Mikayah Parsons: A Mentor For the FLI Community

What can Mikayah Parsons ’24 not do? From her four majors to her numerous positions on and off campus, Parsons takes care of her community — providing resources, care, or even a bright smile at the Frost Cafe.

Mikayah Parsons: A Mentor For the FLI Community
As a Diversity Outreach Intern, Parsons was able to assist the Admissions office in making higher education more equitable for prospective students. Photo courtesy of Mikayah Parsons ’24.

To Mikayah Parsons ’24, equity and accessibility are at the heart of her selfhood and motivations. I know Parsons because we both lived in Drew, and she undoubtedly is the kind of person who puts her community before herself. When I sat down to talk to her, I had the same questions that I’m sure every other student has when they come to learn of her accomplishments: why a quadruple major? Why the numerous jobs? Why the endless dedication to first-generation and low-income (FLI) students?

Initial Challenges in Access to Higher Ed

The answers to these questions first begin in Parsons’ journey to Amherst. From her youth, she was faced with an overt lack of diversity and representation. Hailing from the extremely small town of Taylorsville, North Carolina, with a population of under 3,000 residents, Parsons was unaware of and unequipped with the resources that would lend her a successful future. She graduated in her high school’s first class, a new school that did not have AP classes.

Parsons was introduced to Questbridge, specifically its National College Match program for high school juniors, through a friend from a neighboring high school.

Parsons said the program “helps [juniors] by equipping them with resources to understand the difference between certain colleges and help them understand fit factors.”

Through Questbridge, Parsons was able to attend an admissions conference at Vanderbilt University, where representatives from Amherst intrigued her with their pitches of small class sizes and the diversity on campus. She was also leaning towards Amherst due to fear of the significant change of moving from a small rural area to a large university.

The amount of racial diversity on campus was crucial to Parsons. “I was also really interested in diversity because I grew up in a white area,” she said. “So I knew that this would be a good opportunity for me to spend time with people who looked like me.”

Summer Bridge: A Chance to Connect

Before Parsons became a freshman in the fall of 2020, she was invited to take part in the college’s Summer Bridge program. It was this program that first allowed her to connect with other FLI students who had the same reservations about higher education. “I had a lot of anxiety about the fact that my school didn’t have AP classes and being up to speed,” Parsons said.

Parsons was also enamored with the open and liberal arts curriculum, which she thought “would be really helpful for me to figure out what my interests are before deciding on a career field.”

The program also importantly helped her find her friends she would remain close to throughout college. As a student going through the program, the friends that she made helped ease her transition to attending class on campus from her first semester remotely.

“Whenever I came on campus, everyone was in their friend pods, but because of Summer Bridge, the people that I had known from the virtual program were looking out for me when I came on campus in the spring,” she recalled.

The following summer, she would serve as a residential tutor for the Summer Bridge program. She expressed fondness for her time spent leading students through their own Summer Bridge experience.

“It was nice to be able to guide students and the underclassmen to know what works for Summer Bridge and what doesn’t work as well,” she said. “And to help them understand that Summer Bridge is not a guide on how to be FLI. But it’s supposed to introduce you to resources that you use at your discretion to help you with your time here.”

As a residential tutor, she got close to the students that she met, specifically her mentees, whom she affectionately calls her “Bridge babies.” Parsons let me in on the secret that she’s not as close to the people in her class as she is to the underclassmen that she mentored in the program.

But Parsons wasn’t the only one who built lasting friendships in the program. “Mikayah showed me the ins and outs of Amherst, and then she became one of my best friends. Thanks to her, I learned about the diversity outreach intern job with the admissions office, and we were able to work together as well,” Amelie Justo-Sainz ’25 testified.

This connection that Parsons had with her students is a testament to her ability to care deeply about the well-being of those around her. She recalled a funny moment at the very end of Summer Bridge in which she was doing just that.

“I remember when I had to convince my students to not pull an all-night[er] on the last night of Summer Bridge. They were all crashing, but then they were like ‘Oh my gosh, we’re gonna go see the sunrise, don’t you wanna go see the sunrise?’ And I responded ‘Absolutely not, you guys need to be sleeping, you have a plane to catch.’” Parsons sentimentally remarked that both the experience and the students were very important to her.

A Closer Look at Summer Bridge

Parson’s thesis project was inspired by her experience as a FLI student, and the problems that they face within higher education. When I asked about the significance of her thesis, it came back to the idea of feeling unprepared during the college admissions process. She first pondered on whether or not the feeling of insecurity was only perceivable to her, but as she asked other students from rural and low-income backgrounds, she found that she was not alone.

“[These students] tended to be the ones that I would also hear having impostor syndrome, or struggling with utilizing resources on the campus, because even whenever people told us what the resources were, we wouldn’t know how to use them or if, or if we were really allowed to, or if they were just there, for show,” Parsons said.

She especially expressed frustration at an experience during Summer Bridge when a professor accused her and another student of plagiarizing an assignment. The conflict arose because she and her classmate had misunderstood the instructions. “So it’s stuff like that [that] reinforces the idea that I’m not good enough to be at Amherst,” Parsons explained.

