NEW ORLEANS – Encouraging community colleges to stay the course in serving students most in need, especially in times of uncertainty, was a common message among speakers during the opening plenary of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) annual convention.
Keynote speaker Wes Moore urged convention attendees to stand up for the “the others” — those who are struggling in life but who could gain a foothold on the American dream with a college education.
That theme was echoed by several education leaders honored at the session, including former second lady Dr. Jill Biden.
“When we have conversations about higher education, the definition of who we’re talking about is often lost,” said Moore, a youth advocate, author and military veteran.
“The students you serve are left out of that conversation,” Moore said, referring to students like the 25-year-old single parent, the combat veteran returning from a fourth tour overseas or “the citizen who made decisions they might regret.”
His book, The Other Wes Moore, describes how he was able to succeed while another boy with the same name who came from a similarly disadvantaged background did not.
“There are Wes Moores in every college, in every home, who are one decision away from going in one direction or another,” he said.
The most important word in his book’s title is “other,” Moore said. “Our society is full of ‘others,’ people who might not look or speak like us,” who are from different parts of the county or world or who call God another name.
These are people “whose destiny matters to our community’s destiny,” he continued. “These are people who are looking for a place that genuinely welcomes them, that makes them feel that they belong, that their hard work will pay off.”
In Moore’s hometown of Baltimore, 80 percent of the jobs will require some form of postsecondary credentials by 2020. Yet two-thirds of all high school graduates will end up with nothing.
“We have to be clear and assertive about the role of community colleges,” Moore said. College leaders must be at “the tip of the spear of the conversation” or most people won’t be prepared for emerging opportunities.
A second chance
AACC’s Harry S. Truman Award, presented to the administration of President Barack Obama, was accepted by Dr. Jill Biden, who continues her work as a community college professor at Northern Virginia Community College.
Community colleges “represent the best of what we are,” Biden said. They are all about “the American drive to lift ourselves up.”
For older students juggling a family and full-time job, veterans coping with the aftermath of war, refugees who overcame extreme hardships to reach America, community college is “a pathway to the middle class, a new beginning, a second chance,” Biden said.
She vowed to make community college a key part of the newly formed Biden Foundation. “America deserves equal access to opportunity,” she said. “Community colleges must remain a national priority.”
AACC Leadership Awardee Rosemary Gillett-Karam, director of the community college leadership doctoral program at Morgan State University in Maryland, emphasized her roots in her acceptance.
“I am the American community college,” she said.
As the daughter of immigrants who struggled to reach the middle class, Gillett-Karam epitomizes the community college ideal to fight social injustice and ensure academic freedom for diverse populations.
Communitiy college leadership is “a calling,” said Leadership Award winner Tony Zeiss, former president of Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina. “This is about students and their success.”
Equity is critical
Issues of equity and diversity are critical at a time when the country is continuing to experience racism and hatred, said Kay McClenney, the recipient of the Diverse Champion Award presented by Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine.
“It’s never been a more important time for the work of community colleges,” said McClenney, a senior advisor to the president of AACC. She currently leads the AACC Pathways Project.
“We must not accept inequities on our campuses as things over which we have no control. When we see instances of racism and inequity, we must act,” McClenney said. And that includes “unconscious bias and institutional racism that promotes disproportionate outcomes in certain groups.”
Also honored at the session was Eduardo Padrón, a refugee from Cuba who went on to serve as president of Miami Dade College in Florida, and this year received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He spoke about the role colleges play in helping immigrants, who came here in pursuit of freedom and opportunity, and to share in the American dream.