Tajahanae Aiken, Interior Design ’23, won the Norman R. McConney, Jr. Award for Student Excellence, which recognizes exceptional students in SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). The EOP, founded in 1967, supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds throughout their college career. We spoke with Aiken about the award and her experiences with the EOP.
What was your reaction to winning the award?
It was very surprising, to be honest. I had a meeting with Ms. [Taur] Orange [director of FIT’s EOP], and she interviewed me for a piece about Black interior designers…but it was a ruse! We had another meeting a few weeks later, and everyone in the EOP hopped on the call. She said, “Remember the piece I was writing about you? It wasn’t for a magazine, it was for an award—you received an award.” They were waving flags and congratulating me. They made my mom cry.
It didn’t really hit me until I got to the award ceremony. I was overwhelmed to be around the other students. Being in the room on that day, experiencing that with my peers, was overwhelming.
How has the EOP helped you?
How have they not? When I was in high school, my best friend and I would walk to FIT and sit in the EOP office. Even before I was a student, they were showing me the way. Once I enrolled, there were all these new challenges: impostor syndrome and just the stress of being a student. Their door was always open. And they established a community of peers I met along the way. They set me on a really good path to make it at FIT.
After getting my associate’s degree, I was really stressed and depressed, and the pandemic made it worse. I felt like I didn’t want to do this anymore. I took a semester off. The EOP was there, checking up on me and making sure I had the tools to come back. I realized I really did enjoy college and wanted to stay here.
How have you given back to the program?
The EOP is my community. I mentor incoming students, and I offer help in other ways when I can. I just like to be around.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Graduating and securing a job out of school. I had an internship in corporate design facilities at Black Tap Craft Burgers and Beer, and they hired me for a job on their team.
I never thought I would get into a top design college. If I did, I always thought I’d be in debt—but I’m not, I got a full ride. I also never thought I would make it to graduation and get a job where I’m an interior designer for real. There’s two halves of me, one is telling me, “You can’t do this,” and the other side is telling me, “Get a grip, girl, you don’t have a choice. Get up and go.”