Mentors Matter: The HBCUstory of Virginia Union Alumna Dr. Shanta Whitaker

“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since I graduated college,” wrote Virginia Union University alumna Dr. Shanta Whitaker on her blog Fashionably Cosmopolitan in May of this year. She begs your forgiveness in advance for the poor quality of her pictures. She laughs about attending college during the pre-digital camera era.

“Fourteen years ago, Virginia Union University wasn’t really on the radar.  In fact, no college was,” wrote Whitaker, who wanted to become a medical doctor and she decided to attend the school that would award her the most scholarship money. Still, she wasn’t ready to spread her wings beyond Virginia, so attending school of state was out of the question.

Following the advice of a guidance counselor, whose son attended Virginia Union, Whitaker’s found her interest in the school grew. During his last two years at VUU, the counselor’s son was a participant in the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC), an honors program that prepares minorities for biomedical careers in addition to providing presentation skills, graduate school preparation as well as providing a full scholarship to cover the last two years of school.

Whitaker visited the campus during the spring of her junior year.

“The campus was small–you can see one end of the campus from the other end,” Whitaker laughingly recalled. “But Dr. Anthony Madu, the professor in charge of the MARC program was nice. I know the college students probably thought I was crazy when I declared as a high school junior that I would be attending VUU and getting into this very competitive program, but I didn’t care.”

After applying to seven schools, Whitaker chose Virginia Union because they awarded her an academic scholarship. Admittedly, her decision to attend Virgina Union was financially motivated, it proved to be one her best life decisions.

“First and foremost, VUU is a spiritually enriching environment. I remember that every student, regardless of major had to acquire 80+ hours of chapel time in before you graduated. There was no excuse to miss chapel—no classes were held at that time.”

VUU also empowered Whitaker to move outside of her box. In addition to her academic responsibilities, she was a dorm queen her freshman year, the sophomore class queen, joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. her sophomore year and served as student government vice president her senior year.

“The professors that I had there believed in me and helped me believe in myself. VUU definitely guided my development as a scholar, leader and lifelong learner in a global society.”

Whitaker and her MARC cohorts

Perhaps most importantly, MARC director Dr. Madu was also her advisor. “Of all of my professor relationships in college, I would have to say that I am closest to Dr. Madu (and still am to this day). From my freshman year of college until present, he has offered me the best support possible. I remember having a talk with him when I came back from my summer medical internship (was MMEP, now it’s called SMDEP) in Birmingham when I was a freshman. I realized that I didn’t want to become a medical doctor and I was confused with what I could do now with science. He encouraged me to think about the PhD and told be that there were many things I could do with the degree. He didn’t say more or try to pressure me, but I began to think about it and discovered a love for Microbiology and decided to pursue a PhD.

Dr. Anthony Madu

When I went through the application process in the fall of my senior year, he was supportive—he read my personal statement numerous times and gave me pep talks. He encouraged me to think outside of the box and encouraged me when I decided to apply to Yale. When I got in, I didn’t tell my mother or any of my family members first. I told him.”

Today, Whitaker is a student in the Masters in Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she’s exploring healthcare disparities, chronic disease epidemiology and nutrition to complement her infectious disease research training. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Biology at Virginia Union in 2002 and subsequently completed a PhD in Microbiology at Yale University in 2008.

Whitaker’s not suggesting that Virginia Union was perfect. “It did have some issues, any Unionite could tell you. But my four years at Virginia Union were some of the best of my young life. My professors believed in me and supported me. My sorority sisters and friends challenged me to become a better person and just to let go and have fun. For this reason, now and forever:

“Union we’ll  e’er revere the cause for which you stand

Union, majestic lights send rays throughout the land

Thy hallowed grounds and dear old walls may they forever be,

dear Union  I (we) still love thee…”

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Bahamian-born "HBCUstorian" Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is director of the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. She a dynamic professional historian and a passionate Historically Black College and University (HBCU) advocate. A graduate of the historic Fisk, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee State universities, she is the founder and executive editor of HBCUstory, convener of the HBCUstory Symposium, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. A passionate believer in the historic mission and future vision for HBCUs, her primary areas of specialization are black higher education and the civil rights struggle.

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