These conflicts are what led her to ask other Summer Bridge students about their experiences, specifically what they bring to the program. Hearing students’ responses, she concluded that while Summer Bridge helps in many ways, “it intensifies the problem because it communicates to students that there’s something wrong with them and it assumes that they lack preparation in every respect.”

She also mentioned that the Summer Bridge program had assigned three times the amount of work that she had received in the fall. With her project, she wanted to have frank conversations with students about their experiences in the program, the faculty about their role in the program, and the program organizers about the program.

“My thesis recommends that there should be explicit program goals, and that there should be a faculty orientation so that all the faculty are on the same page about what the goals of the program are, and how those should be implemented,” Parsons said. A part of the thesis also recommended steps to reform Summer Bridge, like expanding who is eligible to participate in the program.

Just Two Was Not Enough

Perhaps the question that I wanted to ask Parsons the most from the onset of the interview was the reasoning behind her quadruple major. She laughed, because it was a question that she had gotten often. The reasoning started with her coming on campus after being remote her first semester. She enjoyed the amount of free time that she had after arriving, but felt like she had too much free time without the responsibilities that she had at home. It was this feeling plus the one of being behind that led her to pick up a five-course class load.

“I think in some ways I was just playing catch up or like trying to prove to myself that I belonged here. And so I felt like I should not have this much free time,” she explained. “So I decided I also just felt like if I’m at a stage in my life, where I have this much free time, and there are people out who [are] still working full time or overtime, and still not able to afford things then yeah, I’m not doing enough if I feel like I have free time here.”

Because of the heavier class loads, Parsons ended up finishing the requirements for both the English and American studies majors at the end of her sophomore year. With the additional free time, she felt like she could be doing more, and thus picked up the majors of Black studies and history. She noted that the history major was particularly difficult because it was the department that she was least prepared to enter. She mentioned that she chose history because she believed that it was important to have a critical understanding of the discipline as someone who wants to work in higher education.

Positions on Campus

Parsons’ dedication to accessible education extends to her professional pursuits as well. She first mentioned her position in the history department, which gave her experience in publishing through developing the course readers and staying in communication with the department. Her work as a diversity outreach intern with the office of admissions aligned with her interests in making higher education more equitable, which made it almost the perfect position for her on campus. In this capacity, she had the opportunity to “do that by helping with programming for prospective questioning students as well as admitted students and helping them figure out that versus the right place for them.”

She expressed a lot of love for her time working in dining services and retail. Working in food services is important because it helped to ground her in reality, especially while hearing her coworkers’ stories about struggling in the real world.

“Because you can get trapped in the Amherst bubble where you think that everything can be solved in a classroom,” she said.

Hearing about her coworkers’ experiences reminds her of her own family’s struggles, and this motivates her in her work toward equity and accessibility. On campus, she also worked for the wellness team with the center for counseling and mental health because she was interested in destigmatizing mental illnesses in communities of color. Outside of campus, she also worked with Let’s Get Ready as a tutor for the reading and writing portion of the SAT as well as a transition coach.

Parsons explained, “I help students who are applying to college their senior year of high school by doing things like reviewing their personal statements, helping them develop a balanced college list and things like that.”

Looking Ahead: Ways to Provide Mentorship for FLI Students

In her future endeavors, Parsons wants to build on her passion for teaching and mentorship as she gets her master’s degree in education. She mused that it was a nice opportunity to be a parental figure as she was to her mentees in Summer Bridge.

Parsons also recently started the website College Study Guides, which originally started in The Amherst Student as the column “Kayah’s Korner.” She noted that she wasn’t satisfied with the column because she felt as if she was becoming an authoritative voice for the FLI students on campus. So she started the podcast #feelingFLI where she interviewed a FLI student for each episode. Even while she published that, she felt as if something was missing because it didn’t reach audiences beyond Amherst College.

So she started the website to create study guides for commonly taught courses and provide an entire range of resources for students. Parsons wanted resources that are easily accessible with “one click,” instead of the barriers that she faced finding resources coming into college. She noted that this website also came out of her work as a transition coach for Let’s Get Ready.

Parsons has exemplified the idea of being a community leader while being endlessly dedicated to the FLI community on campus. From her quadruple major, to her podcast “Feeling FLI,” her position as the social media coordinator for the Indicator, and her numerous positions across campus in Dining Services, the Diversity Outreach Intern Team, and the History Department, Parsons’ dedication to the Amherst community is very well known.

Parsons’ absence on campus in the Fall semester will be felt by all those who were able to be touched by her kindness. “Mikayah was my very first best friend here at Amherst. Not only was she incredibly smart, but she was kind, empathetic, and had so much love to give everyone,” Angelina Suarez ’25 said. Also, as one of Parsons’ Summer Bridge students, she had firsthand experience of the love and care that Parsons shows to her community. “Without Mikayah, my Amherst career wouldn’t have been as fulfilling as it has been. She truly gave me someone to love looking up to.”