Asking Hard Questions

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For her master's thesis, graduate student TeyAnjulee Leon explored issues of race in higher education.

Graduate student TeyAnjulee Leon laughs and jokingly refers to herself as “kick-ass.” The 26 year-old recently completed her coursework and thesis for her master of arts in interdisciplinary studies and will formally graduate this June. This achievement is made even more impressive by the fact that Leon has a small child. “I had my son during my first year in the program,” she said.

Leon gave birth in August of 2017 and started back to school a month later. “I considered putting my son in daycare but then I saw the cost,” she said. “I decided I was going to put this baby in a little holder and we’d go to school together.”

A similar scene played out more than two decades ago on the University of Nebraska campus. “My mom worked three, sometimes four jobs so that my dad could pursue his degree,” said Leon. “I can remember going with him to his classes.” Thus, a love of education was literally passed from one generation to another. “I’m just a nerd,” said Leon. “I’ve always liked school.”

A “military brat,” Leon was born at Madigan Army Medical Center. She spent the first few years living with her family in Lakewood before moving to New York. “I went to see my grandmother for the summer and I’m kind of her baby so she asked if I could stay longer,” said Leon. By this time Leon’s parents had relocated to Nebraska and agreed to let their daughter stay in New York until the start of kindergarten.

Leon eventually moved to Nebraska and lived there for eight years before she and her family returned to the Puget Sound region where they remained for a few years. The family made a brief sojourn to Missouri for a year so Leon’s father could complete his master’s degree before once again returning to Western Washington.

Leon graduated from Lakes High School and had plans to become a fashion designer. She’d been accepted to a number of art schools. “I woke up one day and decided I wanted to be a math teacher,” she said. “The fashion industry is changing but at the time there wasn’t a lot of body positivity going on and I didn’t want to contribute to the problem.” Trouble was, Leon had only applied to one traditional four-year university—the University of Nebraska. “I did it as a joke because my dad went there,” said Leon.

"I had really supportive faculty, advisors and mentors who encouraged me to tell my truth and that's what my research became." --TeyAnjulee Leon.Once again Leon packed up her stuff and moved. Her experience as an undergraduate would go on to shape Leon’s current path. “I remember meeting my roommate and one of the first things she said to me was she’d ‘never met a black person before,’” said Leon. “She was a nice girl and none of it was malicious but I had no idea how to respond.”

Leon settled into life as a college student. She pursued a math degree but didn’t feel comfortable in the program. “I just felt like I didn’t fit in,” she said. Leon decided to make a switch. “I looked around and tried to find a degree that my parents wouldn’t kill me for getting,” she said. “I went with graphic design.”

Leon worked at a sociology lab during her four years at the University of Nebraska. “I started out doing data entry and slowly worked my way up,” she said. Some of the work done in the lab focused on communities of color. “I really care about race and I care about how it affects people both socially and educationally,” said Leon.

Degree in hand, Leon did the now-familiar thing and returned to the Pacific Northwest. She spent a year working with students in Kent for AmeriCorps. “I helped students who weren’t having success in school because of things like homelessness or food insecurity,” said Leon. “A lot of what I did was connecting people to resources.”

Leon did some freelance graphic design work but her passion lay elsewhere. “I wanted to understand whether or not my experiences in higher education were unique to me,” she said. Leon applied and was accepted to UW Tacoma’s MAIS program in 2016. Over time her research interest shifted to focus on issues of race and education. “Specifically, I wanted to see how white supremacy manifests itself in higher education.”

For her thesis, Leon conducted observational research on campus. “I looked to see where the women of color are on this campus and who they go to if they need help,” she said. Leon also conducted extensive interviews with four students. “I asked them all kinds of things like how race and gender impacted their college experience.”

Leon culled the material together into her thesis. Included in this work are suggestions for making college more accessible to all. “A lot of it has to do with building relationships whether that’s with peers or with staff and faculty,” she said. “Another main component is creating anti-racist education models that challenge the assumed norms of how things should be done.”

Her master’s work may be done but Leon is far from finished. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. and become a college professor — after a much needed break. “My sister came to live with me during the last five months of the program and helped take care of my son,” said Leon. “He took his first steps and I wasn’t home and that bothered me. For right now I want a job that stays at work.”

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / January 17, 2019
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu