Sha’Kurra Evans (’18 sociology), Iowa State University student, Multicultural Vision Program scholar, McNair Scholar and first-generation college student was a twelve-year-old girl on a playground with her siblings the first time she was called by a racial slur.
She remembers going home and telling her father about the incident, and her father sat Evans and her siblings down for a talk.
"He sat us down and said ‘Okay, I didn’t want to ever have to tell you all this, but I’m going to tell you what it means to be black in a white town,’" recalled Evans. "You can’t say certain things, or you might go to jail. You really have to hold your tongue. You can’t walk around at night by yourself. Being black, you have to move differently. You might think you’re the same, but you’re not. You can’t behave like everyone else."
It was a life-changing moment for Evans, who was left after that important conversation with her father always wondering: Why?
"I can’t help that I’m black. So why? That conversation really helped me understand what it means to be black in America," said Evans.
This realization has continued to shape Evans’ experiences beyond her childhood and throughout her time at Iowa State.
Finding a niche
Eventually, Evans made her way to Iowa State after her high school principal pressed her to apply for a four-year, full-tuition scholarship through the Multicultural Vision Program (MVP).
Evans was ultimately selected to receive the award and came to Iowa State to major in apparel merchandising. In addition to her scholarship, Iowa State was appealing to Evans because she could minor in African American studies.
"Iowa State had the African American studies minor, and I always knew that when I went to college I wanted to learn more about myself," Evans explained. "Taking classes in African American studies would allow me to learn the history I was never taught in school."
During her sophomore year, she took Introduction to Sociology and went to Supplemental Instruction sessions where she was able to get help breaking down the issues and could learn how to apply the concepts.
Learning about sociology and all of the areas that she could study through her previous class and Supplemental Instruction prompted Evans to switch to a sociology major spring semester of her sophomore year.
“Once I decided to switch majors and I was looking at my classes for the next semester, and looking at all of the different sociology courses, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s ethnic and race relations, sex and gender, and these are all specific classes!’ So, that’s what really amazed me, and I took all of those."
Not only were there interesting classes, but the topics applied to everyday life.
“Sociology is society, it’s life. What I’m learning about in my classes is going on right outside my window,” described Evans.
Presented with many options and easily applicable subject matter, Evans found that sociology was her perfect fit.
“I saw that in sociology you can really study race, and that caught my attention. It paired so well with my African American Studies minor," Evans said. "I feel like sociology is my niche, like I was made for sociology or sociology was made for me.”
Forging a new path
Having found the area of study that was perfect for her, Evans was presented with many opportunities during the remainder of her undergraduate career. One such opportunity was to apply for the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievment Program to become a McNair Scholar with the goal of going to graduate school and becoming a teacher, which she realized she wanted to do after co-teaching a class as a peer mentor through MVP.
"After getting students to engage in conversations as a co-teacher for MVP and hearing all my life that I should be a teacher, I started to really think about it," Evans said. "I like sharing everything I learn and opening people’s eyes to the big picture."
Evans was accepted to the McNair Program. As a requirement for the program, she had to complete a research component.
After meeting Kyle Burgason, assistant professor of sociology at Iowa State, during a guest lecture in one of her African American studies classes, Evans made a connection and worked with Burgason to research survey respondents’ attitudes regarding race of victim and offender in public opinion on capital punishment as a sanction for murder.
"Dr. Burgason has been the perfect mentor for me because he is in African American studies and sociology," explained Evans. "His goal has always been for me to succeed, he knows what I’m capable of and he believes in me more than I believe in myself. He tells me, ‘It’s your barbecue; I’m just here to help.’"
Transitioning from student to scholar
With Burgason’s help, Evans has found that the transition from student to scholar went very quickly.
Burgason has been impressed with her work, especially given that Evans is completing the McNair Program in one year rather than the two years during which McNair Scholars normally complete the requirements.
"She is a particularly bright young scholar as Sha’Kurra is completing the two-year program in one year. I am pleased to see how she is transforming from undergraduate student into a scholar," said Burgason.
As a scholar, Evans has taken her research entitled “Race, Public Opinion, & Capital Punishment” and presented at four conferences and symposia in the spring of 2018: The Annual McNair Conference at the University of North Texas, the National Conference of Undergraduate Research at the University of Central Oklahoma, the 2018 Symposium on Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression and the 2018 Annual McNair Research Symposium, both at Iowa State.
After her busy final semester in the spring of 2018, Evans plans to pursue her doctoral degree in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Because of all the opportunities Iowa State and sociology have presented her, Evans is pleased with her decision to change her major to sociology. "It was the best decision I ever made," Evans said.