Voices for Change: Why Maria Matters

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#RealCollege: Voices for Change asks students “what would you want your college president to know?” Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart is the President of Amarillo College in Amarillo, TX, and his work is an example of what happens when a college president truly understands the lives of their students, and what kinds of change can come about to transform a campus and ensure all students are successful.

The profile of today’s college student is dramatically different from the “traditional” college student of five years ago, even ten years ago. This is why it is so important for students to share their stories – because the people who are serving them do not know who they are.

In my work as president of Amarillo College I have taken the time to listen and to hear from my students, and here is what I have learned. We need to put the stories of our students at the center of our work.

I want to introduce you to this important student because her future will impact your own. At Amarillo College, we call her “Maria.” She is enrolled part-time, works multiple jobs for minimum wage, first-generation, minority, and relies on student financial aid to not only assist in paying for college classes but provide support for basic living expenses and needs. She is smart, determined, hardworking, and she is dramatically different than the typical students from the past century. Maria demands our attention. She deserves our support – just like all students do.

Maria faces significant barriers to success related to food, housing, childcare, transportation and trappings of generational poverty. She needs her professors and the staff at her college to truly see and understand her.

Maria is full Pell eligible. Even with two part-time jobs at 38 hours a week, Maria must take out a loan for her education. After securing Pell grants and Federal student loans, Maria is STILL unable to pay for her living expenses and college. Maria’s “budget” is built on smoke and mirrors. For the budget to work, Maria will have to go hungry on some days, forgo some books for classes, potentially drop a course and prolong her time-to-degree, and ration her transportation. Maria must hope and pray her child does not get sick, her car does not break down, gas prices do not surge, and cross her fingers that her utilities and rent do not increase.

When we make Maria the focus of our processes, policies, and partnership, our country and economy wins. As president for Amarillo College, I implore my colleagues to love the student we have, rather than the student we thought, or wished, we had enrolled. Maria is the student we have. She is capable of shouldering our nation’s future. Yet, Maria is often ignored or dismissed.

I asked our students to tell me what their “ideal” college looked and felt like. Their responses were insightful. They wanted a college that would love them to success. Maria does not just need new systems and hard work; she needs leaders who have a servant heart. Maria, as with most higher education students, needs to walking a complete and intentional culture of caring.

So what have we done to help Maria? At Amarillo College, we have adopted a No Excuses philosophy in serving Maria and the thousands of students just like her. When our students are not successful, we explore the reasons for their lack of success; but WE ultimately bear the responsibility for having the right people, processes, or policies in place to support our students. As a college, we have No Excuses for student failure, and this means we have to listen to their stories in order to serve them well.

The culture of caring extends to our systems as well. Maria receives tremendous wrap-around social service support from our Advocacy and Resource Center where social workers will help her with food, housing assistance, connection to community resources, and a safety net (with quick responsiveness and less bureaucracy) for emergency aid.

So what does this mean for you? Not every college campus has a No Excuses philosophy. Not every college President is listening. That’s why the #RealCollege: Voices for Change movement is so important. There are SO many Marias out there whose lives are not being seen – whose stories are not being heard. If you have a story like Maria’s, or if you have a story you think your president should know, add it to the voices of so many other students like you.

Russel Lowery-Hart is President of Amarillo College in Amarillo, TX

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