The Interview USA
Vassar College
Associate Dean of the College for Student Growth & Engagement

Wendy Maragh Taylor

Developing a sense of belonging is vital to achieving good student outcomes across all demographics. This is perhaps even more the case at institutions like Vassar College, a prestigious liberal arts school in New York State.

As an Associate Dean of the College, Wendy Maragh Taylor leads the Office of Student Growth and Engagement, which fosters inclusive learning for students from all backgrounds.

GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield asks Wendy about her journey into Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and the multi-faceted initiatives she has implemented to break down barriers to learning for marginalized students.

Wendy's journey

Chris: What brought you to work in areas related to student services and outcomes?

I grew up in Brooklyn and went through the Brooklyn public school system. It’s an area with high crime and poverty, meaning that growing up, I saw a lot of unrealized potential in my peers.

Education was an important value in my home, and as I went to high school, I recognized that I had advantages and access to education that others didn’t. I wanted to support people who weren’t as fortunate as myself, and share the opportunities that I had.

After school, I went on to Brown University. It was challenging and sometimes uncomfortable, and yet I received an exceptional and transformative education. I began to view education in a more holistic way, as something very much connected to social justice. I wanted to bring that experience to young people with backgrounds similar to mine.

After college, I went back to Brooklyn to work as a teacher. I learned very quickly that I was far more interested in the stories students were telling than in teaching itself. I began to think about how to bring parents into the classroom to help motivate students and build confidence.

This experience also brought home to me the importance of collaboration and partnerships between community-based organizations, homes, colleges and schools. Ultimately, I wanted to advocate for students, help them fulfill their potential, and nurture their visions of themselves.

The question that guides my work is: what can I do to help students recognize their potential, highlight their strengths and engage them in activities that are meaningful to them?
Chris: What are you focusing on in your current role?

I’m the Associate Dean for Student Growth and Engagement at Vassar College. Our office tagline is ‘helping students thrive, not just survive’, with a particular focus on marginalized students. The question that guides my work is: what can I do to help students recognize their potential, highlight their strengths and engage them in activities that are meaningful to them?

I want each student to have long-term visions for themselves. In doing so, I also want them to know that they are cared for and supported.

In our centers, like the ALANA Cultural Center and the Transitions Program, we support students that haven’t had the same access to the liberal arts as their more privileged counterparts. Access work is not only about socio-economic background, it’s also about addressing various life experiences and feelings of belonging.

Sometimes the biggest issue is the formal feeling in educational settings, and how that affects the relationship between faculty members and the student cohort. At Vassar, we’re lucky to have amazing staff members that build relationships with students outside the classroom – this has been vital to student success.

Chris: You talk about the ALANA center, which brings together people from different backgrounds together to build a sense of belonging. How have you made that process a success?

While Vassar is great at opening up access, there was a lack of attention to lived experiences. Being invited in is wonderful, but not changing the institution to truly welcome people is why students don’t feel they belong.

We’ve developed summer ‘bridge’ programs to immerse marginalized students in campus life before more of their peers arrive. It gives that core group of students the time to engage with the faculty and administrators, and make friends within their cohort too.

I have a memory from my first year at Brown, my alma mater. I remember looking at the syllabus for my English lectures and thinking, I don’t know any of these books. Everyone around me was talking about the texts and saying it was going to be so easy, I felt out of my element. I did well at school, but here I was, worried and concerned.

But in the first few weeks, my professor reached out to me to ask if he could use an excerpt from my paper as an example of how to get an A in his class. I remember being so happy: I called my mom, my high school guidance counselor, and my English teacher!

I wasn’t sure that I belonged there, but that experience really made a difference. For me, individualized outreach is really important in my work. One-on-one connections with students can make all the difference.

Chris: It’s great to hear about the more directed things that can be done to ensure students feel that sense of belonging on campus. What do you do with new students to set the standard for what ‘good behavior’ is?

It’s really important that students can exchange perspectives and ideas in a respectful and compassionate way. We talk a lot about taking responsibility for the impact we have on others, rather than our sole focus being on intent.

Our “We Are Here” initiative is a key part of this. We start by touring students around campus in small groups, highlighting where social justice has been enacted on our campus. The second part of this is getting students together in their residential units to discuss what they themselves are bringing from home – the pieces of their identity that have motivated them to study at Vassar. This is an opportunity to hear from others and learn about the diversity at our college.

Then we get our senior students to share stories and discuss the struggles and joys of studying at Vassar. This series has been instrumental in introducing people to college life and we’ve had some great feedback.

During the pandemic, I also created a workshop called Carefrontations. I wanted my students to think about how we can address moments in life that are challenging, and do that in a restorative way. That’s part of the ethic of care we want to bring to all the work we do.

3 Quickfire Questions

Chris: What advice would you give to anyone hoping to come into the Higher Education space now?

Whatever the battle is, stay the course. Not everything has to be executed in the moment – it can be a process. Yesterday we held an event marking the opening of a garden on campus, which was dedicated to the celebration of Black lives. This was a year and a half in the making: we didn’t know if it was going to happen, but we stayed the course!

Sustainable leadership is also important – set boundaries, as DEI work can be all-encompassing.

Chris: Is there someone you admire who has been an inspiration to you in your work?

Professor Collette Cann, who was a Professor of Education here at Vassar College. She runs Rise for Racial Justice, a brilliant organization that provides antiracism training. In addition to being a professor, she makes podcasts and provides workshops and classes for teachers, parents, and students on racial justice work.

Chris: What is the most important book that you’ve read in your career?

It has to be Why Are All The Black Children Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? It’s an older one, but I use it in a lot of discussions, particularly with teachers who interact with young students.

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Chris Mansfield
Chris is the co-founder of GoodCourse and is dedicated to building technology to make learning fun, accessible, and engaging for all. If you're struggling to engage your learners on topics like harassment, inclusion and compliance, then get in touch at

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