Gatorcast Ep. 14: Role Models – Impact of Community Colleges Beyond the Classroom
By College Relations, Media Services and the Office of the President, August 12, 2020
President Johnson: Welcome to GatorCast, the official podcast of Green River College, where we share conversations with the community about topics that are relevant to you. I’m Suzanne Johnson, President of the College. My guest today is Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, President of Amarillo College in Texas. He might be known to you for his national work on poverty, and the important role community colleges play in the support of communities and pathways to opportunity for all students who attend community colleges. I hope you enjoy our conversation. This conversation was recorded prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, and we didn’t realize how important community colleges would be now that we’re facing so many challenges in our states and in our nation as we grapple with COVID-19. Enjoy the conversation.
President Johnson: Thank you so much Russell for being with us today on Gator Cast. Our campus got an opportunity to meet you, get to know you to a certain extent on our opening day back in September. And I've been looking forward to this conversation for a number of months. I'm so happy to have you on our podcast today.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Well I'm happy to join you. I enjoyed my time with you and your colleagues so much. And it seems like I was just there yesterday, and we're already starting a new semester.
President Johnson: Can you believe it? The time just flies and flies so fast. And there's such important work that we're doing and so many things I want to touch on today as we spend time together. Our Gator Cast is listened to by staff and faculty here at the college, students at our college, our service area communities. And we actually have some listeners from across the country as well. So the types of things we'll be talking about today, although of course they're very particular to our work at our respective colleges, you at Amarillo Community College and me here at Green River. And all of our people that are dedicated at our institutions. These are topics and points of interest I think for anyone to listen to. So I hope everybody enjoys our conversation today. So because we have some new listeners to you, unlike those who work here at the college, I thought we could start a little bit back at the beginning of you, with the story about you. And I was wondering if you'd spend a little time telling us about who you are, where you come from, a little bit about your life story, your life journey?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Well I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you and your colleagues today. My life journey is, I mean, the typical story for so many and atypical at the same time. I grew up out in the country. I grew up in a farming ranch family. And so I grew up rodeoing, working cattle, raising animals, riding horses. That was a big part of my life. But at the same time I was in a dysfunctional family, an abusive family. And so my escape from that was school. So if there was a school activity, I was involved in it, not just the animals and the rodeoing and the FFA, but theater, band, every sport, football, basketball, track, tennis, golf. Whatever there was to do I tried to do it. And so school in a lot of ways became my refuge and my way to a life that I didn't even know existed or one that I wanted. So I was the kid that was just involved in everything there was to be involved in. But I wore a hat and loafers, boots and wranglers to school everyday and even through my first semester at university. But when I graduated from Slaton in Texas there were I think 105 people in my graduating class. But most of my education happened at Wilson which is outside of Slaton. There were 11 people in my class. And I transferred from Wilson in my 11th years to Slaton when I was a sophomore in high school. So I grew up with a really clear understanding of what a South Plains, Texas citizen was supposed to be which is hard working, community minded. But education really wasn't a foundation of what our future looked like. So the future was about cotton. It was about cattle. It in some regard about pigs, hogs, but really not about education. But for me I didn't know what life was available to me, but I knew that I didn't want to work on a farm for the rest of my life. And so I knew I had to get an education. I got it at West Texas A & M. And it changed my life. Within the first semester I realized I could be who I was. I wasn't sure who that was, but when I figured out who I was I could be that person, not necessarily the person that I was expected to be or raised to be which is a cowboy who's gonna spend his life on a ranch and a farm. And when I realized I didn't have to do that, that college could be a different life, it was a game changer for me. And so for me being in higher-ed helped me understand what was possible, and it helped me find my own voice. And I think that was the point that I knew that I always wanted to be in education and help other students find their voice in the way that my faculty helped me find mine.
