Guiding Students to Find/Define Their Own Uniqueness and Beauty

In Fall orientation in many colleges and universities, freshman students will be introduced to an array of faculty and staff, academic disciplines, reading lists, co-FMU-Studentscurricular activities, clubs and fraternities, university resources, and the beginning of new adventures in self-discovery encompassing exposure to different perspectives and development of academic and emotional intelligence.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of observing many students enter as eager, and somewhat uncertain, freshmen and develop into more confident individuals ready to find their purposes and places in an evolving world.

However, while watching students move onto campus, I have noticed a trend that is somewhat disturbing. It appears that more college freshmen are arriving on college campuses with an unbelievable amount of material possessions and personal “looks” that are more appropriate for the entertainment industry than for a higher education learning community. Moreover, when it is time to buy books or pay fees, some of these same students make decisions to continue to buy more material possessions, fashions, and personal amenities rather than invest in resources to further their education.

This year, as we focus on students and introduce them to college life, we will also attempt to engage students in small group conversations about contemplating the reflections they see in the mirror, gaining an understanding of their own special uniqueness, beauty, and developing a personal brand that exceeds Hollywood, celebrities, one-dimensional personas, and commercialized versions of how lives are supposed to be lived.

Maybe, in addition to gaining knowledge, students will graduate with positive self-confidence, a sense of purpose, a moral compass, and an appreciation of their own uniqueness and beauty.

 

The Value of Summer Breezes for Life/Work Balance

After we in higher education engage in one, or numerous Commencement ceremonies, and feel a sense of satisfaction that we continue to guide the development of our nation’s intellectual capital, many of our thoughts drift to a summer season of different projects and/or vacations.

As many others in the workforce have experienced, I would surmise, some of the most peaceful and restorative memories of the summer include strolling on the beach enjoying ocean breezes blowing through your hair, being soothed by the relaxing sound of the waves hitting the shore on a beautiful, blue sky day, and/or enjoying the natural beauty of wooded areas—without cellular connections.  After about a week or so of listening to the waves, enjoying the peace of morning kayaking, or moving about without meetings and schedules, if we are lucky, a sense of renewed vitality and creativity emanates throughout our bodies.

Yet, for some reason, many Americans find reasons not to take their vacation days.  Possibly, these workers feel that staying on the job and forgoing vacation days will keep them from falling behind, or possibly that staying physically at the job is a demonstration of loyalty, and therefore, a more direct line to success.  Thus, it does not surprise me that several sources report that Americans take fewer vacation days than Europeans—leaving paid remuneration on the table or lost altogether.  It is hard to imagine that with the increasingly persistent emails, text messages, conference calls, webinars, and videoconferencing (not to mention social media), that the need to disconnect from the work world has not become acknowledged as critical.  Work worlds, moreover, are microcosms that are intricately linked to family worlds, political contexts, stock market performances, and global communities.

So, what is so special about going on vacation?  Well for one thing, some of my psychologists colleagues have convinced me that the 24/7 work worlds that many of us live in produce negative effects on our bodies on both psychological and chemical levels. We need to periodically decompress and allow ourselves to experience some measure of peace without feeling guilty for using vacation days that are usually portrayed as benefits.  It does not take an astute observer to note that there is life beyond work, and that a healthy life/work balance is essential to a productive workforce.

Conversations with colleagues over the years, and observations of colleagues, suggest that there is more than a modicum of chronic stress in our work lives that, if gone unchecked, will take unpleasant tolls on the body’s ability to resist infection, to maintain high energy levels, and to remain healthy enough to perform work at levels that contribute to productivity, innovation, and a desirable work environment.

There have been too many conversations with work colleagues about elevated blood pressure, acid reflux, inability to sleep through the night, memory issues, and a plethora of prescription medications needed to continue to work.  Possibly, middle-aged employees experience these symptoms more than Millennial workers, but it is probably just a matter of matter of time—unless  the work environment changes to encompass a more holistic view of the lives and needs of its human intellectual capital.  Possibly, Millennials can help furnish some leadership in developing a work environment that is both supportive, challenging, and productive.

