President’s Blog – Higher Education Matters:

Thoughts from Southern Vermont College President Karen Gross

A President Receives A Gift

Friday, December 12th, 2014 by Karen Gross

As I leave SVC after eight and a half years, I am reminded of the feelings of our students as they participate in their college graduation.

At a college graduation, there is the overt celebration of success, evidenced by the awarding of bachelor’s degrees, oft-times hard-earned degrees. The pomp and circumstance – the traditional robes, music and speeches – all cement the momentousness of the event. But, there is also a sense of wistfulness, a realization that one is leaving behind close friends, faculty and staff mentors as well as the comfortable confines of the college community.  And, there is the inevitable uncertainty as to what the future will bring. To use the word in the title of John O’Brien’s book about education, graduation can be very semi-sweet. Indeed, the joy of completing college is mixed with the strong emotions that accompany change.

This duality has always been captured for me by the word “commencement” – often used as a synonym for the word “graduation.”  On the one hand, we have our Commencement Exercises, the event where students formally become graduates and receive their diplomas, ending this phase of their college experience. Contrastingly, the word “commencement,” derived from the French verb “commencer,” also has a secondary meaning: begin.  This signals the reality that obtaining a degree opens a new chapter, the next chapter.  The degree is the gateway into the future, the contours of which remain unknown – particularly for younger graduates who have decades ahead of them to find work that is meaningful and productive.

Preparing to leave SVC has been an opportunity for me to reflect on the remarkable success the College has experienced in both measurable and intangible ways – growth in student enrollment, in academic offerings, in athletics, in student life, in grants and private giving, in the physical plant.  As a reminder, Hunter Hall was the first new building in 17 years at SVC and now we have just opened Wagner House, a new Admissions center in the Gatehouse to the Mansion.  I have gotten enormous joy from witnessing the academic and personal transformation of hundreds upon hundreds of students.  I am proud of our students, our faculty and our staff.  And yes, I will miss SVC.

That said, it is time for me to commence the next chapter in my professional life and to deploy what I have learned from my SVC experience with a larger audience, helping students across our nation (and other nations) progress to and through post-secondary education and beyond.  Education remains – and of this I am convinced – an appreciating asset.  It holds the promise of enabling thousands upon thousands of younger and older folks to obtain meaningful employment and contribute to the strengthening of their communities.  As I have said many times before, our Democracy (with a capital D) depends on an educated populace.

We often speak about the role of educators as role models, something particularly important for women who hold leadership positions that remain disproportionately held by men (i.e. CEO’s, Presidents of colleges and universities; heads of schools).  As I leave SVC, I feel an obligation to showcase the capacity to leave a place that one holds near and dear and move on to new challenges – even though it is hard. The point is that when we leave a college (whether as a graduate or a president), we do not lose the memories of our time there. Those will be with us always. We take those memories and all that we have learned with us.  And the hope is that we will use those memories and those teachings to create a safer, wiser and more just society for all.

Surely one does not travel alone on life’s journey – in college or thereafter. Numerous people and organizations have enriched my experiences at SVC. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to many.  I have said to many people on campus: you do us proud. I hope that in my next chapter, I will continue to do SVC proud.

I hope those of you working at the college now will share future successes with me. I look forward to our graduates continuing to share their personal successes with me.  I will be there, cheering from the sidelines.  And, here is another thing about which I am sure: SVC is a place that transforms lives.  I know this from personal experience – I have been transformed as an educator, a leader and a person by my experience at SVC.

I have one final idea (or two) to share in the interest of full disclosure and transparency, hallmarks I hope of my leadership.  Leaving SVC has been harder than I envisaged.  I am actually leaving a part of myself here.  Some of that is evidenced by traditions like the cookie delivery and the book signings; I am grateful and honored by the enduring reminder of my presidency at the library’s entrance.  Our sense of community is a constant reminder of what we have built.

I have often spoken about education’s gift – the capacity of a quality education to expand students’ perspectives.  Education engenders added complexity but deeper understanding.  This gift is actually reciprocal.  I, too, have received a gift from SVC – the gift of learning from all of you.  I have been working hard to incorporate what I have learned to be a both better leader and a better person.  So, while I leave a part of myself with you, I take a valuable gift from all of you with me.

