Back to Episode # 16

Intro  00:00
Life After Now.


Liz Bolsoni  00:07
Hello, and welcome to the life after now podcast. I'm your host Liz Bolsoni. I'm a communication studies major at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education, and think about what it means for your life after now. You'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have firsthand experience and expertise surrounding education in Minnesota. Today, I'll be introducing Rahje Branch. She is a Senior Manager of Student and Family Engagement at Reach Higher. And she's here to share the story of the activist awakening and her experiences in the college years. Rahje, thank you so much for joining me today.


Rahje Branch  00:48
It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me, Liz, I'm excited about this.


Liz Bolsoni  00:52
If you have some advice or words of affirmation for your high school self, what would you say?


Rahje Branch  00:59
Okay, for my high school self, I think I would have told her, one, "You're enough. You're smart enough. You're beautiful enough. You work hard enough." And then the second thing I would have said is it'll all work out. I was pretty anxious in high school, I went to a predominantly white high school and I was sometimes the only Black student in my classes, especially AP classes. And I always felt like I couldn't catch up, or that I wasn't maybe as smart as the other kids. And looking back on it, I definitely was. We just had a resource deficit, like they had access to way more things than I did. And so I would have just constantly told, you know, 16 year old Rahje, "No, like you're good. And it's going to work out." Like, I don't think the high school version of myself ever even thought about, like how my life would unfold. And I think I'm doing pretty well. So I think that's -- those are some of the things that I probably would have told myself when I was in high school.


Liz Bolsoni  02:10
I hope everyone was listening to that great advice. So could you tell us a little bit about your role as a Senior Manager of Student and Family Engagement at Reach Higher? What type of work do you do there?


Rahje Branch  02:23
Yeah, and so, when I said that I didn't imagine I'd be doing, you know, what I'm doing now. So my role is basically I'm sort of like the "texter-in-chief." And what that means is right now Reach Higher has really raised a few million dollars to be able to send messages to students and families across the country, helping them with the college application process. Everything from the college application search and figuring out what schools are out there, what schools students want to apply to, to, you know, everything from SATs and ACTs when students were taking those exams, to how to write a personal statement, to even the selection process. A lot of people know that Reach Higher is really big on College Signing Day, which is typically on May 1. And so we help students get there to make a decision. And then even throughout the summer, right, we know that there are things that students have to prepare for, as they get ready to take that next big step in going to college. And so helping students through that. And then sometimes even through their first semester, or their first year of college, so everything from meeting with an academic advisor to making sure your financial aid is squared away to even, you know, figuring out how to make friends in classes or study groups. We know that -- I mean, I was a first generation college student, and I felt like sometimes people just didn't tell me these things. But I just didn't know. My parents didn't go to college, my grandparents didn't go. And so some of these things I had to figure out on my own or ask around. And so our goal is to support students through that, as they really make this big decision and investment in themselves educationally. And so I get to text students and families and, you know, manage those who text students and families.


Liz Bolsoni  04:28
You know, if you could share a little bit more about what the college application process was like for you as a first generation student, how did you navigate that process? What does that look like?


