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Meet Sarah Toutant

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sarah Toutant.

Sarah, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
If you’re like me, randomly filling in bubbles on the SAT, hoping you’d get a few correct was the key to taking that test. I remember it feeling so high-stakes, and I had no idea what I was looking at. But hey, here I am now. I’m 26 with a fully-funded Ph.D. in Urban Education Policy at the University of Southern California (USC). I am also a Research Associate in the USC Race & Equity Center. Lastly, I am a public speaker where I try to bring humor, love, and care to students/professionals who need a reminder of their brilliance and greatness.

I grew up in La Habra/Whitter, California, where I was always the only or one of few Black girls in school; at a very young age, I was aware that race and racism was an issue, but didn’t have the language to articulate this. I had no Black teachers, no Black coaches in my sports programs, and, overall, no Black presence in my education. I longed to see more people that looked like me. I wasn’t too sure how to go about this as I had mediocre grades and a horrible SAT and ACT score. Still, I was the Student Body President at my High School, which assisted in my admission to the University of San Francisco, where my educational journey and activism started.

My activism first began at USF, where I served as the Black Student Union President and co-created a list of demands that have now led to scholarships, a live-in learning community, and resource center for Black students. After graduation, I went straight to a Master’s program at USC, where I continued empowering and uplifting my community as USC’s Black Graduate Student Network President, Director of Diversity and Equity for the USC Graduate Student Government, and mentored Black undergraduate students. Now, I am finishing my Ph.D. I also consult and assist companies and organizations seeking to understand better how they can recruit and retain diverse candidates and create a culture of inclusiveness and equity-minded practices to combat racism, homophobia, and all the other -isms plaguing our society.

Has it been a smooth road?
To this day, the road gets rockier and more exhausting. I am resilient and take care of myself, though. The path to a Ph.D. is a difficult one. It requires patience, willingness to fail, self-discipline, and community. I would not be here without my friends, loved ones, and family (trust me, they’ll tell you how many times I’ve tried to quit). Besides being the only one in my family to receive a graduate degree, I have had other struggles along the way. For example, while in my Master’s program, I was told by a career counselor that I might want to have a back-up plan in case I did not get into the competitive Ph.D. programs I was applying to. Yet, she did not tell my white cohort members who were applying to doctoral programs the same. I ended up getting into all six Ph.D. programs I applied to.

On a more personal note, I lost my father six weeks before I started my Ph.D. The first year of a Ph.D. program is extremely tough for anyone, but grieving the loss of my dad was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. One moment I was speaking at my Master’s program graduation and preparing to start my doctorate. The next, I was speaking in front of hundreds of people at my father’s funeral, trying to bring myself and others comfort. My father only had a high school diploma, and it was his dream for me to earn my education, so even when I want to give up, I am reminded that this degree represents more.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
This question is a little challenging to answer because I feel that I am just getting started. I have an expansive list of goals I want to achieve, so to think that what I do or who I am, is inspiring, is incredibly humbling. That said, I am known for being a scholar, researcher, activist, public speaker, and equity consultant. However, what I think I am most known for is being an educator, saying what needs to be said or speaking up when I probably shouldn’t (even though I believe there is never a wrong time to speak up for what is right). I am most proud of how I have never lost my ability to be authentic and real, regardless of the spaces I occupy.

In terms of what sets me and my work apart from others, it is my approach. I meet people where they are at and try to use humor, straight-forwardness, and my passion to educate everyone regardless of their backgrounds. I am an educator at heart.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
As an educator teaching people about race, gender, and more, I must bring current events into my work. That said, I am always thinking about where I see the field of higher education going in the future. It seems that for the first time, universities are “listening” to the needs of Black students, especially with BLM making even more headlines. It is wrong that it took more innocent people to lose their lives for the world to listen to what activists have been saying for decades. Such a shift in higher education applies more pressure to colleges and universities to take seriously the concerns of their Black students and other historically minoritized populations. Ideally, in ten years, there will be institutionalized efforts to recruit, retain and support such communities; more tenure-track faculty of color; more scholarships; and overall, sincere care and commitment to attempting to mend the consequences of years of systemic racism.

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