Until then, we might want to reconsider the value of vacation days!

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. (2010), The Importance of Vacations to our Physical and Mental Health, Psychology Today,  (retrieved May 21, 2017).

Natalie Burg (2014), Forbes, Do The Europeans Have it Right?  Do we Need More Time Off to be On at Work? (retrieved May 21, 2017).

Establishing Intentional and Guided Career Pathways for Students and for Regional Economic Development

As we approach the new academic year in higher education, many of us are keenly aware of the seemingly intractable challenges facing our nation. Some of these are eroding our collective sense of well-being and our confidence in our abilities to achieve a range of goals for students. Thus, it seems more urgent than ever before to undergird the hopes of incoming and continuing students with curricular and co-curricular learning opportunities that will lead to better opportunities for themselves, their families, and their expanded communities.

FMU guidance2Even though I have welcomed new and returning students to institutions of higher education for decades, this year, I especially look forward to constructing guided career pathways through faculty leadership at Florida Memorial University (FMU). Located in the extremely diverse South Florida, FMU, like many liberal arts universities, produces responsible and contributing citizens who will hopefully continue to strive throughout their lifetimes, while illustrating character, leadership, and commitment to lifelong learning.

What is particularly refreshing and transformational about this year is that there is an energized faculty movement to create guided career pathways through curriculum innovation, co-curricular activities (such as early internships and capstone experiences), and collaborations with business leaders to insure that the holistic collegiate experience of FMU’s students fulfills their academic interests and personal upward mobility needs. In order to design guided and intentional career pathways, faculty and institutional researchers are employing regional and national data to identify majors, minors, certifications, and graduate programs that are most likely to lead to gainful, professional employment––and then filling in the gaps.

Like most other institutions of higher education, FMU has its share of student success stories, like the student who, by the time of this posting, will probably have completed her doctorate in radiochemistry. There are also significant numbers of students pursuing graduate study at prestigious graduate schools or beginning their professional careers. However, the faculty-led guided career pathways movement seeks to expose students to more choices for emerging career areas, and expand options in existing areas, as supported by data. These careers are, and will be, important to the economy–careers such as digital communications, cybersecurity, forensics, construction management, and data analytics.

So, as students commence another academic year, it is difficult to not be stimulated intellectually and inspired by this faculty-led movement that is supported by the UNCF and funded by the Lily Endowment. The development of career pathways will also help faculty review and identify specific intellectual competencies and skills that they can measure and certify, as students transition to varied positions and a lifetime of learning to further refine their post baccalaureate competencies and assure their continued professional growth.

Alas, it is time to end this blog and resume preparations for a coming faculty/business leaders forum that will focus on competencies needed by various industries to both guide our renewal as an institution of higher education, and furnish the intellectual capital needed for regional economic development. By this continuous renewal and assessment, we assure our students that they will be ready for the future!

How Can We Leverage the Creativity in the Workforce for a Better Future?

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source: http://evolllution.com/opinions/serving-the-next-generation-workforce/

I have been thinking lately a lot about work. What function does or should work have in establishing well-being in our society? Beyond earning salaries or wages, why should we work? Are there benefits in work beyond the satisfaction of performing your craft well? What role does work have in sustaining families and communities beyond paying household bills? Is there something ethereal in men/women that work touches, enhances or creates?  Can work lead to self-actualization–the merging of creativity with craft that lifts the individual, the organization, and the interrelated work families?

Probably as long as women/men have existed, there has been some version of work. It is reasonable to imagine that work for prehistoric humans related to tasks that increased survival–food, shelter, and probably other tasks related to Maslow’s hierarchy-physiological and safety needs. However, as many of us rush back and forth to work daily, we probably also realize that we share our lives with others in work worlds. These work worlds can furnish opportunities for us to collaborate and learn from colleagues while obtaining gratification and inspiration from attaining personal and professional goals. And, to attract new talents, some employers are realizing that work worlds need to evolve to fit the needs and expectations of several generations in the workplace.