President Johnson: Well thank you for sharing that. There's so many themes that I think resonate with our listeners, and as I'm listening some themes that resonate with me too. One of the questions that students sometimes ask me here on campus, and sometimes it's sort of a joking question, but there's some seriousness to it too which is, "How do you become a college president? "What's your story? "How did you end up in that kind of job?" And I think that they're looking at all the possibilities of what college and education can provide. And when you were sharing that school was sort of a refuge for you in elementary, middle school, high school, and you were involved with activities to help with family circumstances, I can't help but think that that's something that other student listeners out there paid attention to. Here's a person, Russell Lowery-Hart, president Amarillo Community College, and found refuge and safety and opportunities and his voice through school, through education. So I can't help but think that that's something that resonates with a lot of our listeners. And I too would say that, and I wanna touch on this in just a moment, 'cause I know you were a faculty member for a number of years, when you were sharing that higher education or college showed you the possible future for you, possible selves that you could become and that faculty helped you find your voice and consider what those possibilities are I know that must resonate with the faculty here. Our faculty, like your faculty are dedicated and want to show students what their potentials are, show students what those opportunities could be for them. And it's the education pathway that opens that up. Now when you were at West Texas A & M, what did you study?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I studied speech communication. And I really didn't know what that meant. I just knew I was involved in a lot of activities that were performance based in high school, and I enjoyed doing speaking events, and I enjoyed performance and music. And so I didn't know what the jobs were. I just knew I liked that. And so I took a class in my first semester. And I had a faculty member who said, "Oh my God you are really good "at expressing an idea. "You should consider being a speech communication major." And I didn't know what that meant, but I knew that a faculty member said that I had a gift that I should explore. And so I immediately made that my major without even knowing what it was, because a faculty member expressed interest in me and spoke some power into me and some hope into me. And I became a speech communication major because of a faculty member.
President Johnson: Shows the impact of significant others, right. I mean, you can meet people on the street, and they can hurl all kinds of either positive comments or negative comments to you, but their opinions don't matter. So you can completely discount them, good or bad, right. But when there significant role models in your environment give you that kind of feedback it can have such a profound effect.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: It's a privilege to be a faculty leading a class. It's a privilege. And as a student my life was completely transformed, because a faculty member saw that privilege as an expectation and even the calling that she walked in, that she had to speak to every single person and be invested in every single student in her classroom. And that had a big impact on me, and I think more than anything shaped the kind of professor that I was and the kind of administrator I desire to be.
President Johnson: So let's pick that up. So you studied speech and communication in college. And then did you ever change your major while you were an undergraduate student?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I didn't, because what I found in those speech classes, even though I didn't really have clarity on what the jobs were that the degree would lead to I found a cohort of peers that I connected with and faculty that I really respected and whom I felt were invested in me and my success. And so once I found that cohort and that faculty and the relationships with faculty I never changed my major. Even though I explored education as a potential degree I never actually changed my major from speech communication. And then that was my major through my masters and my PhD of which I never in a million years thought I would get.
President Johnson: So let's talk about that. So now you've gone through the stages of higher education, got your undergraduate degree, your master's and PhD and speech and communications. And then what was the next step? Did you move right into a faculty position from there?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I did. I was one of those that I loved education. I loved the environment of higher education. And so really I graduated in May of 1991 with my bachelors degree.
President Johnson: Okay let's all do the math now in terms of Russell's age.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I'm 51. It's what I love about being in higher education is being 51 is still too young to really know anything worth knowing in higher education. That's the best part of our sector is I'm 50, but I'm too young.
President Johnson: I'm loving that thinking. I'm gonna hold it to heart, because I'm older than you my friend, okay. So.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: So I graduated with a bachelors degree and really no clarity on what was next. And my grandfather who I was named after was dying of cancer. And so I graduated, I moved back home, and I took care of him for the three months of that summer. And he died in the beginning of August. And I felt kind of lost. I didn't know what was next. And I had a faculty member call me, and he's like, "I'm sorry to hear about your granddad. "So now what's next?" I didn't have a clue what was next. And he did something that I'll never forget. He made a phone call. And he said, "Tomorrow morning you're gonna go meet "with this department chair at Texas Tech University. "And before you go I need you to go fill "out your application for the grad school "and sign up to take the GRE," which I could do three days later. And I went and visited the next morning, and by noon of the next day I had a graduate assistantship and was assigned to teach classes at eight o'clock the following Monday. And that's what I did. I did because a faculty member's like, "You should be teaching." I got a relationship. I'm gonna call in a favor, go visit with the department chair. That meeting went well. And so within the week I was teaching a class, and I knew within the first 10 minutes that I had found my calling.
