The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

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So often,  like other Americans, I  have stood with my hand over my heart and sang the words of our national anthem placing special emphasis on the words “for the land of the Free and the home of the Brave.”

Also, undoubtedly,  though most of us stand proudly when we sing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the song ushers forth a range of diverse emotions, dreams, and expectations in current day Americans  who have emerged, one way or another, from a nation that was built by diverse immigrants.  Fortunately or unfortunately, as a nation, we are still defining  “freedom” by the actions of millions of Americans.   Just what does it means to be “free” across America?

As I celebrate yet another birthday, I watch the developing millennial generation, and I imagine American in 2052.  I have definite hopes and dreams that we will truly build a nation that has implemented a definition of freedom that assumes caring about each other.  I hope we are building a nation of people who are courageous enough to fight for the tenets in which our nation was built.  I also hope we are building a nation that cares about the development of personal character and the well-being and security of the least of us.

Before you go there, I am not naïve.  Steeled by the broad shoulders of Chicago, where I was prepared for a “life of the mind” and nestled by the dreams of my southern, and depression era, mom–I think I see us for what we are.   I  see our possibilities for altruism, our potential  for more  innovation, and our genesis that could be employed to tackle the intractable problems that were once conceptualized by Nelson’s book, The Moon and the Ghetto (1977).

I guess that is why I enjoy higher education–especially I enjoyed participating in higher education at Cheyney University. The majority of the students who attend(ed) Cheyney University are first generation students who arrive on campus as survivors of K-12 systems that were not really designed with them in mind.  These students come to campus as immigrants to a new, broader, and more complex world with a depth and scope they could not imagine before arriving.  The transition into an academic environment that prepares for a more interdependent and broad-based global economic environment is daunting for many students–even those who come ready to work for the American dream.

What Cheyney University hopes to do through programs such as the University College, the Keystone Honors Academy, Athletics, Learning Communities, the Entrepreneur Leadership Institute, and STEM scholarships is to acclimate students through their affinities to a world of possibilities.  Moreover,  through student engagement activities which include leadership seminars, introduction to American s/heroes, the Arts and Culture lecture series, student internships, and mentoring options, Cheyney University hopes to transform its graduates into resilient Americans who will responsibly move forth with their hands over their hearts proudly representing the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Anything else is unacceptable!

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.

How Do We Help The Millennial Generation Develop a Sense of Purpose?

Refined from August 6, 2009, President’s Blog

Every year this time, faculty and staff at colleges and universities around the nation are greeting new and returning students for the academic year. For many of us in academia, there is anticipation and a personal sense of renewal with each new class of students.

During the summer months, faculty refresh courses materials, construct course packs, and design their instruction and assessment to respond to the intellectual and emotional needs of this new cohort of students.  Also, during the summer, the admissions and financial aid professionals have been busy answering telephones to help families manage transitions into the higher learning communities of colleges and universities. Other middle and senior managers also have been busy refining policies and procedures that will guide the campus community through the upcoming academic year.

As I participated in, and observed, these various preparation activities, I realized that one of our challenges is to determine how we can contribute to the development of a sense of purpose in our new and returning students. This sense of purpose will, hopefully, be ignited by the general education curriculum and, appropriately, expanded and enhanced by an academic major and interactions with faculty and mentors.

On the surface, many students will attest that they come to college to pursue specific careers, or to increase their earning potential over their lifetimes. However, if we delve beyond their veneers, we discover that many students come to college searching for a future, searching for their passions, and searching for something that is bigger … something that they can commit their talents and affinities to – a sense of purpose. English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly (1797-1851), the author of the famous Gothic novel, Frankenstein, is quoted as stating, “Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind, as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.”

As I reflect, it seems that it is the intellectual and spiritual realization of a compelling sense of purpose that is the ultimate goal of higher education—possibly it is the ultimate goal of the human existence. If we succeed in our colleges and universities, our students will leave with a vision and sense of purpose that is bigger than the acquisition of material possessions or gaining a high-paying first job. Possibly, the sense of purpose they gain at our educational institutions will result in their being a better neighbor, in developing a more enlightened view of the interconnectedness of all humans, and in participating more aggressively in sustaining the environment for future generations.

For those who want to measure the value of colleges and universities, how to you measure this outcome, “a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye”?

Maybe this emotional, intellectual, and spiritual transformation of members of our society is really the quintessential purpose of college–of quality education.

