For Monique Watson ’14, the journey forward is as much about where you come from as it is about where you’re going.
As a foster care youth, Watson realized early on the importance of higher education in breaking down generational barriers. Now, as a successful nonprofit leader, she is determined to provide students with the same support she received at Stony Brook and beyond.
Watson is now the associate director of strategic engagement and programs for College Board, where she provides Black students with the resources they need to excel throughout the college planning process.
Tell us about your journey to becoming College Board’s associate director of strategic engagement and programs.
Primarily because of my upbringing and personal background, I’ve always been interested in equity and access work. After receiving degrees in history and political science, I wanted to do something meaningful for myself and my community, so I applied to community-based nonprofit organizations. The first job I landed was a part-time position at a community center in East Harlem, where I did everything from creating programming for students to helping them with simple tasks like homework. A few months later, I began another part-time position at a national education-based nonprofit, which eventually turned into my first full-time role.
During my time with the organization, I supported the chief information officer and his direct reports. It was a challenging role, but I gained a lot of valuable skills that helped me transition to working at College Board. I began my career working in disability services, ensuring that students with developmental, physical and/or emotional disabilities received the accommodations they needed for standardized testing. I stayed in that position for about five years before transitioning to my current role as associate director of strategic engagement and programs. In this role, I manage a virtual college exploration series called Real Talk, an innovative program that we launched in the spring of 2020. My team operates like a mini start-up, constantly testing new ideas to see what works best.
Real Talk provides valuable resources for Black students as they begin to plan for college. What inspired Real Talk? What should students keep in mind throughout the application process?
Real Talk was developed by a group of Black women at College Board who were passionate about helping students gain access to higher education. Because Black students and families have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, it is more important than ever to provide access to quality resources in an authentic and culturally relevant way. The first program was piloted with 200 students. Today, we’ve reached over 100,000 students and families.
When it comes to the college planning process, there are things that students at all levels can be doing. That’s the beauty of Real Talk — we speak to students at every grade level. We strongly encourage students to start the process as early as possible, whether that means looking up scholarships or visiting institutions you’re interested in. Even a quick Google search can go a long way.
You’ve overcome many obstacles as a former foster care youth, and nationally, only 3 percent of foster youth graduate from college. How did you overcome so many obstacles inside and outside the classroom to earn your degree from Stony Brook?
I had a strong support system. While I wasn’t necessarily able to rely on my birth mother, I did have additional support from my foster family and my godparents, who really stepped up and took care of me as a child. The pursuit of education was something that was always reinforced for me.
I also found a lot of support from the friends I made on campus. I was fortunate to come into Stony Brook through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which helped me build a community before I even stepped foot on campus. Before the semester began, they had a six-week program, where I forged friendships with people who would eventually become my suitemates and close friends (#B31Forever). Although not everyone in the EOP program had the same background, we all shared a determination to succeed, despite not starting off at the same point as other students. I still keep in contact with a lot of these people.
I also found support on campus through academic counselors and campus programs. I participated in the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (JFEW) SUNY Global Leadership Program, where I met Maryalice Mazzara of the SUNY Global Center, and Marianna Savoca of the Stony Brook Career Center. They were both very supportive and created a network of student scholars across different SUNY campuses. That really opened up additional opportunities for me. Because of JFEW, I was able to land an internship with the U.S. Department of State and engage with up-and-coming global leaders within their International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).
How would you advise other students who are trying to overcome a lot of challenges to obtain their degree?
The older you get, the more you realize that you don’t know everything. I used to think that adults had it all figured out. In reality, we’re all just trying to make the best of our individual situations. It’s OK to not have all of the answers, and it’s OK to ask for help when you need it. Growing up, I never wanted to be a burden to others, so I avoided asking for help. As you come into your career, it is important to realize that in order to show up as your best self every day, you’re going to need the help of others. Whether it’s a small circle of friends or academic advisors and professors, there are resources and people out there who care and want to make sure you’re doing the best you can. At Stony Brook, I was able to forge relationships with professors like Annemarie Donovan, Eric Zolov and Wilbur Miller, who are still supportive to this day.
Why is equity in education so important? How has your professional journey worked toward that goal?
Education has the power to transform lives. It can open an individual up to new perspectives or open the door to new opportunities. Higher education has allowed me to have experiences that were not otherwise available to me. During my time at Stony Brook, I was able to intern at the U.S. Department of State and spent a semester abroad in Spain, among other things. Not a lot of people in my community have had these opportunities.
When it comes to equity in education, it’s not just about receiving information; it’s also the quality of your education that goes a long way. Regardless of socioeconomic status or the color of your skin, all students should have the opportunity to reach their full potential, to challenge their current mindset, and to be exposed to new opportunities. That is why Real Talk as a concept is so important. It provides quality information from people you can trust. I think that goes a long way toward helping students digest all the information needed to apply for college.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of being able to break the generational curses within my family, especially when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse. I am a first-generation college graduate — having earned not only a bachelor’s degree but also a master’s degree. I am the first person in my immediate family to own a home, and I graduated from college without any debt. I feel like I am setting up my future children for success, giving them the head start that I didn’t have. That makes me very proud.
You recently returned to Stony Brook to lead an “Alumnus in Residence” discussion on your work in the nonprofit sector. Why was it important for you to share your experiences with current students?
As we move forward in our own journeys, it is important to remember where we came from. That is something I never want to lose sight of. I think of all the support that I received while at Stony Brook, and I want to pay it forward. Not only to express my gratitude, but also to acknowledge the power that support has had on my personal life. It is important for me to pass on everything I’ve learned to current students and young professionals embarking on their careers.
What is one thing that students and alumni alike can do right now to take charge of their future?
I like to say that everyone should take on a “yes” mindset. That doesn’t mean saying yes to every opportunity, but when an opportunity presents itself, take some time to really evaluate the potential benefits and how they might align with your personal and professional goals. This mindset can help you to be more active in your approach to your life and career.
So, what’s next for you?
I recently started a consulting business, Em Watson LLC, where I serve as the founder and chief prosperity officer. In this role, I help individuals identify actionable steps that they can take to advance their life and career goals. I also work with different organizations and institutions seeking to provide direct outreach to Black students in a culturally relevant way. My personal mission through this work is to inspire people to be their own best advocates.
– Kristen Brennan