President Johnson: Wow I just wanna pause for a second with the story, because it highlights something so life altering impactful, that oftentimes people who are not a faculty member at a college and so on, even people in the communities. They look at faculty members work schedules in terms of class time and so on, and they have no idea the multi-layers and the depth of which relationships form between students and faculty and what faculty do outside of the classroom for students. I know the story that you just shared. I have some similar moments in my life journey where a faculty member had a significant, pivotal moment of determination for me. And I know faculty at your campus. I know faculty at my campus at Green River. These are stories that go under the radar, but they happen everyday in terms of those relationships that have established themselves between the students and the faculty member in a particular course or multiple classes the student takes. But those relationships are sometimes not seen by people outside of academia, right, or outside of the college environment. And there's so much more to a faculty member's impact and role beyond the classes they teach. That's such a moving story. Does this faculty member know how impactful they were in your life? Did you have an opportunity to share this with them?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Yes. I mean, I would consider him a mentor. It was Dr. Rob Bartabedean is the one that called me. And he's like, "You're gonna go see Dan Hoyer of Texas Tech "and you're gonna go to grad school, "and this is your path." And Rob became a university president in Missouri and just announced his retirement. And I still consider him a dear friend and a mentor and someone whose impact will stay with me for the rest of my life.
President Johnson: So fortunate, so fortunate to have that opportunity to be part of each other's lives.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Yeah.
President Johnson: So you finished your PhD. And then you became a faculty member where?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I became a faculty member at St. Edwards University in Austin and an assistant professor right out of PhD in a Catholic university that was really service oriented and in the heart of Austin, Texas. So I'd finished my PhD in Ohio at Ohio University and really wanted to come back home. And so Austin was the closest I could get.
President Johnson: Well that's pretty close. Although Texas is a big state, right.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Yeah. It's close in that it's an eight hour drive from where I live right now. But it was still in the same state. And so I learned so much there.
President Johnson: How many years were you there?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I was only there for two years. And then I had an opportunity to come home, home and to be a faculty member at West Texas A & M where I had graduated from my undergrad. And I couldn't pass up that opportunity. Although my time at St. Eds was amazing personally. Professionally I learned so much about myself and my calling as a professor and what I really should be doing in the classroom I learned at St. Eds.
President Johnson: What were those learning moments? What are the takeaways that you derived from those first two years at St. Edwards?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: What I learned from my colleagues at St. Eds and from my students at St. Eds that I'm still really close to, I mean, we're over 20 years from that time, and I'm still connected to the students that I shared classrooms with, what I learned is that I wasn't the expert, that my goal was to help students think and apply. My job was not to impart whatever knowledge that I had gained in my PhD program. And I think what we learn in our PhD programs is how to be the expert. And then we share our expertise. What I learned from my students in the first semester is that they didn't care what my expertise was. They cared about how they could use the information that we were grappling with and apply it, and how it would prepare them to be successful when they left St. Eds. And they taught me that. And so I learned some really important pedagogies there. I learned about service learning. I didn't understand it or know about it. And I learned that if I could integrate service into students' learning not only would they be better citizens but they would be better thinkers and better employees when they graduated from St. Eds. And so what I got from St. Eds is that I would never teach a class again that didn't have a service application to whatever learning we are grappling with. So every class I taught from there on in always had a service learning component to it.
President Johnson: Wow and did all of those takeaways and learning moments, did they fit well into West Texas A & M?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: They did, although the application was different. So one of the reasons that I think I left St. Eds is an amazing place as it was is that those students didn't need me in the same way that I needed my faculty members when I was at West Texas A & M. They already came traveled, experienced, and understood the world and what it offered to them, and I felt like I was called to engage with and lead learning with the students that were like I was when I was at university. And so when I could come home and teach first gen students, students that had never really left the region and didn't know what was possible, that I could have a bigger impact on the students that were like I was. And so when I came home that's the main reason I came home is to come back to West Texas A & M and try to provide the same opportunities to the students that were walking in my classroom that were provided to me by the faculty that I then counted as colleagues. It was really amazing.
President Johnson: Yeah. Do you find that what you just described in wanting to find a place to be a faculty member where you know that your role is having a greater impact or potentially a greater impact on a student's life, especially first generation students from more impoverished backgrounds and so on or students that are coming back to school after a long time away or haven't finished high school and so on, trying to get their lives back on track. Do you think that sort of same desire for ability to help is something that your faculty at Amarillo share with you?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I do. I think you can't be an educator in our region and not have that foundational understanding of how critical your role is in helping someone find a better life, to find out what opportunities exist beyond the world that they may have only grown up in and understood from a really small perspective. So we have a lot of students that they're amazing. They're smart, they're capable, they're problem solvers, but they don't know what the opportunities are to them, because they've only seen one aspect of the lived experience of our region. And I think our job is to help them understand what their opportunities are beyond what they were raised to see.
