All who attended the White House Summit (more here) will attest that the President and First Lady were awe-inspiring in their messages about access and opportunity. But as usually happens with me, I was most inspired by a student. Troy Simon, who introduced Michelle Obama, is a young man who propelled himself away from trouble for the sake of his younger siblings, and his talk certainly fueled my desire to do my all to help achieve the President’s objectives. As the First Lady said so convincingly, Troy was helped along the way, but nothing would have made a difference had he not wanted to change his life course and expected that he could.
There were determined helpers for Troy, and to meet the goals of college access and success for a much broader section of our population it will take people from so many sectors working together. The Summit’s organizers recognized this and cogently began the process of bringing us all under one tent. Critical are the philanthropists who will direct their dollars to scholarships and to the programs that are known to make a difference, as are governors and mayors who see what is needed in their states and cities and prioritize interventions. Nonprofits and educational organizations must apply all their might and creativity to find new ways to expand their reach. And colleges and universities, public and private, must re-examine their commitment to recruiting, enrolling, and graduating a socio-economically diverse student body and work with partners, step up their goals, and direct resources to achieving them.
I must admit that when I first learned the objectives of the President’s Summit, I wondered what more Whittier could contribute. Being a majority-minority private college with one-third of its students eligible for Pell awards and 80% on financial aid, Whittier is already a model for the nation for diversity. But while we draw students from around the country and around the world, we can do more right in our backyard. So, in responding to the President’s Northstar challenge, we are reaching out to do just that. We already work closely with high schools and elementary schools in Whittier, and now we are connecting in multiple ways with El Rancho High School in nearby Pico Rivera, a city where 12% of adults attended college and where 58% of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch. Through mentoring programs led by Whittier students and funded by dedicated philanthropists, partnerships with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Generation 1st Degree initiative and the Be a Leader Foundation, college counseling by Whittier’s admission and financial aid staff members, and offering co-enrollment to El Rancho’s students, we will help first generation and low-income students prepare for college and career success.
And that’s not all. We will establish 2 + 2 programs with a nearby community college and are seeking a partnership to create a co-enrolled honors degree program. These partnerships not only enable students to get an elite education, but do so at less cost than a typical four-year private college degree.
New efforts by Whittier and all of the colleges and universities in this country joined by businesses, nonprofit organizations, philanthropists, and governments will – as the President said – enhance the competitiveness of this nation. And there is no question that competitiveness and economic wellbeing truly are at stake. But I keep thinking back to Troy and the trajectory his life might have taken had he lacked the will and the vision to change and had no one noticed his potential. What a personal loss this would have been for him, as well as the nation.
Thursday’s Summit makes me hopeful that we will make even more progress in the days to come.