"Our Mothers Wore Sweaters so we Could Wear Coats"

by Dr. Karen A. Stout

When we choose to spend our careers—our lives—in higher education, we are making a commitment to something tangible, something that will have a lasting effect for years to come. This was never truer for me than when I spent time with our Achieving the Dream Scholars during the DREAM 2016 conference.

I have more than 30 years in leadership positions in community colleges, most recently as a college president. I found that it was students who motivated me, inspired me, and engaged me the most. I drew from their experiences and struggles and successes to help me shape my focus as a college leader. Now, going into my second year as President and CEO of Achieving the Dream, I find myself still drawn to and engaged by students. Being close to our students and hearing their stories is what motivates me to be inside this work. I look for ways to hear their voices.

That’s why I leaped on the opportunity to spend time earlier in the year with our DREAM Scholars before our annual DREAM conference in Atlanta, and why I listened intently to the advice they shared at the closing plenary session. Each year, the highlight of our DREAM conference is the final plenary panel featuring our DREAM Scholars, students selected from our Network colleges to attend the conference as a cohort. They help us learn about how to build better student-focused cultures on our campuses. This year’s group had thoughtful, thought-provoking advice which I took to heart.

Here’s a list of lessons from our scholars:

  1. The importance of reminding students that they are destined for greatness and that they will succeed. Encounter every student as a DREAM Scholar from your first point of contact with them.  –Tyrone Foster of the College of Southern Nevada.
  2. Design student experiences WITH students rather THAN for them. Students can be valuable partners in advancing the goals of college completion. –Charles Kivlehen of Lone Star College-Tomball.
  3. Be bolder in sharing the successes of community college students to address the stigma of community colleges and to expand on the importance, value and quality of community colleges. How can community colleges be valued if the people community colleges serve at their front doors aren't valued?  –Desiree Robinson of Kingsborough Community College and Tyrone Foster.
  4. Be more intentional in shining a light on resources that support student success.  "It's hard to be engaged in something if you don't know it is there." –Nicole Barth of St. Clair County Community College.
  5. Students can mobilize change on our campuses.  "We are beginning to make a difference but we are not done yet." –Tamika Narvaez-Payne of Bakersfield College.

These students each went through a rigorous selection process, maintained a demanding schedule at DREAM, and delivered remarks with tremendous insight and poise during their closing panel presentation. Coming from varied backgrounds and experiences, they shared with me stories of how they arrived at where they are today, as outstanding students.

I learned a lot from them during our time together, formally and informally. Their voices were clear and direct. There is one voice, in particular, that I continue to hear as I go about my work. Something that has remained with me and, I believe, will remain with each of us who are committed to their success. A statement that says clearly how much students fully understand and appreciate what it took to get them to where they are today: “our mothers wore sweaters so we could wear coats.” 

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