From some Millennials, we are learning that work worlds that are more satisfying and supportive of a holistic and balanced lifestyle hold a competitive edge in recruiting new talent. Companies like Google attract Millennials with free food, dry cleaning, on-site fitness facilities, and flexible work schedules– attempting to respond to the values of this generation. Other employers report that Millennials work better in teams, when appreciation is shown, and when global opportunities are involved.

According to a 2014 article in Harvard Business Review, managers in the current and future workforce, are, and can be for some time, managing several generations of workers–the first time this situation has existed in history. Experts offer that managers should encourage collaboration, up and down mentoring, and above all, leverage the expertise of all individuals for a more creative and productive workforce.

As we redefine higher education and create technologically enhanced learning environments, leveraging expertise and promoting individual creativity will make all the difference in realizing the potential of higher education for a better future.

GENERATIONAL ISSUES
Managing People from 5 Generations
Rebecca Knight, Harvard Business Review,
SEPTEMBER 25, 2014

Happy Mother’s Day-Celebrating the Love and Hidden Workloads of so Many Women

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For most individuals, their mothers are, or have been, a special influence in their lives and contribute to their lifelong sense of love, compassion, and confidence. The love of a mother can encircle you like an invisible force field. Yet, often, mothers supply this nexus of love and support while juggling careers, personal and conflicting aspirations, and hidden familial workloads. This Mother’s Day, let us acknowledge the special place that mothers occupy in our lives and the complexity of their lives that is frequently hidden from our view.

Some time ago, a colleague and I conducted research on the hidden workloads of women in higher education. Our research was presented at conferences, and it was eventually published in an international publication focusing on women.

Basically, we surveyed and interviewed about 100 women in higher education from the rank of assistant professor to Vice President who worked at a highly-ranked and research, regional university. After we entered the 21st century, it seemed like a good time to take a pulse, to seek some perspectives, of women. We found that women reported a myriad of experiences that appeared to be unique to them. They reported having their voices ignored in departmental meetings; feeling pressured to produce research while balancing other familial responsibilities; and struggling to fit their contributions into an educational reward structure not normed on women.

Well, more than a decade has passed since we reported our findings. There have been many changes since then—including that a woman, and a mother, is now running for President of the United States. However, there is still much work to do. Our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters still earned only 77 cents for every dollar that men earned in 2012, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.  Further, some believe that many workplaces could be further enhanced by the voices and leadership styles of more women.

So, this Mother’s Day, as we celebrate our mothers with flowers, fine jewelry, and special dinners, let us lean in and take a good look at the lives, perspectives, aspirations, and hidden workloads of these women.

May the lives and contributions of mothers to humanity continue to be enhanced and appreciated!

From Specific Competencies to Career Pathways

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Recently, some faculty and staff colleagues at Florida Memorial University submitted a proposal to compete for a Career Pathways grant. The purpose of this national competition was to encourage institutions to partner with business and industry leaders to refine academic programs, curricular, and co-curricular experiences to assure that students leave with competencies needed in specific workforces and careers. The grant’s overarching assumption is that more collaboration between industry leaders and faculty would lead to clearer career pathways for students from academic programs to current and emerging disciplines/workforce needs.

While this, in itself, is not a new idea, the grantors appear to be echoing the sentiments of many students, parents, employers, and taxpayers regarding the thorny transitions from academic degree programs to desired employment.

Ironically, nearly a thousand years ago or so, it was common for younger persons seeking to acquire specific competencies to work alongside skilled craftsmen until they could demonstrate mastery. Thus, there was a closer and more discernible link between specialized knowledge, experiential learning, and competencies related to entrance into specific professions and trades.

