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In Their Own Words

Shakia Taylor & Araba Andrews: A shared passion for global education with a personal touch


Shakia Taylor (Left) is International Programs Coordinator & Advisor in the International Students, Scholars & Programs Office (ISSP) at Reves. She holds a B.A. in History and an M.S.Ed. in Educational Leadership (with a concentration in International Higher Education Leadership. Prior to joining the Reves Center, she worked as an International Student Advisor in Austin, Texas. 
Araba Andrews is an international graduate student from Ghana. She matriculated in January 2023 and is currently working towards her M.Ed. in Educational Policy, Planning & Leadership (with a concentration on Higher Education Administration) at the School of Education. She is also a graduate assistant working in the Office of Career Development & Professional Engagement.

Q: What brought you to William & Mary?
Araba Andrews: I went to a very large institution in Ghana--with about 80,000 students--for my undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Coast. So for my graduate degree, I was looking for an institution that was smaller, and where I could go to class and get to know everybody's name. I also wanted to have the chance to interact personally with my professor and work with them on my research.

Q: Were you looking at other schools in the U.S.? .
Andrews: I knew I wanted to study in the U.S. I looked at a couple of schools, but the information on William & Mary’s website really stood out to me. So I decided to reach out to a few people at the School of Education and just ask some questions. I asked questions of a lot of different schools, but it was the approach and the response I got from the people at William & Mary that made the difference. The School of Education kept checking in with me: How is your application going? Do you need any help? And I decided, this is the place I wanted to be. I wanted to be in a place where people wanted me to be there. So I just dropped everything else I was doing with every other school and only applied to William & Mary.

Q: Had you traveled to the U.S. before?
Andrews: No. I had traveled to other regions within Ghana, but this was my first time outside of Ghana and outside of Africa, and it was a new place -- new experiences, new food, new weather, new everything. I traveled all by myself. It was really a big adjustment for me.

Q: Did you connect with the Office of International Students, Scholars & Programs (ISSP) at Reves when you arrived in Williamsburg?
Andrews: Araba Andrews: I connected with them before I came, because I had some issues with my visa. This was a new process for me; I'm a first-generation student. Nobody in my family had pursued a master's degree, and nobody had travelled outside of the U.S. So I was doing the process all by myself. It was very overwhelming, very confusing. I spent a lot of time reading all the information provided on the ISSP website. I kept sending emails, asking a lot of questions.

And then my visa was denied.

So I reached out to Elizabeth Cavallari [Associate Director of Recruitment & Admission at the School of Education], and she told me that on immigration issues I had to speak with ISSP, so I reached out to Shakia and Zabrina Williams [Immigration Services Associate Manager], and they were really helpful. I even sent emails to Eva Wong [Director of ISSP]. Eva also reached out to me, and everyone was so helpful from the time my visa was refused, all the way through to the time I got visa. I got the chance to get a second interview and then get my visa, and finally came to the U.S.

Q: Are you in touch with friends and former classmates back in Ghana? Do you tell them about your experiences at William & Mary?
Andrews: I honestly fell in love with William & Mary before I came, and then, when I came here, I fell in love with it even more, so I kept posting pictures on Snapchat. I’d post, “You need to come to my school! It's the second oldest school in the U.S., and it's so cool. Everyone here is so nice!”

A lot of people ask me about William & Mary, and I’ve told them, “It's a great place to be. It's amazing. If you get the chance to, you should come here. It will be worth it.” I have a friend who is applying to the School of Education, but because the School of Education doesn't offer full funding for some of its programs, I don’t know if they will be able to come.

Q: Shakia, when did you come to William & Mary? What was your path here?
Shakia Taylor: It's really a funny twist of fate, because I actually did a similar graduate program as Araba at Old Dominion University. And I remember when I was a grad student, I would come to William & Mary just to be here and see the space, and I’d say to my friends that I'd love to work here. But there were no job openings at the time, so I went off to Texas and got some experience. But William & Mary was still in the back of my mind, and I knew if there were a job opening, I'd apply.

I think it was early 2021 when I saw the job opening for this position, and I thought, “Well, I did say, if a job opened up in their international office, I would apply…” That was the only job I had applied for, and it was a case of just giving it a shot and seeing what happened. And here I am, two years later.