President Johnson: Yeah I asked that question, because as you were speaking about potential impact in your role as an instructor, as a faculty member, it resonated very much with me, because that is something I here over and over again from our faculty at Green River. They can have employment at a college, university, four year, public, private, and so on. They choose to be at Green River who in heart is a community college. And our overwhelming majority of our students are first generation. And our local students, as is the nature of our service area, yours as well. And this is an opportunity for them to have high impact in showing those opportunities, for sure. And for the student listeners out there I hope that you're hearing that education opens up opportunities and allows you to consider the possibilities of what you could be. And sometimes it's not as clear as you'll choose this major and you'll do x job. It has a lot to do with exploring and learning about your skills and abilities, your interests, your talents. And through the relationships you forge with your instructors in classrooms it allows you to develop potential selves and your future that you might not have considered for yourself and to just be open, explore, consider, because you never know what you could become. You could become a college president if that's what you want to become.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Right.
President Johnson: So how many years were you at West Texas?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I was there for 12 years as a faculty member and then administrator.
President Johnson: And what made the shift to administration? Tell me about leaving the faculty and going into administration. What was the first position you held?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: So I came back home to be an assistant professor of speech communication and the coach of the speech and debate team. And I was the coach for four years. And we had tremendous success. And at the same time, my wife and I, who's an educator, had had a series of miscarriages. And we were told we would never be able to have kids. And then my fourth year as the speech coach at WT, all of a sudden not only we were pregnant, but there was a viable fetus. And that was a big shift for me, because being a speech and debate coach meant being away from home three of the four weekends a month basically for eight months of the year.
President Johnson: Wow.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: And given that I had a dysfunctional family and that I had no relationship with my biological father, I knew I needed to privilege the son that I was bringing into the world and the son that we had adopted who is much older. And so I had an opportunity to step out of the travel that was required for the speech and debate program and move into, still as a faculty member, but I chaired the SACS accreditation quality enhancement plan.
President Johnson: Oh boy.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: It was the first time I was asked to lead a team of people that looked at how we could improve education across all majors. And that was my first step into an administrative role that went from being the chair of an accreditation to an executive director of first year experience and then ultimately associate provost for first year experience at West Texas A & M.
President Johnson: And then what brought you to Amarillo, because if I recall correctly, your first position at Amarillo was not president?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: No it was vice president of academic affairs. So I was an associate provost at WT. And part of my role there was to participate in a community collaborative called "No Limits, No Excuses." And really that started with this commUnity collaborative painting in 2020. And painting of 2020 was looking at what the future of the region was gonna look like in 2020. Now we're in 2020, so we're going back and looking at what we projected versus where we are and what we said we had to do to change the trajectory of our region which was to be less educated, poorer, and less economically viable as a region. That's what we were projecting. I was asked to facilitate that study. It was a year long community study. And what I learned in 2007 is that if I wanted to change the region's economic outlook, that it was gonna be the community college in our community that was gonna be doing changing the education attainment in our region more than it was gonna be the university that I worked in. So in 2010 the VP for academic affairs position came open. I applied for it. I interviewed for it. I was offered that job. And I ultimately took it against the advice of basically every professional relationship I had in my world, because no one could understand why I would leave a regional university, a pathway to a VP and president in the university world. Why I would throw all of that away to come to a lowly community college? And I did it but one simple reason. The community college was what was gonna save my region, and I wanted to be a part of it. What I found, Suzanne, when I got to the community college is that community colleges were nimble, innovative, responsive, foundational, that the community college was this relationship with the community itself. And I was immediately enthralled with this relationship between the community and its college and felt really honored to be a part of it.