Nearly a millennium later,  after the multiplication of universities, degree programs, certifications, accreditation organizations, unions, and more formalized apprenticeship and internship programs, the link between learner and mastery of specific competencies seems to have eroded. Educators and policy analysts regularly point out varying disconnects between the learning outcomes of high school and the admissions requirements for college. Others note similar disconnects between college degree outcomes and competencies needed for admission into well-paying jobs.

Probably because of the costs involved for individuals and families in pursuing a college education, the expectation is that the investment will guarantee the acquisition of specific competencies that in turn will lead to well-paying careers and middle-class lifestyles.

According to some,  “credentialing” has gone amok in the 21st century. Instead of facilitating a clear pathway from higher education to a career, some colleges and universities have been viewed as generating a proliferation of degrees that load students with irrelevant courses, leaving them with burgeoning debt, and not closer to well-paying careers. Further, families have observed that students seeking entrance into specific careers and the job market, in general, find themselves confused and facing what many view as a fragmented array of educational options and undefined competencies from secondary school through advanced education.

Education stakeholders such as the Lumina Foundation, America Council on Education, and the Lilly Foundation, to name a few, have sought to increase transparency and clarity in credentialing in higher education by engaging in a national dialogue about the need for clearer paths from secondary schools to specific careers.

Thus, the work by faculty and staff at Florida Memorial University to clearly describe degree competencies and engage in dialogues with industry representatives is a strong step in the right direction.

Leadership Essential-Defining Success for Others


images-3.jpgAs we approach 2016 with hope, resolutions, and anticipation, it might also be helpful to ruminate on some of the evolving concepts of leadership and the lenses they furnish for current and emerging leaders in our society. Often perspectives on leadership held by policy makers coalesce into societal policies, legislation and laws.  Leadership philosophies and styles tend to encompass a variety of perspectives, values, and notions of good lives.

In November 2015, I was honored to give the keynote address at the graduation ceremony of The University of North Carolina Bridges leadership program for women. More than 20 years ago, the UNC Bridges intensive, four-week, leadership program was designed to inform, promote, and support women in leadership roles in higher education.  I particularly enjoyed returning to the (William and Ida) Friday Center in Chapel Hill to interact with women seeking higher education leadership roles because, I had been nurtured, mentored, informed, and furnished leadership opportunities for 14 years in the UNC system.

Moreover, discussing leadership theories continues to fuel my hope that we will eventually develop leaders who will transform our society, so that the majority of Americans will experience a more perfect union. Further, the eroding public confidence in higher education, its value, and its leaders appears to be a microcosm of eroding confidence in political institutions, corporations, and many leaders in America. Probably since I was an English Literature and Language major (decades ago) the words of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel which depict dueling social ills prior to the French Revolution seem to resonate with me as I contemplate 2016:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, were all going direct to Heaven, we were going direct the other way. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

In short, what better time than 2016 to reflect on leadership and co-existing extremes?

The theme of the graduating Bridges class was transformational leadership. Thus, speakers were asked to share experiences, knowledge, and wisdom regarding the concept of transformational leadership.  In a nutshell, the theory of transformational leadership affirms that leaders are more successful when they facilitate the development of leadership qualities in others, when they inspire team leadership to solve problems, and when leaders are introspective about the personal values, assumptions, and paradigms from whence they lead.

In the conversations following the keynote address, the Bridges graduates and I also discussed leadership roles through the lenses of other leadership theories.  In addition to transformational leadership, we agreed that there are a host of leadership theories that attempt to inform, elucidate, and guide those seeking leadership positions in a range of societal institutions.  Some leadership theories that were viewed as illuminating various aspects of leadership include:

Authentic leadership– leaders are usually positive people who lead from honest and ethical foundations and maintain honest relationships with employees or followers.

Servant leadership–leaders desire to serve, the servant’s heart is a fundamental component for this type of leadership. The servant leader puts the needs of others before his/hers and shares power–the pyramid is flipped.

Collaborative leadership–leaders employ teams to lead a hierarchy structure that is less of a pyramid.  Current modes of communication support a more flat organizational structure in which team members learn from each other and work together to solve problems.