Q: What do you think are the kinds of activities and resources that are important to make sure international students coming to W&M are supported?
Andrews: One of the greatest needs of international students is help adjusting to a new place, and ISSP does a great job with that. If you can't adjust properly, then you can't fit in well in your social life or in class.

Williamsburg is very different, especially coming from a place like Ghana.

Also, I came in the middle of the academic year. And because everyone else in my cohort had started in the fall, it really felt as if I were new in a place everyone had already adjusted to. It's very easy to feel lost.
Araba with Solange Umuhoza '22, currently a first year M.S. student in Computer Science, at the spring semester reception for the international community. Shakia is in the background on the right, working the event, as always. (Photo by Kate Hoving)
But the ISSP office has really helped me to adjust, and they have so many resources. I met Brownie [Hamilton, a Williamsburg community member and volunteer in ISSP’s Global Friend Network] through ISSP. I remember being so nervous at first, so I reached out to Shakia and asked, “Can you please connect me with some other students from Africa? I need to see people like me because this is such an unfamiliar place.” Shakia sent out an email with my contact information, and a lot of people reached out to me. We now have a WhatsApp group, and if there's an event on campus, somebody will post it, and then we can all meet up.

Even before I came, I used to spend so much time on the ISSP website reading about everything that I was supposed to do – from the visa application process, to when you arrive, to things that you could do in the U.S. So being here almost feels familiar because you’re given so much preparation. I don't know what it’s like at other institutions, but my experience here is something that I would recommend strongly to other international students.

Taylor: It was always an important goal when I got into this position to make sure that I was taking steps to provide programming that is supportive and inclusive to our international community. AsThe annual pumpkin carve for the international community, including children and Global Friends, is one of the most popular events. (Photo by Kate Hoving) Araba said, there are a lot of adjustments when it comes to visiting the U.S. but also moving here and studying here. We want to make sure that we're covering all the bases. So that means immigration resources and pre-arrival. Then, once you're here, it involves anything from getting a bank account to meeting people and managing the social aspects of living and studying here. We focus on an all-inclusive experience for students; we want to make sure we're not leaving anything out. And if there is anything we're missing. I always encourage students to let us know if they have any recommendations, ideas for improvement, or maybe things we haven’t considered yet. I don't want them to see us just as the immigration office—the people you go to only when you have a visa issue. I like to let students know that if they’re experiencing any concerns -- whether it's academic social or cultural -- we are all more than happy to help and will reach out to our partners to make sure that we're doing all we can to support the international community here. Just as Araba said, Williamsburg can take some getting used to, especially if you've never been to the area or to the U.S. We want to make sure that they feel welcome and supported, and we're always happy to provide any sort of support that we can.

Q: You’re at different stages in your careers and in different roles, but you’re both in positions to counsel current students to think about what comes next for them. Do you enjoy that part of your job? What have you learned?
Andrews: Helping students work towards their next step in life is something that I really enjoy doing. Back home I used to volunteer with the Mastercard Foundation. They had a program called the Transitions Training Program, which helps high school students transition into higher ed. That was when I decided I wanted to go on in higher education and help students to do this.

I think the name “Career Center” can intimidate some students. I'm currently the only graduate assistant in the building, and I think when they book an appointment with me and come to the office, it helps that they can see someone like them who is also a student. They are more relaxed and ask me how I got into grad school. Was it hard? How is it going? It’s a way for me to connect with them, and I enjoy that, especially when I help someone write a resume or application, and they get back to me and say, “I got the internship!” or, “I got an interview!” It's always so nice to hear that. It's also a learning opportunity for me, because I'm currently a student, and I'm trying to look for a full-time position. This is an opportunity for me to learn and apply it in my next step in life as well.

My supervisor, Andrew Martin [Assistant Director, Public Service Careers], asked me to work on something for International Careers Week last November. So I sat back and thought to myself, “What do I need as an international student here in the U.S.?” I don't know what the U.S. workforce looks like, and I imagine there are other international students who are also asking themselves, “What does the U.S. workforce look like? What do employees in the U.S. want from me? How do I present myself in a way that I will find a job here in the U.S.?”

So I decided to build a workshop around answering questions that students are probably asking. I designed and led the NACE Competencies Workshop. A lot of people have told me they found it helpful. In fact, we are presenting it to students when they come back after winter break. It's really a great thing, because employers are always asking students to come with these skills, but it's not something taught in class. Employers think “I need you to be professional. I need you to know how to communicate.” But most students think, “Oh, I have a 4-point GPA. I’ll be okay.”

