That’s the first word that comes to mind when people think of Tajae Edwards.
Driven, passionate, intelligent. A natural leader.
Those adjectives all sound like understatements when you hear the laundry list of school activities that Edwards has been involved with. He was a Student Court justice and is currently a community advisor as well as a member of the Student Advisory Council for the transformation, the VSCS Anti-racism Committee, the Business Department Interview Committee, and is involved with Peer Advocates for Change and the honors society. And on top of that, he is co-president of Castleton University branch of the NAACP and one of the founding members.
And he’s currently applying to graduate school.
Edwards was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica and came to the U.S. in 2017. His aunt offered to assist him with his education if he wanted to continue it here, and he jumped on the offer.
“I immediately wanted to help with the process as soon as I graduated high school. I started working at this call center and I saved up everything I can to help with the visa process and stuff like that,” Edwards said.
That first year, he interned at the Northeast Kidney Foundation, where his aunt worked, and decided that he wanted to come back for school.
So, he went back to Jamaica and started a completely new process to get a student visa. It was a lengthy process, Edwards said, adding that he “had to go to the embassy twice.”
During his year in Jamaica, he worked, saved money, was able to see his sister graduate and see his brother come into a new job. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to go back since. But it’s clear that family is important to him.
Tajae describes his father, Frank Edwards, as “a jack of all trades” and his biggest inspiration. Frank was not able to get his high school diploma, but that did not stop him from providing and doing his best for his family.
“He can work with any official electrician, any official mason, any official carpenter, farmer. He just made a way when there was no way,” said Edwards. “Sometimes when I didn’t have transportation to school, he would put me on his bicycle and ride for miles.”
And even now, in a different country from his son, Edwards’s father continues to want the best for him and encourages him to get there.
“I am so proud of him because he takes part in every activity that is possible,” said Frank, describing him as a “perfect student.”
“Even if he doesn’t know the topic or the material that I’m studying, he will try to make sure that I know it and try to push me to be the best at it,” Edwards said.
When Edwards was a child, a month after his youngest brother was born, his mother passed away from a brain tumor. From what he knows of her, she was loving and kind. She was community oriented and would care for anyone in her presence.
“I know it was very hard,” Frank said. But he told his son to keep going, keep pushing. “I’m proud of him, just proud… Many children who don’t grow up with a mother don’t take his footsteps to go forward to success.”
Edwards said he looks to his mother for inspiration.
“One of my main drivers, or something that really pushes me, is this one picture I have that my mother wrote on before she died. She wrote on the back of that picture saying that ‘you’re a star, the brightest of them all.’ With everything I do, I just think of myself in that way, and it motivates me, pushes me, to do my best at all times and just be the star she expects me to be,” Edwards said.
Edwards’s friend, Damani Jones, whom he met during his time at Hudson Valley Community College, sees that star quality in him, despite how hard he may be on himself.
“I feel like he’s very humble and that doesn’t allow him to understand how great his achievements are, both academically and personally… I think everyone around him sees it before he sees it,” Jones said.
Jones describes Edwards as “a little more on the quiet side” and as someone who took people at their school by surprise when he took on responsibilities and always pulled through successfully.
He’s done more than pull through successfully at Castleton.
An advocate through the NAACP
One of Edwards’s most notable accomplishments at CU is being one of the three founding members of the nationally recognized Castleton University NAACP branch – the first collegiate branch in Vermont. It took Edwards and the two other founding members, Ray Awusi and Nadia Cox, three to four months to be officially recognized by the NAACP, during which they were sending each other ideas daily and working on building up their membership.
“[Awusi] was the main person who brought up the idea of the NAACP and immediately I jumped on it, like ‘let’s do this,’” Edwards said.
Edwards and Cox are now co-presidents of the branch.
“I felt like we had to have a place where people could come and share their feelings, where they can feel safe, where they can feel like their voices are heard,” Edwards said of the group.
Kimoy Creary, a friend of Edwards and a member of the NAACP branch, confirmed that that goal has been met.
“When I just got here, I’m not going to lie, I felt a little uncomfortable because I noticed that there are a lot of white students here, not many Black students,” Creary said.
But the NAACP has changed that for her.
“I feel supported, I feel like that’s kind of like my family on campus.”
Creary came to Castleton from Jamaica as well and decided to introduce herself to Edwards, feeling that they could relate through their shared experiences.
Helper for all
According to Rich Clark, political science program coordinator and faculty advisor for the NAACP on campus, Edwards has succeeded in providing that safe space for other students as well, not just those involved in the NAACP.
“There was a student who said she had a bad experience here on campus. And who did she go to? She didn’t go to the dean of students, she didn’t go to her advisor, she didn’t go to her CA, she went to Tajae,” Clark said. “That’s a lot to carry for a student who’s thinking about his courses, his graduate school, and his CA duties as well.”
According to Cox, that’s the kind of leader Edwards is – quiet, but welcoming and understanding. In September, the group put on a student panel for Black students to share their experiences. Cox could not attend, and Edwards ran it by himself.
“He definitely showed his leadership skills through the student panel,” Cox said. “He was nervous, but he definitely wanted to get that message out there to the students and to the faculty and administration.”
The panelists discussed the feelings associated with being Black in Vermont. They talked about having health issues and being afraid to call the police, anxiety and panic attacks when they hear police sirens, and feeling isolated in classes when they’re asked to form groups because they’re the only Black person in that class.
After the panel, the local Rutland branch of the NAACP gave the Castleton chapter a $2,000 grant.
“They were really grateful and appreciative and moved by what the panelists had to say. So, I thank them,” Edwards said.
Moving forward, Edwards and Cox would like to see more students, Black, people of color, or not, attending their meetings and standing with them.
“A lot of people are scared to come to the meetings because they feel like what they have to say is not important, but this is not a fight for just Black people, everyone should be involved with this,” Edwards said. “I think we all have something we can bring to the table when it comes to dismantling racism and discrimination and endorsing diversity.”
“We really need your allyship and your advocation,” Cox said.
And beyond Castleton, Edwards and the rest of the members are striving to inspire students at other schools to band together in the same way. Edwards says there are plans to start giving tours for local high schoolers to show them the process of forming a group like this, even if it is not necessarily an NAACP branch. He wants to leave a mark that outlasts him.
“Tajae from the outset recognized that we need to find the next leaders,” Clark said. “That’s not a typical thought, I think, that a lot of students have. They’re thinking about their resumes, their future when they leave, and not what they’re leaving behind… I find that impressive.”
With all of this responsibility, comes a lot of pressure, especially as such an outspoken leader at a primarily white institution like Castleton.
“Sometimes I get nervous knowing that with what I’m standing up for, I don’t know if they support it if they don’t show me that they support it,” he said. “I go hard for diversity, I go hard to be anti-racist, but I don’t know people’s intentions so sometimes I’m very cautious about that and I’m very mindful of that. Thinking about, ‘what if someone is against it’ then they might target me even with an email or something like that.”
But he doesn’t let that concern hold him back.
“It doesn’t really affect me because if it comes, it comes, but it’s not going to stop what I’m doing. Because I feel like what I’m doing is very important and needed,” Edwards said.