Semi-sweet, yes, that describes how leaving feels to me.

When Does a College’s Obligation to Its Students End?

Thursday, November 20th, 2014 by Karen Gross

Note: This commentary refers to an article in Inside Higher Ed, written by President Karen Gross and Director of Diversity and the Mountaineer Scholar Program, Ivan Figueroa.

In our recent piece in Inside Higher Ed, we suggested that institutions serving vulnerable students have an obligation to these individuals that continues after college graduation. Indeed, we observed, colleges need to continue to connect with their graduates, many of whom struggle to adjust in the transition from college to the workplace. Our piece was inspired by Jeff Hobbs’ book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. We are not alone in focusing on post-graduation needs of low-income students. Read more.

How Best to Support Veteran Student Success on America’s Campuses: Lessons Learned from For the Love of Country

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014 by Karen Gross
Note: A longer version of this commentary/book review is
forthcoming in November 2014.

I recently completed Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, For Love of Country, detailing the many ways in which our service men and women and their families embody values of importance to us as a nation: bravery, selflessness and an unwavering belief in our freedoms. The authors implore us to do more for them than say: “Thank you for your service.” We need to hire veterans; we need to help them recover from their injuries, both physical and mental; we need to listen to their stories and use their talents and experience and those of their families to serve our nation in non-combat situations as civilians.

In Schultz, et. al.’s new book, I also have found a new way of framing how to make higher education more effective and successful for both our veterans and the other students whom we serve, many of whom are first generation students (like most veterans).

While veterans may not have the “usual” criteria for admissions into college and have technically not been in school for years, veterans have been learning while serving our nation. Veterans learned by doing and under extreme circumstances. And since their survival depended on what they learned and then applied, they “studied” hard. They learned to work as a team; they learned to care for each other – to have each other’s back. They learned a new language (or two); they ate food with which they were not familiar. They lived without the comforts of home, miles and miles away from anything vaguely familiar. They were separated from their families. They were placed in situations that were dangerous, with uncertain outcomes. They saw things that were frightening – death, severed limbs and pain. They endured painful rehabilitation, often surrounded by a supportive familial and community structure. These are all important attributes for success in higher education.

Veterans bring two other key skills to our campuses. First, they have an understanding of failure and the capacity to dust themselves off and try again. Education is all about accepting failure and risking; that is key to learning. Also, veterans have experience overcoming huge obstacles–surviving battles and injuries and extended separations. Our success with our current students – helping them believe in themselves and enabling them to feel that they belong on a college campus – can be transported to veterans. Bringing a group of resilient, gritty and determined leaders to a campus – individuals who have been leading their fellow soldiers into battle – fosters a campus culture of shared responsibility, respect and tenacity.

For the Love of Country reminded me of what business leaders like Schultz know well: the key to a quality workforce is building on the strengths, not weaknesses, of employees. Now, we must focus and build on the remarkable strengths that veterans bring to our campuses rather than solely on the challenges they bring with them. And in so doing, veterans will do our institutions proud, continuing to build our Democracy even after they have taken off their uniforms and set down their weapons.

Headed Down the Up Escalator: Why Education is Failing Our Students

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014 by Karen Gross

In his Sunday Op-Ed last week, Nicolas Kristof observed that Americans are not riding up the education escalator, a useful image he has deployed for years. Instead, we are falling behind a host of other nations in terms of the percentage of our population earning a college degree, most recently evidenced by new O.E.C.D data. That’s discouraging news. Read more

Graduation Shouldn’t Be Endpoint

Monday, November 3rd, 2014 by Karen Gross and Ivan Figueroa

Much of the attention in higher education circles focuses on getting more vulnerable students to and through college.  We have finally acknowledged that access to and entry into post-high school education not enough; we need to focus on graduation – whether from a certificate program, a community college or a four-year college or university.  We have targeted improving graduation rates as a goal that symbolizes success, enabling some to claim victory when those rates rise.  read more