While reflecting on transformational leadership, and various other leadership styles, it occurred to me that the first place for an aspiring or current leader to engage in deeper rumination or for meaningful New Year’s resolutions is one’s personal values and definition of success.   In other words, the journey towards a high level leadership position, through it, and after it, begins with a person defining–What does success mean to me?

In higher education, for example, success to a leader could mean 1) advancing knowledge in a discipline, 2) improving the teaching and learning environments, 3) employing big data to truly solve intractable problems, 4) forecasting future opportunities, and/or 5) simply helping others to discover the joy and benefits of a lifetime of learning.  A personal definition of success is not only helpful, but it could lead towards a more fulfilling career, life/work balance, altruistic behavior, and healthy lifestyle.  

Even a cursory view of higher education leadership, political leadership, and corporate leadership would reveal that long term success in a leadership role is more difficult in a world defined, measured, and sometimes quartered by social media that can topple leaders through informed/ill-informed public reactions.  Thus, it is essential for leaders to reflect on a personal definition of success that will help ease some of the unavoidable bumps and turbulence in leadership roles.  It is also important to note that the meaning of success will probably change and evolve over time in a leader’s tenure and lifetime.  

So where does this leave us with our New Year’s resolutions? Hopefully, when making our lists, we will also be cognizant that every individual effort adds to the collective well-being.  When we reflect on what success means to us and our families, we will also be aware that our concepts of good lives will be played out in microcosms that will be expanded in the macrocosms called America and the global village.

 

 

The Job Search-The Concept of “fit”

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Over the last couple of years, there has been sufficient media coverage on the search for jobs by new college graduates, the creation of jobs in America, the unemployment rate, and preparation needed for more citizens to be prepared for high-tech jobs.

Nonetheless, there are still hundreds of thousands of college graduates, at every level, and in all disciplines looking for something close to an open job door to launch their careers/lives, and/or to move out of their parents’ houses. Moreover, there are mid-level workers, steeped in the nexus of family responsibilities, searching for new jobs to earn more money or to acquire a better quality of life.  Further, there are Baby Boomers who are phasing out of jobs, or seeking to re-imagine how to live a quality retirement life by engaging in new interests with monetary payoffs.

Recently, I have been watching our daughter and other college graduates negotiate the hurdles to enter the workforce.  While some aspects of securing a job that works for you, as well as your working for it, have remained the same, there are significant challenges many new graduates face in order to convince those searching and interviewing that they are a good fit for the organization–at least for the near future.  Being a good fit for a job seems to mean that the prospective employer or current employees think that they can work with you, and you can work with them–at least for the time being.  The inherent limitations on the searching for a good fit approach for recruiting talented employees should be explored further–but for now, it still seems to be the norm.

As research reveals, most employees change jobs or careers numerous times in their lives, so fit  in an organization can change over time.

Yet, while watching new graduates attempt to sell their skills, enthusiasm, tech savvy, and innovative ideas to organizations, I have been reminded that establishing at least the illusion of fit for a job is a very complex undertaking.  It involves a variety of factors such as others’ perceptions of the prospective employee, past experiences of the current employees, and other factors not within the control of the job seeker. Further, strategies for projecting fit  can be different from organization to organization and at different stages of your career and life.

For example, establishing fit when you are a new graduate, usually includes creating a strong impression that you will bring energy, a fresh perspective, technological skills, and the ability to work with others. During interviews, graduates will be challenged to exude confidence, knowledge, and flexibility as they respond to questions from highly relevant to arcane.  In mid-career, prospective employees might want to project knowledge, energy, good judgement, good team skills, and a repertoire that will benefit the organization.  In many ways, searching for a job can be compared to speed dating–you have a limited time and toolkit to assess and be assessed for fit.

Not surprisingly, many new college graduates who are attempting to enter the workforce claim that even with good academic records and a few visits to their campus career centers, they do not really believe they are prepared to convince employers that they are the right person for a specific position.  Many students agree, though, that understanding of the concept of fit can be enhanced by actually observing organizational culture and participating in internships or volunteer experiences.

