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Diversity: Ashley Taylor helps students question what they know

Dr. Ashley Taylor, assistant professor of psychology, believes students must be equipped to find answers on their own.

This is part of an on-going series.

Kenneth and Mamie Clark used dolls to study children’s racial attitudes. Their findings were instrumental in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made segregation illegal. But, despite their influential voices, these trail blazers weren’t mentioned in psychology courses Dr. Ashley Taylor took as an undergraduate.

“Here are psychologists, who were at the center of big changes in American history,” she said. “If you’re talking about group dynamics, well, racial groups are a big part of understanding people and how we view one another and get along. But we weren’t talking about those things.”

This omission shaped how Taylor felt about psychology and diversity. It continues to impact her teaching today as a developmental psychologist at Georgia College. Taylor wants to give students a complete history of psychology that includes all races and contributors.

For example, a retired faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, Dr. Robert Williams, was a founding member of the Association of Black Psychologists. But he wasn’t mentioned in courses at his own institution. This troubled Taylor as a student there. After earning two undergraduate degrees in psychology and African-American studies and a master’s and doctoral degree in developmental psychology—Taylor returned to St. Louis for her postdoctoral fellowship in African and African-American studies and invited Williams to speak in her classes.

“What stories are we not telling? That has become my mission as a professor,” she said. “In all my classes, I try to find places to insert those types of narratives or get students to think about things that impact their view of the world.”

Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Taylor’s parents placed education first. Her mother juggled a family and household, while going back to school for her education degree. Her sacrifice made a big impression on Taylor, who became first in her family to get a Ph.D. They lived in a mostly-white neighborhood, and Taylor went to predominantly-white schools. One of only seven African-Americans in a high school graduating class of 400—Taylor felt discrimination that makes her break down into tears years later.

She recalls a classmate making “explicit racial slurs.” He took off his jacket, uncovering a confederate-flag T-shirt. Taylor was the only black student in the classroom, and the teacher said nothing.

“I felt threatened and angry,” she said. “I’m in this large school, and I’m thinking: Where can I go? Who will believe me?”

There weren’t any black teachers and only one African-American administrator. She told Taylor, “You don’t have to fight this by yourself. I will help you.” The woman stood by Taylor, even when the male student lied about what happened.

“That meant so much. I felt attacked, and she believed me. That’s the piece that got me to where I am today,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t the discrimination in itself. It was her presence and mentorship that had more power and influence on me. If it wasn’t for this one person in the building—I don’t know how I would’ve been able to handle the situation socially and emotionally.”

Feeling alone in a population without people who looked like her—Taylor wanted to become a mentor for others and study human behavior. There’s a Safe Space sticker on her office door. It invites the wounded and weary in where they can find a sympathetic ear. At least five times a semester, Taylor encourages LGBTQ+ individuals, immigrants, Muslim students, Hispanics, abused women and anyone who “just need a place to breathe or cry without someone watching them and judging.”

African-American students—some who haven’t met Taylor or had class with her—see her in the hallways and approach her for support.

“That’s why I’m here. Because if I’m not here, who do they go to? I’m the only black member in this department. I have an important job,” Taylor said. “It’s not easy to be a minority in predominantly-white spaces. I remember being that person.”

Taylor once wanted to work at an Historically Black College or University (HBCU). But she realized she could make a different impact here.

She makes a difference by her presence but also by helping students question what they know. If asked what normal human development is—students often give the experience they knew growing up. But not everyone goes to college, Taylor points out. By age 25, she said, almost two-thirds haven’t earned a college degree. What does emerging adulthood look like for them? she asks.

“I’m a developmental psychologist, so I know that things change slowly over time. I only have my students a short while. The impact I make on them may only happen down the road. I hope I’m planting the seed.”

Over the years, Taylor has done research with peers on LGBTQ+ populations, inclusive excellence in STEM fields and how social identity impacts achievement for underrepresented populations. She also studies “race salience.” African-Americans who put race as the most important identifying element in their lives tend to do better and have higher retention rates at predominantly-white institutions, she discovered. Ethnic or minority college students—who come from low socio-economic backgrounds but have great community support and a positive sense of identity—tend to have a strong notion of well-being. They also make higher grades.

Taylor’s favorite research is done with students in her social issues lab. She lets them decide topics based on their own social identity interests or what they see happening around them.

One recent graduate studied women in the workplace and whether people are likely to be hired or not based on gender. Another was interested in how social class, race or sexual orientation influence the way potential roommates are viewed. The ideas are endless, and that’s what Taylor loves about working at Georgia College. Its psychology department places an emphasis on teaching students how to conduct research.

“I don’t highlight my own research as much anymore,” Taylor said. “I let students do what’s important to them. Because they’re going to leave here, and I want them to know how to get answers to questions they have about the world.

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