Navigating Safe Passage With North Star Targets


By Dr. Susanne Diggs-Wilborn • Vice President, College Success at Achieve Atlanta

One of my favorite historical figures is Harriet Tubman, the remarkable woman who safely led so many enslaved people to freedom. Among her most astounding qualities was the ability to consistently navigate safe passage using the stars as her guide.

At Achieve Atlanta, we symbolically use “north star targets” as we help our Scholars navigate a long and challenging passage from high school through college and beyond. We have great aspirations for our Scholars, and we use our “north star targets” to push ourselves, our partners and our collective thinking as we work to achieve increasingly progressive results for them.

Harriet Tubman had to work really hard to get slaves to see beyond their current circumstances. Those of us who are committed to college success work must find creative and meaningful ways to help young people envision their futures, including exposing them to the multitude of post-secondary options available to them. While it is obvious that the bodies of these students are free, many of them are not freely expressing all they can be, because it is difficult for them to make informed choices when they don’t have a full picture of the opportunities available to them.

This gap in exposure to options informs a second and more complicated challenge. Like Tubman’s passengers, too many students lack a full understanding of what their educational journeys will entail. Many don’t have basic self-advocacy skills that would help them learn to navigate their educational experience successfully. In addition, many others also believe they should already know the answers to the questions they confront and stubbornly try to traverse complex educational fault lines that no one expects them to deal with alone. Both situations often result in students getting caught in confusing and complex systems. They know social and economic mobility lie on the other side of their educational journey, and they believe they are making progress toward that destination. In fact, though, they often lose their way.

Part of the challenge for all of us who do college success work is to give these students three things to help them navigate their journey:

  1. Clarity in the messaging on post-secondary choices
  2. Guidelines for determining the best next step after high school
  3. A parallel process for the development of critical thinking and social-emotional tools to help them make the best decisions possible under whatever circumstances they are facing

We also must also place more emphasis on bolstering the psychosocial supports that increasingly pose barriers to success, even when students have the direction, guidance and tools we think they need.

I believe that much of the future of the United States may be foretold through the social justice experiences that Blacks have had in this country. As Harriet Tubman prepared her passengers, so we are readying our Scholars to successfully navigate these challenges and complete their college journeys. A quote inspired by Tubman, whose source is unknown, offers a map for the intensified work to which we must commit: “Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.

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