experiences of being black on campus. Aya started a similar campaign at Georgetown and it had an immediate impact. The campaign was covered by Al Jazeera and the Washington Post. The amount of attention it received meant the University had to respond and Aya the other members of the committee aimed to present some ideas for how to improve diversity at the University to the University’s President and Provost at the annual Black House Dinner. The committeeproposed recognition of ethnic heritage months, such as Black History Month, on the university calendar. They also advocated for the addition of a diversity requirement onto the core curriculum for all students. “I wanted to empower the next students coming through,” she says.
Academically, she was becoming more interested in how the curriculum could promote greater diversity. In her final year, she took a class on Jay Z taught by academic and television commentator Michael Eric Dyson which focused on Hip-Hop’s contribution to culture, language production and society. Aya, who hosted her own radio show in her second year and had been on a Filipino/ Hip-Hop fusion dance team at Georgetown, says the course inspired her undergraduate dissertation on Hip-Hop.
After graduating Aya had initially intended to do Teach for America, but eventually decided it was not the best fit for her and made the difficult decision to decline the offer. During the Spring break of her senior year Aya participated in the Georgetown Entertainment Media Alliance externship shadowing University alumni working in various media industries in New York City. After graduation, Aya looked for opportunities to work at Georgetown in hopes of getting tuition assistance for a Master’s degree. A few weeks during her search, a position came up in the University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions that focused on multicultural recruitment. It chimed with her passion for increasing access and she applied. “It seemed like it was made for me,” she says. During her interview with the Dean, he put a copy of a Washington Post article where I was featured for her with the #BBGU campaign on the table and asked about her motivations. “I said I loved Georgetown and for that reason I wanted it to be better. I wanted it to be more inclusive,” she says. She got the job and she says that convinced her that she wanted to further her studies with a focus on education.
She heard about the work of her current supervisor Pamela Burnard, Professor of Arts, Creativities and Education at the University of Cambridge, and applied for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She heard she had got accepted a day after receiving a standing ovation at a LEDA Annual Reception.
After she completes her MPhil, Aya would like to go on to do a PhD looking at the broader issues around education and access. Saying she wants to be “Oprah with a PhD”, she states: “When I was working in admissions I visited inner city schools where most of the students were black and Hispanic/Latino as well as private mainly white schools. The disparity was so stark. I saw how the system favours privilege and doesn’t help create a pipeline out of poverty. So many of those black and Hispanic/Latino students lacked adequate resources and suffered as a result of a failed public education system and I saw myself in many of them. With the privilege of being given the Gates Cambridge Scholarship comes responsibility. I am determined to give back.”
- United States
- 2015 MPhil Education (Thematic route)
- Clare Hall
Aya M. Waller-Bey is a proud Detroiter and Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan where she also received her M.A. in Sociology in 2021. For undergrad, Aya attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., majoring in Sociology, graduating Cum Laude. After graduation, Aya remained at Georgetown working as an Admissions Officer and the Coordinator of Multicultural Recruitment in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. In 2015, she was awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to the University of Cambridge in England—a scholarship awarded to only 40 people in the U.S. each year—and completed her Master of Philosophy in Education.
Aya has shared her insights on postsecondary access, diversity, and inclusion in op-eds in Forbes, Huffington Post U.K., University World News, and the 2016 White House Summit for Advancing Postsecondary Diversity and Inclusion. Her leadership and research have also been highlighted in a PBS Newshour special and the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, the Washington Post, and the University World News. She continued her commitment to access and inclusion through her work with national, not-for-profits and spoke with staffers on the Hill in September 2018 about advancing higher education policy that serves historically underrepresented college students. In March 2019, Aya discussed the experiences of historically disadvantaged students attending elite institutions as a panelist at SXSW Education in Austin, Texas.
Aya’s research on trauma narratives in college essays has also received national and local praise. In March 2020, Aya was selected as a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship awardee—a prestigious fellowship awarded by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine aimed to increase the diversity of the national college and university professoriate. Aya received an invitation from the Aspen Center for Physics Virtual Winter Conference 2021 to present her research at the winter conference. She was also one of 20 graduate students to receive the National Center for Institutional Diversity Anti-Racism Summer Research Grant for her dissertation project titled, “I didn’t want it to be a sob story”: Black Student Identity Narration in College Personal Statements” in 2021. She has presented her research at the University of Amsterdam, University of Florida Center for Public Interests Communication frank gathering, and symposiums at the University of Michigan.