I hope that all of us, who guide the education of college students will also move forth with a steady sense of purpose.

Let Us Hear It For Southern Ladies: The Steel Magnolias Have Left Their Mark

Reprint from President’s Blog – September 2013

Let us hear it for the Southern Ladies—Steel Magnolias have left their Mark

When I was growing up in Chicago in the 50’s and 60’s, sometimes a friend or a teacher would indicate that I had a southern accent. Now the intonation that usually accompanied this marvelous observation conveyed to me quickly that I needed to work post haste to disguise my southern accent and to learn to talk “right,” so as not to give-away the fact that my mother was from New Orleans and my dad from Gonzalez, LA. However, I must state that my Southern mother was a registered nurse, seamstress, devoted family person, great mom, and avid church-goer. She supported her three children through college, and in her later life, helped her grown children purchase their dream homes. So, just what was I supposed to be ashamed of?

Over the years, there have been a comment or two about my accent, and I realized that living in North Carolina for over 15 years probably refreshed this accent a bit. However, for the record, southern ladies have taught this nation a thing or two.

One of the first southern ladies that I admired on stage was the incomparable and legendary Pearl Bailey. Ms. Bailey could take any play, or part in the play, to another level, like the Tony she won for playing Dolly in Hello Dolly. I remember how proud I felt when I was able to purchase expensive orchestra tickets to see Pearl Bailey perform for everyone in my family. I earned the money working two jobs. Sitting there, so close, watching Ms. Pearl Bailey performing on stage was one of those special moments in a young woman’s life; it was so easy to be entertained by her style of humor and engaging warmth. Later I learned that Ms. Pearl earned a degree in theology from Georgetown University at age 67, and she wrote several books. Ms. Bailey also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan, and she is buried not too far from Cheyney University in West Chester, PA.

Because I loved to read when I was growing up, I was exposed to some southern women through their writings. Some of these women include Flannery O’Conner, who grew up in Georgia and shared the same religion as I. Her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” comes to mind sometimes when watching the “if it bleeds, it leads” news. Southern writer Carson McCullers, in Member of the Wedding, provoked a great deal of thought about coming to grips with one’s identity and relationships. Additionally, it was through reading that I learned about the lives of other extraordinary women of the south such as Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Dr. Maya Angelou—a Keystone Honors speaker. Each of these southern women helped to awaken the conscience of a nation through defining moments. The works of Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez helped guide the next generations—all these women have spoken at Cheyney University. Recently, I completed Isabel Wilkerson’s research-based, epic book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which followed and connected families of the Great Migration to our current reality. Ms. Wilkerson has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Since coming to Cheyney University, I have become inspired by, humbled by, and guided spiritually by an unsung heroine and southern woman, Fannie Jackson Coppin. Ms. Fannie Jackson Coppin was born into slavery in Washington, DC, in 1837, the same year that the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney University) was founded by Richard Humphreys and supported, for 176 years, by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). My husband found a copy of Ms. Coppin’s autobiographical book, Reminiscences of School Life, which was published after her death in 1913, and gave the book to me for a Christmas gift—how I treasure that book. Fannie Jackson Coppin graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and became the first African American principal in America at the Institute for Colored Youth known for its extraordinary success in teaching classical education, teacher training, and industrial education to persons of African descent. After serving the Institute for 36 years, Fannie Jackson Coppin accompanied her AME Bishop husband, at age 65, to Africa on missionary work. Coppin State University is named after this southern-born servant leader. Cheyney University has her legacy to uphold.

This discussion of southern came up again recently when it was noted that I just hired a North Carolinian woman as Provost- Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins. Oh well, I guess there is no use trying to explain that it was not the part of the country, but it was the education, background, and belief in the mission of Cheyney University—access, opportunity, and excellence. The Cheyney University community also looks forward to engaging in dialogue with another southerner who will be on campus in the spring—Angela Davis.

Hmm, now that I think about it, I am glad to be southern!

The Road Less Traveled

Originally Blogged on May 15, 2014

I smile to myself when I reflect on the many unique, and sometimes painful, journeys that students have related to me over the years. It is extremely gratifying when students persisted and these divergent paths eventually led to transforming college experiences and college degrees.  
 
