“Equity Avengers” and other heroes appear at #RealCollege 2019 Summit

What happens when you put research scholars, practitioners, policy experts, education leaders, funders, and students in the same room to address issues as complex and challenging as housing and food insecurity? You get honest dialogue about complex student challenges that yield insights, you see empathy and understanding accelerate into the creation of solutions to test, and you see people come together in common cause to inspire and encourage one another. 

And you quickly realize that you are in the company of some of our nation’s education and equity heroes – some wearing superhero inspired “Equity Avengers” t-shirts – who emerge from the crowd and bring Hope for a more just and equitable future.  

The #RealCollege 2019 Summit, hosted at Houston Community College, brought together more than 500 people from coast to coast, with many more participating through an online LiveStream broadcast. If it had been possible to capture a “highlight reel” for the event you would need to present it as an epic miniseries. Speaker after speaker elevated the conversation, and panel after panel highlighted innovative and life changing work that is being done in communities across our nation.

The #RealCollege title is intended to reframe discussions about college students to lift up the reality that the majority of today’s college students work; where one in four has a child or dependent who relies on them for support; who struggle to make ends meet in a world where the cost of tuition has escalated while wages have stagnated; and who face challenges with transportation and other living costs that inhibit their ability to thrive in college, in spite of their determination and work ethic. These #RealCollege students need us to see them and reinvent education, financial aid, and other systems to meet them where they are, so that they can stay on the path to and through college to the places where their talents are needed.  

As a former dean of students, I loved the fact that student voices were so prominent in the discussion, especially the poignant Ignite talk by Jenae Parker and her daughter, who is an elementary school student. Parker’s comment that “Being a college student is hard … Being a #RealCollege student is harder” rang so true that they ignited an audible response that reverberated through the crowd.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading scholar on these topics and the guiding force behind the conference, urges that we remind people that “students are human beings first” — and that since “food and housing are essential for learning” that housing and food insecurity “ . . . is an academic issue.” Did you know that more than 75 percent of today’s college students work more than 20 hours per week? Did you know that research indicates that 42-56 percent of community college students, and 36-41 percent of students at four- year colleges and universities, are food insecure – or that rates of housing insecurity are higher for both of these groups? (source: Hope Center research)

Describing their students as “resilient and brilliant,” two California community college presidents, Keith Curry at Compton College and Pamela Luster at San Diego Mesa College, revealed that behind their “Equity Avengers” superhero t-shirts were two dedicated and catalytic postsecondary leaders whose campuses are places to watch as they coordinate with local, regional and state agencies to address the needs of their students and communities.

Dr. Darrick Hamilton, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, put today’s situation in an historical context, outlining ways that public policy and law, such as segregation, redlining and restricting eligibility for GI Bill support to military veterans of color have contributed to wealth inequalities that persist today. Hamilton said, “Choice is an illusion if people lack basic needs like food and housing.”  

And Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, a private HBCU in Dallas, stirred the audience with a call to inclusive leadership and collective action that connects us across perceived lines of difference, stating that, “We want to know if you’re our kind. And you can be our kind and not be our color.”  

Fairness and justice requires that we all work together and do what we can. President Sorrell’s comments echoed the admonition provided a day earlier by Dr. Eduardo Padron, the legendary leader of Miami Dade College, who believes that educational leaders are in a struggle to protect and advance American democracy, by ensuring that all students have the opportunity to pursue an education and participate fully in American society.  

More than 250 colleges and universities are currently participating in the #RealCollege” survey, and, given the vigor and passion on display at the #RealCollege 2019 convening, I think we can expect to see this movement continue to grow in the months and years to come. For the American dream of opportunity to be realized, we need to ensure that all students have the resources and support that they need in order to develop their talents and pursue their ambitions.