Some aspects of projecting fit are visual and auditory.  Students often need assistance transitioning from campus chic to work attire–in order to convince interviewers of their fit.  Even though many workplaces are allowing casual attire, there is a range of casual wear that is considered acceptable in the workplace. New graduates might not understand that range, but they can learn it quickly with a little assistance from career centers, mentors, and internship experiences.  Additionally, many of us have observed bright, caring, and talented people lose job opportunities because of their ill-fitting communication skills, both written and verbal–OMG!

To help students make a transition to an appropriate, and comfortable workplace fit, at least a few universities that I know of have charged their career service offices with maintaining a career wardrobe collection of ties, business jackets, and other accessories to help students make an acceptable visual presentation in interviews. Further, these career centers have consistently worked with students to employ the staid version of English–probably a necessary standard to establish comfort and fit when conversing with prospective employers.

Moreover, in terms of written communication, recent graduates often are unsure of how to craft an appropriate resume and how they should represent themselves (i.e., choice of pictures) on LinkedIn and other social media sites.  If I had a dollar for each student or young professional who was convinced that the same generic one-page resume is the only option for all job opportunities, I would be extraordinarily rich.  There are so many other options available for students to demonstrate what they know and can do, such as online portfolios and personal websites which portray leadership experiences, writing samples, and positive stories.

During an interview, inadequate communication skills and body language (such as posture, eye movement, and so forth) are often ways that prospective employers eliminate prospective employees. New graduates and anyone seeking to change jobs need to be prepared for online Skype, Google Hangout, or other such teleconference interviews and interactions. Organizations use them to both save money while assessing communication skills of prospective employees.  Often, potential employees are eliminated from the competition because of their micro expressions, lack of eye contact, use of space, or comments during an online interview that could suggest that there could be an issue with fit into a particular organization’s culture.

As previously stated, students who have had the opportunity to participate in the workforce through intensive internships or cooperative experiences demonstrate greater confidence when discussing their abilities and potential contributions in interviews because they have already had opportunities to sit in conference rooms and observe and mimic the behaviors of more seasoned employees.

Nonetheless, it has continued to surprise me that even the most talented graduates lack self-esteem and worry incessantly about the competition for desirable jobs.  Apparently, performing well academically does not necessarily translate into confidence in securing jobs or the overall strategies for competing for jobs.

Recently, I read an article about a new graduate who went to an unbelievable number of interviews and sent out approximately 100 job applications.  Needless to say, the job search rejections left the new graduate disappointed, but she refused to give up, and eventually secured a job through her network contacts, assisted by an extended family member.  Networking and discussing career aspirations with seasoned employees still seem to help graduates secure entrance into tough job markets.

So, how can colleges, career centers, and mentors help?  It seems that as long as human beings are judging who will be a good fit for their organizations, it will be important for those who are helping graduates and young professionals to explore and understand the concept of fit from various angles– including knowledge, communication skills, attitudes, attire, and workplace expectations.  Sometimes, it is important for the graduate to determine early in the interview process that a company is not a good fit and to pursue other better options.

Yet, I admit, the perception of fit still seems a bit flawed to me.  Hopefully, those candidates selected because they appear to fit will actually help lead organizations to a more innovative and productive future!

The Promise: Expanding Access to Community Colleges for the Public Good

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President Obama’s 2015, nearly New Year’s proposal, America’s College Promise, would offer free community college education to approximately 9 million students nationally. The Promise hinges on postsecondary academic performance and continuous progression towards degree completion. From the current national dialogue, it seems that the America’s College Promise proposal is an opportunity to examine the benefits versus costs of a community college education for most Americans. That is good.

No doubt, debates and perspectives on free community college programs will range from alarms to accolades depending on one’s frame of reference– potential student, politician, policy analyst, and so forth. As we know, President Obama announced the America College Promise at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee–where Governor Haslam announced Tennessee’s Promise last year that will be implemented with the 2015 entering community college class.

