Will Walker, '21

November 11, 2020
Senior advocates for recruitment, retention of underrepresented college students

The transition from high school to college can be difficult, especially for those who don’t fit the stereotype of a wealthy, white student. But students from diverse backgrounds can be successful if given the right tools and support. Just ask Will Walker, ’21.

“I struggled during my first semester,” said Walker, a first-generation Black college student. “I was 1,000 miles from everything I knew and loved in my hometown of Winnfield, La. Coming from a socio-economically disadvantaged area, interacting with more affluent students was very different for me. Fortunately, University of Richmond has a strong community, and I found support from students, faculty, and staff.”

The Jepson School of Leadership Studies not only offered a supportive community, but also provided insights into good leadership, Walker said.

“I didn’t want to study one thing—I wanted to do this big combination of things,” he said about his decision to major in leadership studies, which offers an interdisciplinary curriculum. “The curriculum speaks to students who want to be change agents.

“The Jepson School cultivates exciting energy. It screams impact. I am learning how to be an effective, ethical leader and how to think about differences between groups.”

Walker also found a supportive cohort among the 100 students comprising Richmond’s Bonner Scholars Program, which provides scholarships to students who complete up to 10 hours of weekly community service. His Bonner Scholar service has included providing college advising to low-income, minority high school students and working at a nonprofit that builds technology capacity at other nonprofits, including some that address education inequities.

Walker is leveraging his Jepson School and Bonner Scholar experiences to improve college access and retention for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

“America is built on diversity,” he said. “How do we promote efforts to make colleges spaces where students from all backgrounds can thrive?”

Walker began to tackle that question his sophomore year when he polled a diverse group of 70 Richmond students and alumni about their college experience. He shared his survey results with President Ronald Crutcher and the President’s Advisory Committee for Making Excellence Inclusive. Campus units such as Richmond’s Office of Multicultural Affairs are critical to fostering a positive collegiate experience and a sense of belonging for underrepresented students, he said.

During his junior year, Walker pushed for higher-education reform as a policy advocate for the nonprofit Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA). His articles about the unique challenges facing low-income college students have appeared in Inside Higher Education and Forbes.

In his current role as an access intern for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Walker develops content for a campaign aimed at increasing college access and retention for low-income Virginia students. He is researching his Jepson senior honors thesis, “Who’s Really Winning? Instrumental Diversity’s Impact on America’s Most Vulnerable Students,” advised by his faculty mentor, Dr. Crystal Hoyt.

But his drive to make a difference doesn’t focus exclusively on diversity in higher education. Recently Walker became a white-blood-cell donor. He joined the Be The Match registry two years ago when the Richmond football team led a blood-cell donor drive on campus.

“Donating blood cells is the least I can do to make a big impact on someone,” Walker said. “My leadership studies and Bonner Scholars experiences were screaming, ‘Do this thing!’ And it was a really cool thing to do.

“I’m always thinking about how to make the world a better place, how to make someone else’s life better.”