Forging a Path, Reflecting Community
Tanesha Cartwright ’18, M.F.T. ’23
Searching for a therapist that would get it led Tanesha Cartwright ’18, M.F.T ’23 to change everything—and return to SCU.
In the middle of the pandemic, the world couldn’t have seemed much more difficult for Cartwright. The job she relied on to pay the bills caused back pain so severe that she required two major surgeries. The hairstyling career she had painstakingly planned for had stalled.
In pain, unsure what to do next, and dealing with the fallout from the pandemic, Cartwright realized she was depressed. She asked her insurance company to match her with a therapist who was Black in hopes of finding someone who could understand the way racism affects people’s lives.
“It was so hard for the insurance company to find me a Black therapist,” Cartwright recalls. “I asked if it was out of the ordinary for somebody to ask for a therapist of the same gender and nationality. They were like, ‘No, but unfortunately, in California, there’s not a lot of Black female therapists.’”
With that, Cartwright knew she had found a new calling.
“Immediately, I knew that if this is happening to me, it’s happening to a lot of people,” she says. “I started looking for a graduate program. When I saw that Santa Clara had a program, it was a no-brainer.”
After all, her first career as a hairstylist, and plans to become a cosmetology instructor, isn’t too far from therapy. Both professions hear their clients dish secrets and hold up a mirror so people can see a different version of themselves.
“A lot of my friends are like, ‘You’ve been my therapist for so long, it’s about time you get paid for it,” says Cartwright. “I tell my clients, ‘just so you know, after 2024, if we talk about anything besides the weather, sports, or Beyonce, I’m going to add an extra $250 to your service.”
No matter what the two jobs have in common, making any career hop can feel overwhelming to most people. But Cartwright? Nah.
Her typical attitude: When a challenge presents itself, she immediately sets upon a plan to overcome it. Nothing is impossible. Nothing is out of reach. There’s a reason people call her a “make it happen” kind of person.
“If there’s something I see that I need to do, I’m just going to do it,” she says. “I don’t think twice.”
Today, Cartwright is enrolled in the Marriage and Family Therapist program at Santa Clara’s School of Education, Counseling, and Psychology. She wants to become a licensed therapist who can not only make counseling more accessible to Black families but also help Black people understand and work through their trauma.
Her extraordinary story highlights not only the beauty of persistence, but the critical need for Black therapists in a world where Black people are disproportionately affected by systemic racism and many other inequities. For many people, seeing a therapist who shares the same race or ethnicity and range of experiences can be more validating and lead to more incisive treatment.
Cartwright is pursuing a correctional emphasis, designed for students who hope to work with youth or adults who have been incarcerated. It’s her way of helping people work through much of the same trauma that she experienced growing up.
“She’s passionate about going into this field to help minorities who are in the system. That’s her passion. We struck it off right away because that’s also my passion,” said Correctional Emphasis Coordinator Robert Michels.
Michels says Cartwright is a bright and resilient student who has “great insight into what’s going on and asks profound questions.”
“You can’t ask for anything better from a student,” says Michels. “She will be successful because of who she is.”
A Plan Falls Apart
Years ago, Cartwright had her career planned out to a T—or so she thought. A longtime hairstylist with hundreds of faithful clients in San Jose, she enrolled in an instructor program at San José City College cosmetology school.
As the only woman in her program who knew how to style Black hair, her skills were in high demand. When Cartwright learned she could make more money teaching hairstyling if she got an associate’s degree, she enrolled in a second program to make that happen.
Not only would the instructor gig advance her career, it would help Cartwright better support her daughter Devynn, whom she has raised as a single mother since the age of 20.
After a year juggling two different course loads, motherhood, and clients at the salon, Cartwright learned that she would earn a significantly higher salary, more teaching privileges, and better benefits if she had a bachelor’s degree.
“So I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna get a bachelor’s degree,’” she recalls. At age 36, Cartwright enrolled at Santa Clara, and was accepted to SCU’s LEAD Scholars Program, which supports first-generation college students with a myriad of resources, including peer and alumni mentorship and career guidance. Since graduating in 2018 with a degree in communication and media studies, she has mentored fellow LEAD Scholars in workshops and seminars enrolled at Santa Clara.
By the time she was done, the instructor job she’d meticulously plotted her education for evaporated, a victim of budget cuts. All of the work she’d done to prepare meant cutting down her workload at the salon. To make ends meet, she took on a job at Target while occasionally taking hair appointments.
Paying the bills took a toll on her body. Long hours doing hair and stocking shelves hurt her back until she could no longer stand straight. She took a leave from Target just before the pandemic hit. And then came a life-changing revelation—maybe there was a different path.
A New Plan
Now in the first year of her master’s degree program, Cartwright’s unique experience as an older and deeply confident student and mother—and one of a few Black students in ECP—is an immense asset to the University.
She’s well-known and beloved by many on campus for her real-life smarts, mama bear instincts, and fearlessness in the classroom.
Communication lecturer and Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies Katharine Heintz says Cartwright was a strong, commanding presence in her classroom and is not afraid to ask questions or challenge her teachings—characteristics that set her apart from other students.
“She brought in a particular energy and a perspective to the class because she was bringing so much more life experience,” says Heintz, who has since formed a close friendship with Cartwright. “Being Black, being a woman, and being a single mom, those three things likely make her the only student on campus with that background. Being much older than other students gave her a much different perspective, but it was also relatable to other students.”
As resilient as she is determined, Cartwright learned how to survive on her own early on. Both of her parents were addicted to drugs, and she moved often, she says. She has only three photos of herself as a child.
“When I was a kid, I moved every two to three years,” says Cartwright. “I was never in the same school district. I would go visit my dad in Chicago and I’d come home and find that my mom had moved. All my stuff would be in boxes.”
But she is quick to make two things clear: She doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her or to think that she was given handouts because of her tough upbringing. Like many others, she has tried to make the most out of her situation while providing for her daughter.
When Devynn was little, Cartwright says, she often skipped out on higher-paying jobs so that they could stay in their low-income housing. She wanted to give her daughter the stability that she never had growing up. They’ve lived in the same home for nearly two decades.
Devynn saw her mom studying for multiple programs, including her undergraduate degree from SCU.
Today Devynn studies just like she saw her mom do when Devynn was a kid. She is a nursing student at Grambling State University, a historically Black college in Louisiana. She has two jobs, her own apartment, and a new car—accomplishments Cartwright marvels at with love and admiration.
“Going to Santa Clara literally changed the trajectory of my family’s life,” she says. “I broke the mold.”
The Next Move
Cartwright’s list of plans is long. Seeing so few Black students on track to become therapists has inspired her to consider pursuing a doctorate, she says, to do research that better helps Black people understand their trauma and mental illnesses. If she doesn’t continue her schooling after graduating with her master’s degree, she hopes to become a therapist for at-risk youth. She would also like to start a nonprofit that engages Black men and women who have overcome tough odds to mentor at-risk teens facing similar struggles.
It’s what she wishes she had growing up.
“People ask me, ‘how did you do that?’ and I can’t write it down,” says Cartwright, who is working several part-time jobs while pursuing her master’s, including an adjuct substitute hairstyling instructor role for San José Community College Cosmetology. “I can’t tell you, ‘These are the steps that I took’ or ‘This is why I chose that path.’ I definitely was moved along by an angel. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions, but nothing to stunt my growth or make me feel like I needed to be less than what I’ve set my mind to. My goals might be far-reaching, but there’s not a goal that I’ve set for myself that I haven’t reached.”
No matter where she has been or which path she plots next, it seems Cartwright has always been holding up the mirror for the community, to help people better see themselves and understand who they are.