President Johnson: Well let's pick that up, because one of the things that sometimes is not as well understood by people outside of higher education is what are the distinctions between four year institutions, two year institutions, public, private, and so on. And one of the things that is so crucial in the context of community college and it's even in the name, right, it's the community's college. And there's a synergy between the institution and the economic sustainability, the economic viability of a community, because so many of its residents will look to that college for opportunities in education, career paths, and how they'll resettle back into the workforce of those surrounding areas. It is a unique dimension, because so oftentimes four year institutions have lots of students that are out of state or other parts of the state. They come in for a certain number of years, and then they're going to go back home wherever their home might be which isn't where the school is. So I'm also noticing that there's a theme here too. You mentioned impact in terms of wanting to be a faculty member in a way that was gonna optimize impact for those students' lives. I'm wondering if you're not seeing the same theme in terms of you wanted to be at an institution that would have the maximum impact for the communities that college serves.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: 100%. I'd had opportunities to go to other places, bigger schools, maybe some would perceive as more prestigious. But my career commitment isn't to a path with more prestige. My career commitment is to changing and impacting the region that produced me as a student. And I think that's why I'm so excited by and fulfilled by the role that I'm playing now is because I can see everyday how much this institution shapes the future of this community that I love so much, that not only produced me, but my wife grew up and graduated from, and that we've raised our family in. But it's a region that without Amarillo College would not have an economic future when you're looking at shifts in robotics and artificial intelligence and bioscience. If we cannot educate a workforce that can make these shifts, then we're not gonna have a region that can sustain itself, given how isolated we are. And so I truly I say Amarillo is only as strong as its college, because the data, the economic impact of data, and the education attainment data prove definitively that Amarillo truly is only as strong as Amarillo College.
President Johnson: Right, I think that if we examine our economic impact data for Green River, we would find similar impacts in the contexts of our service area as well. So let's talk about community colleges and the opportunities they provide for our service areas as well as our country as a whole and the imperative that we have. You've been at Amarillo then since 2010. I guess you were vice president for academic affairs for about five years, and I believe this is your fifth year as president. Yes?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Yes.
President Johnson: So what would you say to people who ask why are community colleges important? What makes them so special? Why do we need community colleges? What would you say?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: It's an exciting question, because I think business leaders and political leaders are starting to now just come to terms with the fact that their futures rest with us. And when I say us I say community colleges. We're responsive specifically to employer needs in our community. We are incredibly responsive to the K-12 needs and the pipeline, building that pipeline seamlessly, bridging the gaps between K-12 and bachelors degrees for those professions that require one. But generally we're the ones that are not just creating the workforce skills for current employees, employers. We're creating employees of the future. And I think what our university partners do are incredibly important, and we need them. But they are not responsive to communities in the way that community colleges are. It's really not even their mission. It's a more narrow, selective mission. And our mission is broader. It's more powerful and more impactful. And you see community colleges across the country stepping into that and owning it with some pride and some aggression and some ambition where we can be creative and innovative in responding to not just where our community is but where we need to take it. And I think what you're gonna see over the next five years is that communities that are succeeding are succeeding, because they had community colleges that were innovatively responding to where the jobs needed to be, not just where they are.
President Johnson: So I'm hearing a lot about the pathways to employment in your answer. And I know that about 40% or so of the students that come to us at our college, and I'm not sure about the percentage at your school, but they'll indicate that they're here for a particular career or technical pathway. They're here for a particular program that we have. It's linked to particular employment opportunities in our region, within the state or a particular city in our service area. And then we have about an equal number of students that come that are here for transfer on to another institution. And I wanna just reiterate for our listeners, 'cause not everybody is within higher-ed in our listening population. Nearly half of all students that ultimately receive a four year degree from a college or university or a graduate degree beyond that started at community colleges. And so when we talk about our mission as a community college being broader or wider, we have equal numbers of students who are there for an employment career path and those who are here for the foundation of their general education as an undergraduate to go on to another institution. And so given that, how do you find Amarillo balancing those two populations of students? Do you see them as independent populations? Do you see them connected? How do you meet the needs of the communities as we're talking about in terms of the economic opportunities and viability and students who come for those paths to opportunity of employment and those who are looking at Amarillo as being a stepping stone to something next in their educational journey? How does that work for you there?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: It's a great question. And I think it's a question that our sector of higher education is dealing with across the country. Universities are pretty monolithic in what their purpose is. And their students aren't monolithic, but the pathway that their students are engaging is towards a bachelors degree. Now a bachelors degree is a really good thing and something that we should aspire for any student that wants or needs it. But the pathways to it, we've gotta accept. And community college world can be really varied and that we don't just have two pathways, a technical pathway that leads to a living wage or a transfer pathway that leads to a bachelors degree. We could be moving into an era where what our communities are needing from us are skillsets more than degrees. And even if they're needing the bachelors degree, the pathway to it could come from a technical field. And it's not just an either, or. You're either technical or you're a transfer. It could be that your pathway to a transfer degree starts with a technical degree that leads to a living wage that you're working in and that we're gonna partner with universities or do them ourselves where we can give students a bachelors degree based on the work experience that they're building inside their employment. So I think it can be a yes, and. And most of the time in higher education we look at things as either or.