Rahje Branch  04:39
I have a brother who just turned 18 and he's a senior in high school, and so we just went through that process again. And so I had to, like revisit some of my old traumas and like, oh, like unpack some of that as I was trying to help him. But really, you know, although my parents didn't go to college, going to college was not a question in my family, it wasn't a matter of if I was going to go, but just where. I thought that I was going to be sort of this PR [public relations], business, maybe like Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly. That's what I thought my career was gonna be like, and so I was planning on majoring in PR. And so when I was looking at schools, I told, you know, my advisors like I'm looking at schools that have public relations majors. But I also knew that I didn't want to go to a really big school. My high school was probably about 2400, and that felt like, fine to me. I didn't want to go to a school where I'd always be one in 200, right? I wasn't always a big lecture hall fan. I enjoyed dialogue in the classroom. I remember I told my advisor, I wanted to go somewhere where the people were nice. And I don't know why I said, well, actually, I do know why I said that. I said that, because it didn't always feel like my teachers in high school were welcoming. And so I want it to go to a welcoming environment. And so we came up with a list of schools between New York -- because, you know, I said, I want it to be The Devil Wears Prada -- and then Los Angeles -- because I knew I want it to be in a city. Truthfully, the decision came down to financial aid. You know, my advisors were decent. I went, like I said, I went to a predominantly white high school. And so we had college advisors, which was unique to a lot of school campuses --  not a lot of high schools have, you know, dedicated college counselors that just focus on that, right. And so they were plugged in, but they weren't really plugged into, like HBCUs, and all the other options. They weren't really plugged into a lot of issues that first generation college students face. And so I kind of just winged it. I would ask them questions. I'd ask my teachers questions. I would ask -- one of my best friends, her parents had gone to college, and her older sisters had gone to college, so I asked them questions. And I sort of just winged it, I Googled a lot. And I think, you know, that was great for my personality. But I often think about students who don't have that, right, students who may just not know where to go or who to turn to, and how they end up in certain situations. And I don't think the the onus should be placed on students, I think we should be pouring out our support to students and helping them in any way we can. So the way that I got to college, I would not recommend.


Liz Bolsoni  07:47
Right, right. That's why we have programs that you're leading to change that. So, you know, you talked about you didn't think you'd be here, you never imagined that this would be your future. And so how did your college experiences ,your high school experiences, shape who you are today and affect the work that you are doing today?


Rahje Branch  08:11
So when I got to college, I went to -- I started college, sort of on the backdrop of the George Zimmerman trial. And it was around sort of like the birth of Black Lives Matter, right, and that movement and the outcry for justice. And so I knew I wanted to help people, I knew I wanted to help people who were like me. Students who grew up in lower income areas, historically marginalized and oppressed areas. I wanted to really support Black people. I knew I really wanted to support first generation students. And I was also going to college at the same time as other students around the country were experiencing micro and macro aggressions on their college campuses. And so I always knew, like social justice to just was, like oozing out of my heart at the time. And so I was meeting with our president, you know, meeting with board members, trying to really organize students, right, to -- from everything from having better options, healthier options in our cafeteria, to removing certain symbols on campus that were racist and triggering, right, to making sure we had diverse curriculum, and that our professors and staff, you know, reflected the diversity that was present among the student body. And so when I say I didn't think that I'd be doing the current work that I do now, it's because a lot of my work now involves technology. We utilize artificial intelligence to send out text messages to students. And growing up a little Black girl from South Central Los Angeles, tech was something that was for people like Steve Jobs in Silicon Valley. Like I never saw myself there, I didn't see myself represented in that field. And so the fact that I get to pair technology with my love for social justice, with my passion for creating access and opportunity, and for not just creating the access and opportunity, but really justice work, is something that it blows my mind every time. And I feel extremely grateful that I get to be in this space, and get to do this type of work. And I think that my organizing in college and after college, right, has really pushed me to encourage others to push the needle, right? Like I can't just remain silent, when a text message doesn't quite hit the target, right? Like, I have to be very direct, we have to be very clear in our messaging that we support students and who we support. And my role, I feel a lot of times, is sort of helping us be clear about that, helping us see the vision and helping us stick to our mission to do that.


Liz Bolsoni  11:11
Right. So in college, you made this big decision, and before, too, you made this big decision to devote yourself to activism and fighting for social justice. And you also made another big decision, which you are too humble to say yet. But, you've been too humble to say yet, but you attended Harvard University. And so how did those two choices influence each other? What did your college decision do to impact, you know, your values?


