Walker honored for legacy of excellent mentorship with 2021 Cuttino Award

By Senta Scarborough | Emory Report | May 7, 2021

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Award-winning author and stellar researcher Vanessa Siddle Walker’s legacy of encouraging and promoting student success is being honored with the 2021 George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring.

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At a crossroads after 35 years in K-12 education, Sheryl Croft was ready to retire as an assistant superintendent but wanted her PhD. Overwhelmed by the graduate school application, she was unsure what to do. Then one night her telephone rang.

“The first words I heard were, ‘Sheryl, are you ever coming back to school?’ I thought it was an answered prayer,” Croft says.

Vanessa Siddle Walker, Croft’s former mentor and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of African American and Education Studies, invited Croft to her office. They talked for three hours. 

“She outlined what I didn’t understand and told me to start writing my application immediately,” says Croft, who earned her PhD from Emory in 2013 and is a Kennesaw State University associate professor. 

Walker’s uplifting of graduate and undergraduate students and Atlanta school stakeholders culminated in her receiving the 2021 George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring. The award was established in 1997 by John T. Glover 68C in honor of the late Emory history professor. 

“The difference about Vanessa is persistence. No matter how long it took she would never give up on students,” says Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Urban Education Emerita. “You seldom see people with exceptional accomplishments in research, service and teaching. Vanessa wasn’t satisfied with being a stellar researcher and teacher; she was committed to the university and wider community. I am so happy she is getting this award.”

Best known for her exploration of racially segregated schools, Walker uncovered a network of Black educational professionals who faced oppression to fight for student equity, achieve academic excellence and birth a generation of civil rights activists. 

“Being honored for something like mentorship, something I never really thought about — it was just the invisible part of the work that I loved that brought such joy — to have Emory, a place that has helped and applauded me over the years, say ‘we celebrate you for this’ — I don’t have words to express that emotion,” says Walker, who will retire from Emory next year.

Scholar and teacher

Walker was elected this spring to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies. She has written five books including “Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South” and “The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools,” winner of the 2019 Lilian Smith Book Award.

Known as an exceptional researcher with a gift for promoting student success, Walker’s legacy includes undergraduate students who have gone on to Harvard University, Stanford University and Columbia University’s Teachers College. Her former graduate students are now professors in universities across the state and country. 

Walker’s research has garnered numerous accolades, including the prestigious Grawmeyer Award in Education and the National Academy of Education Post-Doctoral Spencer Fellowship, which she helped one of her mentees also receive. She is now a member of the National Academy of Education.

“She is wisdom, grace, power and humanity. The way she empowers and nurtures our students helps them see potential greatness and figure out what they need to achieve that greatness — that is Vanessa. She embodies the spirit and essence of this award,” says historian Carol Anderson, Charles Howard Candler Professor and chair of African American Studies, who nominated Walker.

In April, Walker finished her service as the 104th president of the American Educational Researchers Association, an international association with 25,000 members. “To take on a major presidency of a huge organization and still be fully engaged with students helping them achieve their ambitions says so much about her,” Anderson says. 

Not only were two of her conference co-chairs former graduate students (including Croft), but many panels included former students. “She is willing to step back and let those who she has worked with shine,” Croft says. “That is a true mentor — always elevating people.” 

Becoming a mentor

In 1990, when Walker began teaching in the former Division of Educational Studies, she hung a door sign: “The Student Is the Most Important Person on Campus.” But mentoring students in higher education didn’t come easily.

She started her Emory career conducting research for her award-winning book, “Their Highest Potential.” Returning to teaching was a struggle.

“Honestly, mentoring graduate students was my least favorite component of the job. I complained about their dissertations — ‘why can’t they write?’ I’m not proud of it,” Walker recalls. “But I remember that my mentor Jackie (Jordan Irvine) patiently asked me a piercing question after one complaining session: ‘Vanessa, how is working with a graduate student different from [the teaching of] those Black teachers you write about?’”

Walker sat straight up. "The light bulb went off, and I realized there is no difference. Students, whatever level, are engaged in the process of blooming and learning. They are trying to know something they don’t know to become something they aren’t yet,” she says.

Watching Irvine model excellent mentoring reminded Walker — who holds her BA in English from the University of North Carolina and her EdD from Harvard University — how she taught high school English.

“She gave me the courage to be the teacher I had been before,” Walker says. That teacher held students to high expectations while providing the necessary encouragement and support, just like the Black educators of segregated schools Walker wrote about.

Seeing students’ highest potential

At Emory, Walker expanded the boundaries of her classroom. Sometimes it was her screened-in porch or basement office at her home, other times the Library of Congress, the Georgia Archives, the site of Atlanta’s race riots and other historic places around the state or academic conferences in and outside the U.S. 

“If people can see a different world, they can imagine themselves in it, writing about it. I was trying to let them understand they belong in the world and that success was possible,” Walker says. 

In class, Walker also brought her own first drafts of her research for student feedback. “As a mentor, what that did for us was to elevate us to the status of being able to critique her work,” Croft says. “She boosted us as emerging scholars. In fact, mentorship for her is a way of being and she modeled that and instilled it in us.”

In 2011, Walker took the segregated-school mentoring model and tested it in Atlanta schools, founding TITUS (Teaching in the Urban South), a partnership where Emory scholars provide professional development to metro school stakeholders advocating equity for students. 

In 2015, Walker joined Emory’s African American Studies department where her undergraduates joined TITUS. Walker’s work reshapes the “unfortunate narrative” that treats urban children as deficient by encouraging program members to play to the strengths of these students, Anderson says.

“A lot of mentors let you fall through the cracks. Instead of letting us fall, she would say, ‘You are not by yourself. We will make it’ and all of us have made it,” says Croft, co-director of TITUS. “Even when we wanted to give up and couldn’t see the end, she saw the highest potential in all of us and worked to help us make it through.”