President Johnson: It's such an important distinction, right, the genius of the and. I think a mutual friend of ours, Randy Van Wagoner, sort of coined that into some things he's written of late, the genius of the and. But I think you're right that oftentimes we do think about either, or's or there are categories of students and just thinking about your life, my life, a lot of people's lives, they're not always linear and in one domain. And one thing, for those who are listeners from season number one, we interviewed a lot of different individuals from our campus that have various roles and responsibilities talking about what their office does and how it serves students. And what's I think very interesting, especially for student listeners, is how many different types of career turns people's lives might take and the different steps and journeys that a person's life might take. And so to think about the synergy and the integration between the worlds that we oftentimes think as being either or and start thinking about this as and's, right. These are phases of a person's life. And one of the beauties I think of community colleges is that we can be an institution that's with an individual in every phase of their life, however many different career opportunities or educational interests they might have. And that is something, I think, unique to our schools.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Really, really important to understand that we're not a one-off. Once we develop a relationship with a student that relationship's gonna last through their lifetime. Even if they're not coming back to us for another degree or to extend a new career, they're gonna come back to us for ways to remain current in their field, to get CEU's so they can fulfill job requirements to take general life courses like wine tasting or cooking or their children are gonna be taking gymnastics with us or Suzuki violin. We're the institution that becomes central to a family experience. And it's not just from 18 to 21.
President Johnson: Right, right. For our listeners, let's circle back to an event that we had this past September where you had the opportunity, thank you so much for being here in September, for our college's annual opening day. It's a day that we close the college to the public and all employee, staff, faculty, no matter what your role is. We come together to talk about priorities, to talk about the mission of the institution, to talk about how to best serve and support our students in their needs and hopes and dreams that they come to us with, and you were one of our keynote speakers on our opening day of 2019 along with Sara Goldrick-Rab. And one of the things that I know drew the college's interest in you and having you be here really centered on what you've been doing at Amarillo around supporting students to completion, how your students are succeeding, and the work that you've been doing across the past few years. And you introduced a concept for us. You describe it as developing and focusing on Amarillo College as having a culture of caring. And you introduced that concept to us back in September. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about what this is, a culture of caring, how you came to that and what drives the mission of an institution that wholly invests itself as being a culture of caring for every student that comes into your doors.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: So it's a really important transition for higher education to make, I think, is to acknowledge that if we're going to educate an entirely new swath of our citizenry that has historically not accessed our education we can't execute our mission by teaching the students we used to have. We have to know and understand and care about and advocate for the students we have. And they're different today than they were 20 years ago or 30 years ago and 50 years ago, because our communities are different and people have access to us in ways that they didn't have access to us even 20 years ago.
President Johnson: So let's talk a little bit more about these differences. What are the differences that we see in the students that come to our schools?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: So for one the majority of students in higher education across the country are first generation. They've never been to college. I've heard some people say, "Well I was first gen, "and I didn't have all of these supports." Well our communities were different. The communities that we all live in now for the most part are drowning in generational poverty and people that have worked two, three, and four part-time jobs to make ends meet so that they've not experienced the advocacy of a full-time position with benefits. They've not experienced a community of professionals and peers that are invested in them. And so they've not seen hard work pay off. They've seen a lot of hard work. They just haven't seen it work for their families. And so they know that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. But they don't have a lot of institutional or even cultural understanding about how to bridge the gap between where they are and where we are in higher education. And the onus is not on us to demand that these students and their families change for us. That's not equitable. It's not honoring. It's not realistic, and it's not understanding who are communities are today versus who they were even 20 years ago. So we've got to understand who are students and communities are and adapt to them systemically, thoughtfully, intentionally rather than throwing up our hands when students fail and say, "Well they had an opportunity "to succeed or fail. "And if they fail, it was their fault. "And if they succeed, it's because of us." We have to understand that we're the hope of our community, but we can't walk in that hope if we're not willing to adapt to who our communities are and who they need us to be.
President Johnson: And so what did that mean for Amarillo?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Well for me it started with acknowledging my own ignorance, right. So when I came to Amarillo College 10 years ago and even when I was working at the university in the same community for the past 20 years I still had an old school mentality that students were supposed to come to us ready for college. And if they didn't, it was on them, not on us. And so when I came to Amarillo College and I saw our success rates which were really dismal.