While  I cheer  those who succeeded, I have to ask—why have not more students chosen similar journeys to develop into critical thinkers, to gain confidence in their learning abilities, and to leave an institution of higher education as more confident and competent individuals ready to take their places as responsible citizens in the Commonwealth and America? Graduating students will not only contribute to the intellectual capital of the region, but they will eventually earn money to help their families, serve as role models, and maybe start a business and employ others.  
 
How can we encourage more young people to take the road less traveled into emerging fields of study in higher education that will respond to the needs of the region and America?
 
With this Blog, I ask that you, too, reflect upon this question with me—how can we muster whatever it takes, the political will, and the infrastructures needed to increase and amplify the intellectual capital in the region?   What can each individual do to maximize the outcomes in human capital that could possibly alter the America we live in and amplify the American dream for many?
 
Dr. Randal Pinkett, an extremely well-educated scholar who is viewed by some as one of the elite intellectuals of this century, and I discussed this briefly before Cheyney University’s 2014 Commencement.  We were both concerned that there appears to be a broadening economic and social gap that could be tearing at the social fabric (education, wealth, health, quality of life, and overall well-being) of our society. We believe that we (Americans) will each have to redouble our efforts to help young people see possibilities, believe in themselves, and gain the courage to venture forth.
 
As Dr. Randal Pinkett so aptly employed as a metaphor in his inspirational 2014 Commencement speech, it seems appropriate to end this Blog with the quote from Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken:
 
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence: 
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 
 
 
 
 

 

The Good News About Young Men of Color

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It might be helpful if we can acknowledge that we all view reality, relationships, and actions of others through lenses that have been constructed in early years and fortified over our lifetimes.   These perceptions can change, but for most of us, it will take a conscious effort to expand our worldviews and to understand the backgrounds, realities, and perspectives of others.

I feel fortunate to have had some very positive experiences with young men of color which included supportive relationships with a bi-racial boyfriend at age sixteen and a 29 year marriage to a very bright, caring, and supportive husband.  Through the years, however, it would have been hard not to notice that young men of color sometimes struggle when attempting to pursue the commercialized American dream.  Most of the time these struggles are cleverly disguised with body language that projects indifference, false confidence or hostility – masking feelings that run the gamut from fear to anger.

Fraternities and organizations such as the 100 Black Men of America have constructed positive mentoring programs to help guide young men into responsible adulthood and citizenship.  For years, I watched my husband construct a collegiate chapter of the 100 Black Men at a university, and I saw how this affiliation helped to transform, expose, and build confidence in young men as they experienced thousands of role models who cared about them and offered them opportunities to learn in supportive and safe environments.  Because of these and other experiences, many of these young men are now college graduates and contributing and responsible members of their communities–they are eager to give back.

I have personally witnessed many of these transformations and the development of intellectual and emotional human capital over the years.  Nonetheless, over these same years, I have noted that our view of young men of color has not been shared by many in our society.   I have seen people bristle at the size of some young men, comment on their tattoos, and lock their car doors when some young men of color simply walk through a parking lot.  As a women, I am frequently traveling by myself.  I also acknowledge that when I find myself in situations with young men of color I do not know, I have to consciously resist stereotyping them– without appropriate reasons.  Moreover, over the years as a college president, a faculty member, and an administrator in higher education, I have noted that many young men of color arrive at college carrying the baggage of society’s overt and covert unresolved issues  imposed on them because of the melatonin of their skin– as if there is, indeed, any correlation between melatonin and cognitive abilities, criminal intent, and/or moral tendencies.

In my various roles in higher education, I have made it a point to invite many young men on campus to stop me, look me in the eyes, and tell me about their future plans and dreams.  Many of these young men seemed amazed, sometimes uncomfortable, but they were also grateful that faculty and staff had confidence that they could learn and develop both cognitively and emotionally.   In fact, in most evaluations of faculty, students commented that faculty were caring and challenging – a combination that they did not see often in their former secondary environments.  These caring and reassuring faculty were a stark contrast to the verbal and non-verbal messages communicated to them in many other societal venues.

So, as we are drawn, once again, to a national conversation about race, look for best practices for expanding opportunities, and angst about how to enhance our collective well-being, I affirm, we know what to do–get to know these young men and act accordingly!  It occurs to me that we are all passengers in life in a lifeboat called Earth.   This lifeboat is not so large that one end of the boat can continue sailing unaffected when the rest of the boat is sinking,

In the words of Herman Melville, “We cannot live only for ourselves.  A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow man, and among these fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”   Thus, it is very important that many more people on the lifeboat get to known young men of color and recognize that we are one, big human family.  Transformation will happen to these young men and you–when you treat them as you would a son, nephew, or treasured human resource!

