Diminutive in stature but large in ambition, from the moment she arrived on Mayflower Hill Avant was determined to pursue every opportunity, challenge herself every day, and fully embrace a life of scholarship. What she didn’t know was the number of people who would line up to support her.
Chosen by her class to speak at Colby’s commencement, four years ago she was talking to Colby Magazine about changing the world for the better. She wasn’t sure what that would look like, but her studies in sociology were guiding her. She was already thinking through the social implications of her mom’s teenage parenthood and the racially segregated school districts in her hometown of St. Louis, Mo. Now, for the past two years, she has been working with the Leadership Alliance, a consortium of research and teaching colleges, universities, and private industry that mentors students from underrepresented demographics and helps them train for Ph.D. programs and research-based careers.
“First I thought that I might want to be a civil rights lawyer, and then I got involved in this program and realized that I love research, and I love higher ed,” Avant said. She wants to give back some of what was given to her in the classroom. “I think it’s important to be a professor, especially a professor of color, because you get to inspire and shape the minds of so many people; not just shape their minds, but also help them develop their own opinion and let them explore. Passing the torch is kind of how I think of it.”
That bodes well for the future of higher education, says Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, the John D., and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies. “She is a brilliant young woman who works very, very hard,” Gilkes said. “Very often you have a gifted academic or a gifted leader, but rarely both—and she is both.”
Walter Johnson, Avant’s Leadership Alliance mentor (and a professor at Harvard), used the same words: “A brilliant young woman. I don’t just mean that she is smart, although she is terrifically smart. I mean she is sunny—happy and generous.
“One of the things I like best about her is her spirit of social engagement,” Johnson said. “It would be easy for a young African-American woman at Colby to frame her experience as one of displacement and alienation. Instead, Marnay’s approach was to try to work outward from what she saw as a position of comparative privilege—a student at Colby—and get to work tutoring kids in rural Maine.”
Avant’s spirit of social engagement extends far beyond her role as a Colby Cares About Kids mentor. Her cocurricular activities include roles as a Pugh Center multicultural assistant, Farnham Writers’ Center tutor, First-Generation-to-College Advisory Board member, SOBLU (Students Organized for Black and Latinx Unity) leader, and Ralph J. Bunche Scholar. Global experiences have also been an essential part of her liberal arts education.
“I think it is important to be a professor, especially a professor of color, because you get to inspire and shape the minds of so many people.” —Marnay Avant ’18
Avant took Bunche Scholar trips to Canada and the Dominican Republic (where she worked with the Batey Foundation, founded by Matthew Toms ’97), but all the while had her sights set on Africa, or as she calls it, “the Continent.” She spent spring semester last year studying in Ghana.
“It’s so cliché to say that it changed my life, but I would say that it made me think,” said Avant. She faced assumptions about her social class as a United States student traveling abroad and dissected preconceived notions that people stateside often harbor about African social-class structure. (Spoiler alert: They are not all either destitute or exorbitantly wealthy.) But most of all, she found a place to grapple with her own origin story as a black American.
“People would ask me where I was from, and I would say, ‘Oh, the U.S.,’ and they’d say, ‘No, where are you really from, where are your ancestors from?’ And me having to talk about how I don’t know because I am a part of the history of slavery in the United States. For black Americans, your history starts with slavery, and so being there—I don’t even have the words. It was just a very emotional time.”
Now, diploma in hand, she’s ready for what’s next. First, she will be returning to her home state of Missouri to pay it forward as a Teach for America leader. Then she will be pursuing a doctorate. “I know that my professors have equipped me with the tools to succeed in a Ph.D. program,” said Avant. “Of course there will be challenges, but I know that I have an army of people who are willing to help me get to where I need to be, and I will cross the finish line.”