President Johnson: Do you wanna share the number at the time?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Our transfer rate might've been 9%. Our overall completion rate was only 13% when I came here in 2010.
President Johnson: Okay.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: The three year completion rate is 13%. That's not sustainable. That's not anything that you can build a community around. We're not being partners in helping employers find the workforce of the future if we're only producing 13% success rates. So I needed to understand what was happening to our students. And so I did focus groups and surveys to find out what was keeping our students from being successful. And I approached them from a purely academic mindset. I went in with a preconceived notion that our students were gonna need more tutoring which they do, that they were gonna need more academic foundational preparation which they did, that they were gonna need more understanding of what the pathways and majors were available to them which they did. But I went in looking for those academic solutions and what my students told me repeatedly, over and over in focus groups and the surveys is their biggest barriers to success weren't academic. They were life. And I was sitting here trying to build academic solutions when my students were telling me their barriers to success in the classroom have nothing to do with the classroom. It was childcare, healthcare, food, housing, transportation, utilities, legal services, things that I have typically said were not in the mission of higher education. But here I am trying to find a way to get our 13% completion rate to move in the right direction. And my students are telling me that if I really want to help them be successful in the classroom, they needed my help for issues outside the classroom. And it set me down. It was a slap upside the head. And the light bulb went off, like, oh my God. I'm at a community college, and if I want my students to be successful I've gotta bring the community back into the college. And that was a seminal moment for me as a professional, as an academic, as an administrator, but more than anything as a person, that if we're going to have success, meaning students are gonna complete their degrees or their certificates or their pathways with us, we're gonna have to actually build supports for the whole person, not just the intellectual side of the person. And the more we built these supports to solve for food and housing and childcare and healthcare and finding ways to solve for transportation and broken down cars and having to work multiple jobs, the more we have built structures that bring our community into the college to solve for these issues, the more successful our students have been. I think our completion rate now is 53% when we were just seven years ago at 13% and five years ago at 19%. We're at 53% just by rethinking our relationship with our students in trying to respond to who they are rather than demanding that they respond to what we wanted them to be.
President Johnson: Well so what did that look like then at the college? When I hear the number 13% seven years ago to 53% current, what did that mean for the college and how it structured, how it functions? What took place internally at the college, 'cause it sounds to me like what occurred was a realization and a sharing of the realities of the students' lives, so many of the students' lives, which meant the students are the way they are, that's who is coming to us? And so what did you do internally to become the student-ready institution that's improved your student success by 40% in five, seven years.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Three main things that we did that I think ultimately have created a culture of caring. The first was to actually know who our students were, not who we thought they were or even worse, who we wished they were and to actually respond and to fall in love with the students that we had. And I used the word love intentionally, and I use it a lot. We've got to love our students to success. And we've got to love the students we have, not the students we used to have or the students we wished we had. We have to love the student we have. And to do that you've gotta know who they are. And so we privilege the student voice. I use secret shoppers to understand the student experience where we have our general assemblies that were similar to your opening day activities where we privilege the student voice. We bring them in to talk about their experiences and what they need. We use a lot of video and interviews to help us put life behind the data to help us understand what the data says our students are living and experiencing everyday. So the first thing we did is we had to look at the data and understand what it told us about the students we had. And we had to fall in love with that student and intentionally love that student to success. So the first part was the data and understanding what that data showed us about our students and committing to loving that student, not the student that we were teaching 20 years ago. The second thing we did is that if we were gonna love that student and we know that they have all of these barriers in place that are life barriers, we can't just say that's the community's problem to solve. We had to put structures around connecting our students to the resources that were available to them in the community and then building our own infrastructure for resources that our students needed that weren't available in the community. So we hired social workers. We opened food pantries and clothing closets. We created a no excuses fund with our foundation where we could within 24 hours solve a financial emergency that were so often causing our students to stop out and drop out. So if a transmission broke, our students were taking a third and fourth shift at work or a third or fourth part-time job to pay for it. And school was the first thing they let go of. Now we can say, "Don't stop out. "Let us help you fix that car. "But more than anything we've got "to have you stay in class. "So whatever's keeping you "from being in class, we're committed "to finding a community resource "to solving that problem that might keep you "from being in class." That was the second thing is building that infrastructure around solving those social service needs. And then the third part of it is really accelerating our students' time to degree. So because our students are first gen and grew up in generational poverty and are having to work their way through school they can't afford the six years it was taking them to get an associates degree from us. Sorry. So we had to accelerate their time to degree. For us that was eight week classes, that was making it possible for students to finish their three year degree or their two year degree in two years, at the latest in three years and changing when we offered classes, how we offered classes and making even summer terms full terms where students could go year round and finish a degree and immediately go into the workplace or transfer. So we had to use data, understand who students were, then we had to build systems around the social service needs our students had, and then we had to build systems to accelerate our ability to help students get in and out.
