Saturday, 16 October 2010

Attending the White House Summit on Community Colleges 2010 - Meeting President Obama and Vice President Biden

Guest post by WheresMyJammies

On Oct. 05, 2010, I had the privilege and honor to attend the first ever White House Summit on Community Colleges. I didn’t get there on my own merit; I was invited because my daughter was one of five student finalists selected to attend, and TPTB wanted a parent or spouse of each student to participate.

A brief back story:

President Obama asked Dr. Jill Biden to chair the WH Summit to bring national attention to the great contribution community colleges (hereafter CC) make to education across our country, and to discuss the challenges and problems CCs face and brainstorm possible solutions and changes that could be implemented now and in the future. CC presidents, chancellors, and professors made up the bulk of invitees, but it was decided that current or former students could also make a valuable contribution. To find the student candidates, the organizing committee turned to Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society of CCs. The director of PTK, Rod Risley, worked hard to select 18 candidates that had a unique experience or story to tell and submitted this list to the White House. The White House then narrowed the list to five finalists. My daughter was one of the lucky ones.

To read the press release see here (please watch the video-it’s only 3 minutes).

The Big Day

We left Monday night and drove to Silver Spring, MD, where we spent the night and after four hours sleep, got up and headed out to our first meeting. It was a breakfast meeting at a lovely hotel restaurant at Dupont Circle. Except for my daughter and the director of PTK, I didn’t know a soul. It was a bit unnerving. There were about 60 people present and we went around the table introducing ourselves. Everyone there had titles; Professor, President, Chancellor, CEO, and then there was me – Mom. When the meeting was over, we were to board a charter bus that would take us to the White House. While we were waiting, so many people came up to me to start conversation and ask questions. They were all so friendly and made me feel very welcome.

2 - The beautiful Mrs. Biden

The beautiful Dr. Jill Biden

In the East Room at the White House, the plenary session was opened by Dr. Jill Biden. I was sitting in the 7th row, so I was about 20 feet in front of her. The number of guests is now up to about 150 people, and there was enough press there to scare Sarah Palin out of the country. As Dr. Biden finished her speech, she sprang a big surprise by introducing Pres. Obama, who came in from a side door, gave an awesome and inspiring speech, and exited through the same door. All I could think about was “OMG – I’m sitting 20 feet in front of the President!”

3 - Our Amazing President

Our amazing President

The next guest was not as big a surprise – we had been hearing rumors that Melinda Gates was attending and would be making an announcement. And what an announcement! The Gates Foundation is donating $35 million toward the goal of increasing graduation rates of CC students.

4 - Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates

After the speeches we broke up into 4 breakout sessions which would comprise the work of the day. Each session had a topic and ours was “Pathways to a Baccalaureate.” We spent 45 minutes discussing the various challenges students face, how CC helps them to meet those challenges, and what more needs to be done. The next 45 minutes were devoted to brainstorming. Lots of wonderful ideas were offered from the smallest detail to major federal and state legislation in an effort to find workable solutions to the problems that today’s students face.

7 - VP Biden & students

Vice President Joe Biden and students

The final session reunited all the groups. We met up at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, South Court Auditorium (right next to the WH). More surprises. A panel of guests awaited us to thank us for our efforts and encourage us to keep the faith and energy in education. I got to see and hear Sec. of Education, Arne Duncan, Sec. of Labor Hilda Solis, another speech from Melinda Gates, and the final words from Dr. Jill Biden.

5 - Casey & Dr. Biden

Daughter Casey with Dr. Jill Biden

After that we were invited to a reception at the Blair House. It is gorgeous and the food was fabulous! Dr. Biden and Melinda Gates worked their way through the crowd and mingled, chatted, shook hands, and posed for photos. And yes, I got to shake their hands. And I can tell you that Jill Biden is even more beautiful in person than on camera. Both ladies were so friendly and gracious. They have a gift for putting people at ease, mostly just by being relaxed and ‘normal’ themselves.

Just as we were getting ready to leave, we got the biggest surprise of the day. We were honored to be visited by VP Joe Biden, who is, without a doubt, the friendliest, warmest, and most charming man. I got to shake his hand as well, got a hug, and compliments on my daughter. And I got a great picture of him standing with her, both of them with beautiful smiles.

