Celebrating Dr. Cheryl Watson-Harris: A Reflection of the Past Year


Last May, Achieve Atlanta welcomed our new President/Executive Director, Dr. Cheryl Watson-Harris, to lead the charge of making Atlanta a place where race and income no longer predict postsecondary success and upward mobility. She jumped right into the work as we sought to strengthen how we serve Achieve Atlanta Scholars in the years ahead, culminating in a new strategic plan that sets our direction for our next chapter. The past year has not been without its challenges, including the rocky implementation of the new FAFSA and the end of affirmative action in college admissions. Despite the odds, the Achieve Atlanta team continues to work toward fostering stronger connections with Scholars, the community, and each other to reach our vision.

To mark her one-year anniversary, Dr. Watson-Harris answered some questions to reflect on her first year.

Cheryl at a Kennesaw State University campus event

What has been the highlight of leading Achieve Atlanta over the last year?

The best part has been connecting with our outstanding Scholars, whether it’s through school visits or events like Homecoming. Hearing their stories and seeing their achievements never fails to inspire me. And I can’t forget about our incredible Achieve Atlanta team—they’re a powerhouse of innovation and dedication. Together, we’re making significant strides toward empowering our Scholars. Plus, as a mom getting ready to send off my youngest to college, I’ve personally found following our program steps incredibly helpful!

What inspired you to dive into supporting college access and success for Atlanta students?

George Washington Carver said, “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” My life’s purpose has been helping young people reach their preferred future. I spent 32 years championing students in the K-12 space by removing barriers to their success. Leading the work at Achieve Atlanta alongside our partners allows me to expand my focus further into students’ lives. Throughout my career, I’ve seen firsthand how a college degree can disrupt generational poverty and pave the way for a future filled with opportunities, particularly for students like our Achieve Atlanta Scholars. I am honored to have the opportunity to help make that a reality for many.

Cheryl with members of the Achieve Atlanta board during our spring community breakfast in March

How has leading this work changed your perspective on education and community engagement?

With my background in K-12 education, I sincerely appreciate the dedication of Atlanta Public Schools’ teachers, staff, and partners. Despite the challenges, they’re doing remarkable work— especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, my prior experiences with postsecondary education have highlighted the importance of supporting students throughout their journey. I have appreciated seeing the commitment of college presidents and their staff in prioritizing student success programs that make a difference for our Scholars.

I’ve also seen firsthand how Achieve Atlanta’s approach to cross-sector collaboration has helped those institutions bridge resource gaps and solve complex challenges. A prime example is the significant effort and coordination to help students overcome the new FAFSA’s implementation challenges this spring, resulting in completion rates well ahead of state and federal averages. I’m more optimistic than ever about the role of nonprofits like Achieve Atlanta in strengthening the school-to-career pipeline and making the journey more seamless for Scholars and their families.

What’s your favorite place to visit in Atlanta?

Atlanta’s neighborhoods offer a diverse tapestry to explore. It’s hard to pick a favorite location because each has a unique charm and vibe. On a gorgeous day, you’ll often find me wandering along Peachtree Street, soaking in the sights and energy of the city. I’m also a big fan of theater! I enjoy catching a show at the Fox or Alliance Theatres or enjoying a lively street performance!

Cheryl with a family at our 2023 Scholar Night at Drew Charter School

What similarities do you see between current college students and yourself at that age?

The optimism and resilience of first-generation college students are as strong as ever. There’s a spark in their eyes and a determination to succeed that’s truly inspiring. Whenever our Scholars reach out for resources or advice, I’m reminded of that fire within them—it’s what propels them forward. Having been among the first people in my family to attend college, I see myself in our Scholars and am humbled to be a part of the solution!

What are Achieve Atlanta’s goals for the upcoming year?

While we’ve made significant strides, more work remains to be done. Our focus is on ensuring that every Atlanta student has a fair shot at postsecondary success and a path to upward mobility, regardless of their background. We’re doubling down on strategies to reduce summer melt (students who have plans to enroll in college but don’t) and increase persistence in college. In addition, our recently completed strategic plan calls for more integration of career and affordability themes across Scholars’ journey from high school through college to help them have a stronger transition to what’s next after college. We’re going to focus more efforts on advocating for state and federal policies that remove structural barriers to a postsecondary degree, and we’re energized to tackle the challenges ahead as we continue pushing toward our vision of a more equitable Atlanta!

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