Black History Month: The Wesleyan Way, LaTasha (Van Leer) Shemwell ’96

by Summer (Crick) Aldridge ’14 

LaTasha (Van Leer) Shemwell ’96 arrived on campus from Madisonville, Ky,. in 1992 on a vocal music scholarship. Between the scholarship and the small campus population with 1:1 attention from faculty and staff, she was easily sold on attending the beautiful College.

As a student, LaTasha had several mentors including music professors Drs. Diane Earle and Robert McIver – both who she says pushed her to her outer limits and genuinely cared about her success – and long-time staff member Scott Kramer ’87. “Scott helped me map out my courses to graduate on time, then he followed up with me frequently to make sure I was staying on track.”

But being a Black student on campus in the 90s included challenges. “We didn’t have the resources that the current students are afforded today like the Office of Equity and Inclusion. When issues surfaced, it could feel like there was no safe place on campus we could turn to.” And what were the challenges? Latasha described two incidents; the first occurred on her very first day at Wesleyan and involved a professor who questioned her choice a Malcolm X T-shirt; the second a man who objected to her singing the Whitney Houston rendition of the National Anthem at a basketball game. The professor said, “I bet you didn’t even read his autobiography,” followed by, “You will never graduate.” She related that after she finished the song at the basketball game, the man “jerked the microphone from me and said, ‘You need to sing this the white way.’”

Black students today now have many resources including the Office of Equity and Inclusion led by director Andrea Denise Bolden, I.D.E.A Lounge and the Black Student Union, which LaTasha advises. “BSU contacted me about five years ago. The organization was on the brink of dissolution because of lack of interest, and they asked if I could help them save it,” she shared. “When I became an advisor, there were four members. Now we have around 25 and host events and initiatives regularly.”

Allyson (Forrest) Sanders ’05 recently shared her appreciation for the efforts of LaTasha and others to become a more inclusive campus. “As a Black alumna, I am encouraged that KWC is taking steps to ensure equity and inclusion for all students,” she shared. “LaTasha’s passion to guarantee that these measures are being taken is highly encouraging.”

LaTasha earned a bachelor of arts in music performance from KWC in 1996 and went on to earn her master of arts in education (student affairs) from Western Kentucky University. She has spent her career working at various higher education institutions in areas including admissions, student services and administration and is now the program health manager for Owensboro Community & Technical College, where she manages the college’s short-term healthcare programs. In addition to her “day job,” LaTasha is a vocal coach at Midtown Music Academy, teaches private vocal lessons and is the pageant director for the Daviess County Lions Club. She also became an independent vocal recording artist in 2020.

While her careers in both music and higher education have no doubt been successful, LaTasha shared that her biggest “career win” was raising her two daughters to be independent and successful women. El’Agance is the evening anchor on WEVV 44 News and Diamond is a student at WKU majoring in criminal justice and psychology.

“I am so proud to be an alumna of KWC,” said LaTasha. “Despite any adversity I experienced, I learned life is what you make of it. I am so thankful for the caring professors I had and the staff who encouraged me to push myself to become who I am today.”