Rahje Branch  11:37
And thinking about Harvard, it's just, I tell people, I ended up at Harvard, like on a fluke, right? Like I had learned about the Graduate School of Education through a prior internship experience and internship experience with Reach Higher. Because something that I also love talking about is I have the job that I have now because I started as an intern back in 2015. And so I wasn't planning on going to graduate school for education. While I knew that education was a great tool for justice, I thought I was gonna go to law school. But I wasn't ready to go to law school right after college. And that's another thing that I would really, I guess, impart to others is that, you know, be open to other plans. Some folks were going right after I just, I just couldn't make it happen between the organizing work that I was doing on campus. And just me sticking to like trying to graduate, I couldn't study for the LSAT and go straight to law school. And so I knew I wanted to learn more about education, and I thought I'd do it teaching. And so I thought about teaching fellowships. I applied for a Fulbright [Scholarship], didn't get it, which is something that we also don't talk about a lot. We don't talk about our quote-unquote failures or setbacks. Didn't get the Fulbright, but I applied to Harvard thinking, well, this could be a great way to learn more. And I'll do this before I go to law school. So I ended up going to Harvard still saying, "Yep, I'm going to law school." And I did Harvard's Education Policy and Management Program. And more than anything that I learned in the classroom, I was surrounded by brilliant Black women who poured into me and who were doing amazing things in their field. And I think that that also just encouraged me to be bold. It encouraged me to apply for things that, you know, I may or may not have gotten. It encouraged me to apply for this job that I have. It encouraged me to ask for what I needed. And so I came in as a program manager leading one program. And today, over a year later, I've now led three texting programs. And it was because, I think, you know, like I said, more than anything that a class taught me, I had peers who surrounded me and have taught me and have encouraged me. And that's probably another note that I would say to other students who were, who are going through it. Whether you're in graduate school or an undergrad, some of your peers are going to be the biggest sources of knowledge. And so don't take for granted those conversations or those times that you get to really spend with other people. I think those are just as important.


Liz Bolsoni  14:34
So some of our student listeners like you are going to be the first people in their families to go to college. And, you know, if you could give some really pointed advice to students who are in the position you were, what would you say?


Rahje Branch  14:47
Sometimes it can be scary to be the first in our family, right? I was the first to go to college, to go to graduate school, to go to an Ivy League, to move far, like, across the country, for a job to sort of become a senior manager, right? And there's no roadmap for us sometimes, right? Like, we see other people doing it. And there's this quote that says "comparison is the thief of joy." And I wholeheartedly believe that, because if we're looking at other people's paths, it can seem like, our path is slow, or like we're much further behind then we think, or we think that our journey should look a certain way. And I have to constantly tell myself this too, because, just because I graduated college doesn't mean that there are still firsts. Like, there are still firsts that I am walking through in adulthood. And so I constantly tell myself this to that don't let comparison steal your joy. The late rapper, Nipsey Hussle, would say like, "This is a marathon, not a sprint." And so you need to continue on your own journey, continue on your own race, put one foot in front of the other. When you need help, ask for it. Right? There's somebody out there that's willing to help you. And, and I think those are the pieces of advice that I would give. It's definitely, like I said, it's scary sometimes. But I think that, you know, when you make those decisions, right, to do it, or to accomplish whatever you want to accomplish, just think about the path that you're leaving behind you. So I think about my nieces, my nephews, I think about my little cousins. I think about my own brother, who, by virtue of me, had, you know, maybe a similar -- or easier experience, rather, applying to college, because he, his sister, did it. They can see it right, like, sometimes you don't know things unless you see it. And then sometimes those are the people that that open up doors. I say all the time, like, I bust down doors and break open windows so that my family can walk in on a red carpet. I don't want my nieces and nephews to have to try to wing it like I did. They shouldn't have to. They should, they should be able to learn and have access and figure it out. Because someone in their family did.


Liz Bolsoni  17:25
So you know you shared about your internship experience with Reach Higher as you were in your undergrad. And how did that, or maybe anything else that you experienced in college, push you to want to get your graduate degrees, and what helped you make that decision?