6 - VP Biden & Casey

Daughter Casey with Vice President Joe Biden

The Praise

I can’t begin to tell you how nervous I was about attending the Summit. I didn’t see how I could make a worthy contribution and was worried about sounding like an idiot in the company of professional educators. I have to say that these were just about the friendliest people I ever met. So many came up to me and introduced themselves and started conversation. They made me feel so welcome and put me at ease very quickly.

I am also impressed by their passion and commitment to education. They all loved to talk about their schools, their students, and their work. They all seemed to still have that sense of wonder about the world, always asking questions, always wanting to know just a little bit more.

The Diatribe

As we drove home Tuesday night, my daughter and I compared notes about the day and we were both impressed with the structure of the Summit and the amazing people we met. Where were all the intellectual elites that Sarah Palin is always denigrating? I spent the day with many of the movers and shakers in the world of education. Not a snob in the bunch. Even when my daughter was addressing the breakout session, they were all eyes upon her, listening to everything she said, heads nodding in approval. No airs of superiority. When we gathered at the reception, I was pleased to see that the students were getting the most attention. One was a military wife trying to finish her degree so when her husband left the service, she could support them while he worked on his degree.

Another was a young man from Arizona, whose father died when he was very small. His mother was an alcoholic and eventually ended up in trouble with the law. The children went to live with an aunt and uncle who raised them along with their own children, making sacrifices and living frugally to get all the kids an education. This young man felt the CC was his lifeline. I wondered how impressed Mrs. Palin would have been with their stories. How moved would she have been? How hard would she be willing to work to see that every kid in America had a chance to get a good education? How much would she be willing to sacrifice? I can’t say that I’ve seen any indication that any of these questions would be answered positively. She shames me and shames our country. Her hateful diatribes endanger our children, not only to get good educations, but to live peaceably with their neighbors and classmates. She belittles the experts, undermines their efforts and hard work, and stirs up the fear mongering which adds to the hateful climate where kids despair and start killing themselves.

What can you do?

This is the whole reason I started this essay. I want you to know that the Summit was a great success. But we have a lot to do to get the ball rolling again; where education is high priority, respected, and encouraged. Our kids are ready – are we?

Community Colleges, for many, are a bridge between high school and 4 year colleges. They meet many needs. One is financial – most 4 year state colleges average $7000-$9000 a year for tuition and books alone. Room and board is extra. That’s a minimum of $28k-$36k for a Bachelor’s degree. Private colleges can be as much as seven times that amount! Community college can cut the first two years down to $2k-$3k a year plus books. Quite a difference for a financially struggling family.

Another reason is maturity. Some students just aren’t ready at 18 to leave home and go off to college where they alone are responsible for everything that affects their daily lives.

Another is circumstances. Many students are returning vets from Iraq or Afghanistan, or young marrieds with families to care for. Or maybe a middle age man who lost his job and needs retraining. These people just can’t abandon their family responsibilities to go off to college. CCs are in their neighborhoods, or one nearby. CCs also allow for part time students, which makes life a lot easier if the student needs to work.

So here is where you can help:

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) makes recommendations on legislative issues. I selected two to share in the hope that you will be interested in contacting your Congressman/woman and Senators.

1) Extend and enhance the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC)

The Hope Scholarship Tax Credit is no more. It has been replaced, temporarily, with the AOTC, through tax year 2010. We want the AOTC made permanent. It is larger than the Hope and its formula is more favorable to students in low-cost institutions. It also covers course materials which the Hope did not. We would also like to see the law changed so that Pell Grant funds are not counted against a student’s eligible expenses.

2)Enact the Dream Act

A bill that would establish a pathway to legal status for undocumented students that meet a certain criteria.

Another possible way to help is through talk radio stations that allow call-ins. If they are discussing education, you could call in and call attention to these needs.

If you have a specialty, you could volunteer to tutor students.

You could write letters to the editor or op-eds for your local papers.

You could help with (or organize) fund raising activities that benefit your local CC.

You can help spread the word just by talking to your family, friends, and co-workers.

I’d also be interested in any ideas that YOU have.

Thanks so much for reading. I hope this Summit will be just the beginning to help our country get its competitive educational edge back.

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