It’s really been a learning opportunity for me. And it's helped me. I'm sure it's going to help me to transition into a full-time job as well.

Q: Shakia, you're in a unique role, because you have an administrative part of your job, but you're also a counselor, helping students find their way.
Taylor: Yes. Because there are two sides to my job. There's the immigration piece – “Okay, here's how you can do what you want to do to come here” -- and then once they’re here, they’re looking for internships and employment post-graduation. At ISSP we provide some basic resources, refer them to career counselors, try to open some doors and show them what’s available to them.
Anarbek Yelshibayev, doctorial student at the school of Education, from Kazakhstan, with Sabrina Vasquez Ruiz, Peer Assistant for International Events and Shakia at the holiday reception at Reves. (Photo by Kate Hoving)
I love that Araba did that session during International Careers Week, and I was really excited to see that it was coming back for spring as well. We’re definitely going to be promoting that, too, because we want international students to know that they can take advantage of these resources, too. There can be a misconception that these resources are only for U.S. citizens, that there’s nothing for international students. But in reality, they can take advantage of these resources, even if it doesn’t explicitly say, “this is for international students.” Things can look a little bit different, but they can still take advantage of a lot of good resources at William & Mary.

Q: Speaking of career paths, you both were drawn to international education. What were your journeys?
Taylor: In my master’s program, there were three different concentrations (student affairs, leadership and administration, and international education). The majority of the students in my cohort were doing student affairs, which is very popular in higher education, and there were a few who were doing actual leadership concentration. I was the only U.S. citizen doing the international concentration in my cohort. All the other people doing that concentration were international students. But I had always been interested in the international side of things, so it was a pretty straightforward choice for me.

There was no other option for me.

I like to say I fell into this field because when I was an undergrad student I had no idea this field existed, and I was originally going down the pipeline of doing history, maybe getting a Ph.D. And then I had an epiphany my senior year. I studied abroad, and when I was doing that program, I found out about the [international education] field. And I just kept thinking I could do this for a career. This exists. And then I discovered there was a master's program with the concentration in International education. And so because I wasn't going to change my major, I decided to get the history degree and then step into the career path I wanted to do in grad school.

It's been a journey that I've enjoyed because it's given me the chance to see new places and meet people from all over the world., although people may not understand what it is I do. Even members of family think I’m a teacher. Of course that's not quite what I do, but I enjoy being able to interact with students and get to know them and have conversations with them. And it's not as if I'm their teacher or professor. But this work is a great opportunity to get to know students and know their backgrounds and what their aspirations are. And it's like a cultural exchange every day happening at this tiny little desk in my office or on Zoom.

Andrews: It’s the same thing for me, too! When I was an undergrad my family would ask, “What do you want to do as a career?” I would say, “I want to work with students.” And they’d say, “A teacher.” And I’d say, “No, but I’ll be working with students.” When I first came here, I kept getting calls from home, people asking me, “Oh, we heard you got to do your graduate degree in the U.S. What are you studying?” And I’d respond, “Educational policy, planning and leadership.” But they’d say, “Oh, a teacher,” and I’d say, “No….”

Q: What’s next for you after you get your master’s degree, Araba?
Andrews: I’m in a two-year program, and I’ve already completed the first year, so I graduate in December. Initially, I was looking to do a Ph.D. I have always wanted to get a Ph.D.--since I was a child. I have always loved reading. I just love school.

At the Mastercard Foundation, I met people from very remote communities in Ghana who didn't have access to education, and the Foundation helped them to go to high school, helped them to get a first degree, and I saw how education transformed their lives. And I thought, “Araba, if you have the opportunity, you should go all the way.” So I told myself, I'm going to go all the way, because I love school, and I will be the first person in my family to have a master's degree, so it'd be nice to have an a bachelor of education in social studies and soon a master’s degree. It would be nice if I were the first person to get a Ph.D., too. I would love to get all the experiences that I can get here in the U.S., get a Ph.D., and then I can go back home. And this will fulfill my dreams.

I’ve always said I wanted to establish my own school, and it’s something that is in my heart. I feel working in higher ed is going to help me know exactly where I want to go.