Rahje Branch  17:42
Yeah, and I think this is something that we don't talk about enough. I'm just going to be frank with you. For what I wanted to do, for how much money I wanted to make, I knew that an undergraduate degree was not going to be enough. I knew that I would need some type of postsecondary education beyond my undergraduate degree. Like I said, I thought I wanted to go to law school and have my JD [Juris Doctor degree] and use that for justice work. And to be honest, a lot of jobs that I'm looking at require something beyond a bachelor's degree. I was very clear that if I was going to go to graduate school, I was going to go to one of the best. And I went to Harvard knowing that I wanted what some people called the "Big H" on my resume. And I think sometimes we shy away from those conversations, because we don't want to really address the reality of the fact that, you know, a lot of white students, or white folks can really advance without having those things. But for someone like me, who doesn't always have that social capital, I needed the credentials. And that's the reality of the situation. It's not right. It's not just. But I knew that if I want it to go further, and to reach a certain point, that my one degree was only going to take me so far. And so I applied to graduate school, and I applied to one of the best graduate schools, and I went there, because I knew I needed to go to a certain point. And that's something that I think it's an inside-outside strategy. I don't think it's right. And so I can work to sort of tear down those myths of what it means to have a graduate degree. And I can, you know, encourage my own workplace to expand their hiring pool. Right? But the reality is, is that having Harvard on your resume gets you into certain rooms.


Liz Bolsoni  19:56
So now you were involved on campus and you actually were the president of your BSA. your Black Student Association at your undergrad. And if you could share a little bit about what community has meant to you as a student, and how that has impacted your education.


Rahje Branch  20:13
One of my favorite sayings is an African proverb that says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go farther go together." And that means so much to me, because when I think about the rooms that I walk into, right -- we just talked about how my, my goal is to like, make way for those behind me -- the rooms that I get to walk into, the spaces I get to enter, both virtually, at this point, and physically, I'm more than likely because somebody made way for me. And so when I say it's my, my role to make sure that we're clear, in our mission, we're clear on who we support and how we support them earnestly. It's because I owe that to my community. I owe that to the people who raised me. I owe that to the people who have prayed for me. I owe it to the ancestors who came from the continent, right, and who were brought here, and became enslaved peoples and who still fought and continued on so that I can be here. And not just be here in this sense of, "Oh, so I can just have a corporate job and work," but no, so that I can make way for others. So that I can push the needle for justice. So that I can really ensure the liberation of my people.


Liz Bolsoni  21:38
Thanks for your words about community and supporting each other. And so that brings us to our last question, which is, if you have advice for our listeners, just any parting words, as we look to the future, what would you say?


Rahje Branch  21:53
I think it sort of circles back to what we started in, what I wish I had when I was younger, and sometimes what I still need. And it's that extra affirmation that "You are enough," and that "You are enough at everything." Right? Like, and I think about right now I think about Naomi Osaka, and the brave decision that she made to stop interviews, and then to pull herself from the French Open, right. And I know that it's been a draining year for a lot of students, and students have had to push themselves in ways that they've never pushed before, and I've had to overcome things that even as adults, that, like we struggle with. And so as we look to the future, I would encourage students to rest. And that's not a popular statement. But when I think about the value that each of us hold as human beings, I would encourage students to rest, to recharge, to rejuvenate, to really care for themselves in a world that sometimes is extremely harsh and demanding of us. And so as students think about their next steps, whether that's a four year college, or a community college, or trade school, or maybe even some time off before going to school, or even working, or whatever next steps that lie ahead of them, I would encourage them to be kind to themselves, to love on themselves, to surround themselves with people who are loving and healthy for them. And to rest as they prepare for for whatever lies ahead.


Liz Bolsoni  23:56
Thank you. That wraps up our beautiful conversation today. So I really appreciate your time, Rahje. Thanks for sharing about your experiences as you went through college and high school and a little bit about the inspiration behind your project, the work that you're doing. So it was wonderful speaking with you.


Rahje Branch  24:13
Thanks for having me, Liz. This was incredible. And hopefully when outside opens up, our paths can cross in person one day.


Liz Bolsoni  24:23
I also want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today. This podcast was brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. And we encourage you to dig into the resources mentioned in this episode, which you can find in the show notes at our website Don't forget to follow this podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you listen to your podcasts, so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time, everyone. I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready Because you all are the future

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