As an undergraduate student at Morehouse College, Wayne Taliaferro thought he wanted to become an educational psychologist. But as he ventured outside of psychology and delved into research and coursework in sociology, education and economics, he began to consider a career in the policy sector.
When it came time to apply to master’s programs in education policy, Taliaferro said, “I was focused on finding a grad program that had more of a practitioner element to it, with internships and applied learning opportunities integrated throughout. Brown offered the best match and also seemed the most genuine in their outreach. They really wanted to be involved in the local community and make a difference more broadly.”
Community was important to Taliaferro, who grew up in southeastern Virginia and attended a historically black college. As he prepared to come to Brown, he was unsure if he’d adapt to the new region and culture. But soon after he arrived on campus, his doubts were allayed.
“The atmosphere was very collegial, very collaborative,” he said. “Folks had a collective North Star, a collective sense of passion for the work and a desire to improve lives for the greater good.”
Today, eight years after graduating from Brown, Taliaferro works at Lumina Foundation, a private philanthropy dedicated to making post-secondary education opportunities accessible to everyone. At the foundation’s Washington, D.C. office, he serves as strategy officer for finance and federal policy, searching for ways to help make postsecondary education affordable for adult learners, first-generation students and students from diverse backgrounds.
“Day to day, I’m a grant-maker,” Taliaferro said. “I look for new or promising ideas on affordability from think tanks, state agencies, startups and other potential partners. I hear their ideas, whether they have to do with raising awareness of affordable solutions or providing more support to students, and then we discuss whether it’s something we want to help launch or invest in.”
Taliaferro and Lumina Foundation are more interested in projects that aim for sweeping systemic change rather than projects that could provide scholarships to a few specific types of students, he said. That might mean funding a grant that would help a university system audit its financial aid policies or revamp its approach to distributing financial aid.
“When I consider whether to fund a project, I ask myself, ‘Is this sustainable? Is it scalable? Will it have an outsize impact on communities that have been most marginalized in higher education due to cost?’” he said.
Taliaferro says it’s partly due to his professors and mentors at Brown that he’s now able to navigate the complexities of opportunity and inequality in education. Brown’s practice-based approach to learning, he said, was key.
“Even in our courses, they were very intentional about bridging the coursework with what was really going on,” Taliaferro said. “You really got to see through case studies how folks were putting the theories we were learning to practice.”
Outside the classroom, Taliaferro spent his school year working at the Office of Research, Planning and Accountability within Providence Public Schools. At the time, the district was implementing a new academic assessment program focused on English and Language Arts (ELA). Taliaferro had a chance to see the new initiative unfold in person.
“It was an opportunity for me to learn how data can actually tell stories and can be used to inform decisions,” he said. “I saw how partners across the district came together to understand and translate the data they got, and to use that data to evaluate the efficacy of ELA.”
Those lessons still apply to Taliaferro’s higher education work today, he said.
“Instead of just learning theory and guessing how I would apply it in my career, I got insight into what it’s like to work for organizations that are actually implementing policies and programs,” he said. “I found out how local politics play into everything. I saw the way people handled various unexpected challenges. I was able to reconcile what I knew about the theory with what people were actually doing every day.”