Helping Students Set and Reach Goals through Mentorship and Scholarship
By R.L. Witter
Taliah Givens loves family and children. “I’m a big family person,” she told The Positive Community. “I grew up going to literally four family reunions each year… Actually, it was two each year—they would alternate years, but we had reunions on both the maternal and paternal sides of both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family.” She’s loves to help and has dedicated her life to helping improve the lives of others.
“My activism started as an 11-year-old kid. I was part of the Paterson NAACP Youth Council,” she said. “That connection to the community and seeing how people supported me through my upbringing made me want to work with the next generation… During adolescence when I was trying to find myself and my drive, I had grown up in a church that was youth- and communityoriented, but I was also strong in academics… I knew I wanted to go to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). I knew I wanted to study computer engineering, and I wanted to use these things to make education and the world better.” She wasn’t sure how it would come together, but through determination, ingenuity, and dedication it did.
Told that an engineering degree would likely take at least five years, Givens prepared to do the work. She also did her research and found that the combination of hard work with the right school and the right program would best serve her desires and needs. Awarded a full scholarship to Alabama A&M University, she entered a program that allowed her to study at Georgia Institute of Technology at the same time. She finished five years later with dual degrees in electrical engineering and computer engineering, one of the first Black women to do so.
After several years in technology, Givens made a life-changing decision. “I really wanted to start an organization that helps young people connect with opportunities to groom them toward where they want to go in life. It always seemed like there were opportunities I had in life due to my connection with my church and the NAACP. Many of my peers didn’t have those connections, so they were being left behind, unable to experience those opportunities. There were parents who when their children were elementary school age, could find child care and afterschool programs, but once they hit middle school, there was nothing.”
In 2002 Givens found herself “between a rock and a hard place,” as she recalls. “I had accepted a new position, but I decided to resign and make the shift. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make because I didn’t have another job lined up, but I knew definitively this was what I was supposed to be doing.”
Of course, things didn’t go as expected. Almost immediately, an automobile accident sidetracked her plans. But God always has a ram in the bush. A friend set her up with a temporary position that showed her the way. After attending a conference with that position, she realized, “I’m looking for the wrong thing! I changed my focus to meetings and association management and found my first non-profit job that way,” she said.
Today, Givens is senior director of UNCF Student Professional Development Programs. “We are connecting students to opportunities for internships and different aspects of professional development to get them ready for where they want to go after college. We’re helping them understand how their chosen majors can be utilized in various different industries. We’re helping support the diversity of the workforce through companies who want to hire students of color.”
While her work is incredibly fulfilling, Givens concedes it can also be challenging. “We see that many corporations desire to have diversity—diversity, equity, and inclusion. The most difficult part is trying to tell traditional corporate structure to lay down some of thebarriers to entry so they are able to open up to diversity and see that diversity not only of background, but of thought, age, and experience; and how they cultivate the people who are coming into the industry is going to make or break their effectiveness.” She also touched on the fact that workers today tend not to stay with one company for long. “The student isn’t getting as much of the experience they need to grow themselves and the company isn’t getting a return on their investment if they’re not able to retain. These are the things I do, enjoy, and struggle with regularly,” she chuckled.
In addition to her duties with UNCF, Givens founded Given to Serve, LLC and I AM WORTH THE INVESTMENT NETWORK. She also the authored Worth the Investment: From Mentoring to Scholarship, Uncovering How to Really Become A Student Worth the Investment. “It’s the first book in a series and it’s geared toward the K-12 community, families, and all of the mentors—parents, teachers, and policymakers who support students. It tells my story of growing up in an urban environment and how my community—my schools, my dance program, my church, my family, the NAACP—helped me reach a goal of going to college. It’s for families who want to do the same and it’s not for students in their senior year; it’s something you give your child at a young age. Students can enjoy activities, they can find something that makes them tick and build on it. They can challenge themselves with different levels of leadership and talent development in those areas they find. And somewhere in that process, the career space will illuminate for them and help them figure out, ‘How do I take this love of X and build my career around that?’”
When she’s not connecting students with programs, Givens helps her parents as they age and co-parents with her sister to help her nieces and nephews live their best possible lives. She has hit her stride and her life is full. With an audible smile in her voice she ended our time together saying, “The most enjoyable part of my day and my work is when I know I have connected a young person to an opportunity that is going to change their life.”