In the Tennessee Promise, the state agrees to pay the last dollar of community college tuition for two years for students who maintain at least a 2.5 GPA and satisfactory progress towards completion. What is possibly a very significant component of the Tennessee Promise proposal is that there will be mentors assigned to students, and students will be required to participate in community service. Mayor Rahm Emanuel of the City of Chicago has apparently also released a similar plan, the Chicago Star Scholarship, that promises free, last-dollar community college tuition for students who maintain a B average and qualify for college-level reading and math classes.

Why all the interest in assisting students to attend community colleges? Apparently the proposal for free community college goes back at least to 1947 and a commission’s report on higher education to President Harry Truman. Possibly, it is an idea whose time has come–or is past due. At any rate, the projected income of students who complete two years of college is estimated to be nearly a half a million dollars more, on average, in lifetime earnings than those without postsecondary education. Further, for supporters of these proposals, there is a projected benefit to society that out weighs costs. It will be good for America to have more educated citizens who are more appropriately prepared for current and future jobs in the workforce–a stronger economic attraction for businesses.

Yet, one theme that seems consistent in the various dialogues about free community college tuition is that such a benefit is not about to happen nationally for some time. No doubt, in the fall of 2015, and thereafter, the results of the Tennessee Promise and the Chicago Star Scholarships will be reviewed to determine if these promises are kept and do deliver the projected public good.

What, exactly, is so special about expanding access and affordability to community colleges? Like some of my higher education colleagues, I have been fortunate to earn tenure as an English instructor and serve as a dean, for a combined eight years, in two Chicago community colleges. It was at the community college that my love for teaching, and interacting with students, was born. Later, I earned the rank of full professor at a regional, best in the South, institution where I taught upper division courses–while also serving as an administrator.

Years later, as I recall the role community colleges played in educational opportunities, career readiness, and even in career exploration in my family, it occurred to me that we were actually a community college family. My husband earned one associate degree in art and started two others while working a full-time job. He used these years to explore career options, before completing a bachelor’s degree and, ultimately, a master’s degree in mass communication at major regional universities. He later worked as a graphic designer and taught communications in one community college and at three universities.

My late Mom earned her registered nursing degree from a community college; a degree that helped her buy, and pay for, our family’s house and support three children through college and many of life’s vicissitudes. Needless to say, pursuing higher education and delayed gratification became a cornerstone of our family world. Later in life, when Mom was in her early 60’s, she completed her B.S. degree at a university–just because it was a goal she was determined to attain. Mom stated she always enjoyed learning, and even though it took her about 6 years, she completed her baccalaureate degree while working as a nurse– after she had already worked as a registered nurse for several decades.

In my experiences as a young English composition instructor in a community college, I enjoyed interacting with the diverse students who saw a need for a college education in their lives. The Chicago community college that first introduced me to a career in higher education also introduced me to a range of international students, some who had already earned advanced degrees in their countries. Yet, when they immigrated to the United States, they needed to become more fluent in the English language and knowledgeable about American cultures. Interactions with these students broadened my global perspectives.

It would be hard to work in a community college, without admiring, or at least acknowledging, the thousands of students who seek degrees to gain specialized knowledge for a career, to change careers, or to increase their earning potential, all while juggling full or part-time jobs, families, and more complex lives than the more traditional undergraduates who are able to immerse themselves in the college lifestyle 24/7. Admittedly, there are also thousands of students who resemble traditional college students, but these students, for a variety of reasons chose a community college to save money, live at home, take a slower transition into the workforce or university environment, or other reasons too diverse to classify.