The Value of Internships in Higher Education

As a president, I strongly encouraged the practice of internships in students’ junior and senior years. Ideally, I wanted about seventy-five percent of students to participate in an internship before graduation. Recently, I talked to several students who completed internships. These students were energized, to say the least, about what they had learned from their internship experiences.

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With a twinkle in their eyes, most of the students informed me that the internship experiences had brought the text and theories to life. The students stated that it was much more useful and interesting to employ theoretical concepts and to discover how diverse paradigms can solve real problems with other interns and co-workers than to read about problems in a text, hear about them in a lecture hall, or even discuss problems with fellow students– although lively debates do also have significant merit. It seemed that internships, unlike specific classes, allowed students to bring their arsenal of learning outcomes, from various disciplines and experiences, into the work environment.

Moreover, internships allowed students to utilize multiple intelligences, as described by Howard Gardner, to navigate the work environment– further allowing students’ performances to be measured more holistically.

While I listened to these students enthusiastically relate their internship experiences, I smiled both externally and internally. The students viewed these experiences as opportunities. The students’ responses were not surprising. Needless to say, experiential learning has been around for a long time. Many colleges and universities encourage these experiences in a wide range of disciplines including the liberal arts (history, English, and language arts).

The State of Washington defines internships as “a combination of on-the-job training (OJT) and related classroom instruction under the supervision of a journey-level craft person or trade professional in which workers learn the practical and theoretical aspects of a highly skilled occupation. After completing an apprenticeship program, the worker’s journey-level status provides an additional benefit of nationwide mobility at journey level scale.”

Moreover, the concept of learning on the job under the supervision of a master goes back to the Middle Ages. Back then, apprentices were mostly men learning their trade by studying and working with a master for a number of years. Over hundreds of years, apprenticeships, however, evolved and became more structured as colleges and universities grew and defined college credit for them.

Often I hear students talk about the transition from college life to the workforce, the students who have experienced internships seem to make a smoother transition into the workforce. Other students who might have excelled in the class have confessed that their transition into the workforce has been a bit more disjointed. They struggled with workplace etiquette, working in teams, and sometimes just the long hours of a job.

As we continue to refine our instructional design to meet the needs of the 21st century, it is important to look closely at the benefits of internships– some learners excel in these structured but real life experiences.

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Champions needed for the next generation of leaders

After serving as a college president for the last eight years, and a higher-education administrator for well over 30 years, I admit I have some serious concerns about the lack of apparent urgency we (our country) seem to evince regarding the need to develop a vast pool of human capital.   This broaden pool would have to include Americans of all affinities, not to mention racial, ethnic, and geographical diversities.   The recent immigration debates also leaves many unanswered questions about our forth-going vision of the country’s melting pot concept inscribed on a plaque near the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Granted when Emma Lazarus wrote this sonnet that contains the aforementioned, America was still very much in its infancy, and seemingly believed it needed able-bodied men and women to populate and experience “freedom” in a country occupied previously by Native Americans.

As a president, I spent most of my time interacting with the descendants of later generations of immigrants and descendants of slaves who arrive at college seeking the dream of a somewhat elusive freedom.  These students come to college to learn how to construct a life that resembles a plausible version of the “American Dream.”  Unfortunately, many of these college entrants have already faced a gauntlet of seemingly intractable problems including family backgrounds that cannot support college tuition, low academic expectations from secondary schools,  and underdeveloped communication competencies which add to their already burdensome lives.

From my many interactions with these students and their families, I know that they bring with them a desire for guidance, for structure, and for a fair chance.   These families rarely come for a handout.  They already know how some of the more-advantaged citizens view them– as a drain on the economy.   The dream and hopes they bring with them are that they will leave college and be able to build lives in which they can contribute to the economic stability, well-being, and intellectual capital of their communities, regions, and the nation.  Such a contribution brings with its an enhanced self-esteem that enriches future generations of their families.   For the rest of us their transformation and self-confidence augments our communities’ intellectual capital and societal well-being.

Thus, possibly I have missed it,  but I must ask with so many benefits where is our sense of urgency to invest in, and to support, our connected future?

Michelle Howard-Vital