Perhaps the American community college is intricately linked to our lives as Americans similar to secondary education. Because we are a very diverse nation in which scientific and technological advances arrive in regular waves, an examination of the appeal and depth of community colleges seems appropriate to add to our national dialogue. Community colleges offer a range of citizens, or those seeking citizenship, an opportunity to 1) participate in a longer transition from secondary education to higher education; 2) engage in just in time learning for a new career, new job, or for knowledge; 3) schedule an educational experience around other life priorities such as families, full-time jobs, and other responsibilities; and 4) save money before transferring to a four-year college or university for higher degrees.

It is hard to drive past a community college without noticing its presence. Most community colleges resemble busy places (like shopping malls or good restaurants), and likewise, it is often hard to find a parking space because thousands of students are coming and going. If there is city or regional transportation, it also usually stops conveniently at the college. If you stand inside of a community college, some students will look like they just graduated from high school with their book bags, cell phones, and economy cars. These students might not have attained adequate academic preparation in secondary school, may not have confidence in their cognitive abilities, do not really know their interests, or are not really sure about the college experience–but they are there moving forward, expecting some clarification from the array of academic classes, certificate programs, and transfer options.

Other students know exactly why they are taking classes–they have a career or job plan that needs specialized knowledge, a credential, or certification such as a waste water operator certificate, emergency medical technician specifics, information technology game development skills, a paralegal certificate, and hundreds more. Many community colleges offer these programs in flexible terms, evenings, weekends, and many combinations of the aforementioned.

Possibly, community colleges are an essential component of our American lives similar to K-12 educational experiences. As we continue the dialogue on the benefits and costs of a free community college, hopefully, these examinations and discussions will include the breadth and depth of these institutions in family worlds.

Learning for a Lifetime of Choices

Refined from President’s blog

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A little while ago, I had lunch with a childhood friend, Marlene.  We have been friends since we were both thirteen years old, and that has been decades ago. Our lifelong friendship began on the Southside of Chicago where we discovered personal commonalities, as we explored the public libraries together and devised many less intellectual adventurers.  On a Wednesday in November 2013,  we met in Union Station in Washington, D. C., and it was indeed a reunion of epic proportions.  Between the two of us there were four children–all with college degrees.    It was our prayer, and our spouses’ too, that we had prepared these talented young adults to lead responsible, worthwhile, and altruistic lives.

When we looked into each other’s faces, we bore witness to a half century of American societal forces that had shaped the lives, and choices of two women who grew-up with limited resources, but who dreamed of nearly endless possibilities.  My friend earned a MBA from a big ten university, and I earned a PhD from a top-ranked national university.  Besides the fact that both of us have done well, by American standards, we also gained so much more from our college experiences than the academic content and subsequent jobs.  The value of our higher education included exposure to options, consideration of diverse perspectives,  and development of skill sets beyond our imaginations.

As we seek to grapple with the finances surrounding colleges and universities, the debate about the value of colleges and universities has reached a louder pitch with proponents on all sides.   As states struggle with competing priorities for revenue, and the economic recovery continues, there is more concern about the value of a college education in relationship to the cost of attendance.  While nearly half of my college experience included the private and well-regarded University of Chicago, it still does seem possible for students to choose from a range of institutions which correlate, as closely as possible, with their family and financial support systems.

Now I know that from a lifelong learner and educator, much of what I think about the value of a college education could be discounted–since I liked learning so much–it did not occur to me to leave the college/university  structured community of learners.  However,  as my friend and I shared stories in Union Station, it also occurred to me how fortunate we have both been to have spent so much time learning from the perspectives of others,  and how our expanded worldviews had influenced the activities we engaged in with our children and probably the choices and lives of our children and their future grandchildren. It seems that an expanded worldview is in itself a legacy–possibly just as precious as an inheritance of a land estate.

Engaging in various structured classroom or hybrid learning experiences also seems to help build a sense of confidence in the learners.  Without a doubt this confidence can be gained from other experiences rather than a college experience, but the efficiency and sequencing of these experiences in a college environment might take years to acquire without the talented and caring professors serving as learning guides.

Thus, one value of colleges and universities, is that we offer options to assist learners enjoy a lifetime of choices and to leave a legacy of options.