President Johnson: There's such a depth to this answer, because I know that sometimes when you are on the administrative side having conversations with faculty about increasing completion rates, increasing students' success that some, not all, but some might fear that what we might be saying, not being faculty, is that somehow the way that this number will improve, right, retention and completion in students, is that somehow the standards or the quality of education and expectation and performance of the classroom must be lowered or watered down. And none of the actions and the top three things that Amarillo did had anything to do with academic integrity, academic standards, or high quality higher education level of expectation. And I think this is something that becomes really important for us to examine, whether it's Amarillo. Green River College or for those of you who might be listening that are at other institutions. Increasing student completion rate must not, ought not and should not have anything to do with academic performance. You can love your student and still have standards.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: You have to. With the communities that we reside and the generational poverty that's choking our economic prosperity for a lot of our communities across the country, the solution isn't lowering your standards. The solution is raising your standards. What our data showed us and what our community partners and our business partners were telling us is we were producing students that didn't have the skills to be successful employees. So for us it was about raising the standard. But the key is when you raise the standard you have to increase the level of support to love students to that standard. So I tell our faculty all the time increase your standards, ask more of your students, but be willing to also increase the supports that your students might need to reach those standards. So for us tutoring is a big part of acceleration where faculty are integrating tutoring as requirements inside the class. So you've gotta raise your standards. But to raise them with the students that we have means that we have to also raise our commitment and our investment in what students need to meet those standards. So the solution is not lower them. The solution is to raise them. But it's not just about saying, "Oh I expect more of you." It is saying, "Here's what I need of you. "Here's why I need that of you. "Here's what your employers "and your universities are saying they need from you." "So this is why we're doing it. "And these are the three things that we're putting "in place to help you reach those standards." What my students tell me all the time, secret shoppers, is that they talk all the time about the hardest class. And it's an either, or. They either it's their favorite and most important class or it's the class that they hated the most. And the key was not the textbook or the assignments. The key was always the faculty member. And the classes they remember the most, that had the most impact on them were the hardest classes they took, but they knew that that faculty member was just as invested in their success as they were. The classes they hated the most were the classes that were the hardest that they took, but they felt like the faculty kind of enjoyed their failure rather than was invested in their success. So rigor is the key. Students need us to hold them to the highest of standards, but they've got to know that we are gonna do everything we can to help them reach those standards. So if you're a faculty member that is just increasing your standards and putting it out on Blackboard and saying, "Read this, and get there, and do that," and then if they can't get there, you're not willing to do anything different, then you're a failure as a faculty member, because you failed your students and your community. If you're the faculty member that's raising your standards and you're saying, "Here's the standards, "here's why that's the standard, "here are all the supports that's the college has put "in place for you, and here's what I'm willing "to do to help you reach that standard," you're going to be the most powerful impactful faculty member that student will have had in their career.
President Johnson: So another dimension of this culture of caring absolutely hinges on that relationship between students and faculty, students and staff that are front-facing to those faculty. I know at Green River we have been building on and deepening our culture of caring through the concept of belonging, making sure that every student who comes to Green River feels that they belong here and that they can succeed and that they can name at least one person, usually many more than one, that would care if they don't come back tomorrow. And I think you're expressing this in a different way, but the same theme. And these are elements that I think we're all, whether faculty member, an administrator, a staff person, we're all coming to understand in terms of what it means to be a successful community college in the 21st century which is quite different than when community colleges emerged post World War II in the 1950s, early 1960s for a huge percentage of our schools.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: We have the same charge, but we don't have the same pathway to fulfilling it. It's not enough to open a class and stand and lecture. Students can find the information that you're lecturing them faster than you can spit it at them. It's not about getting them in the door and having them complete an application or sign a piece of paper. It is so critical that we understand who are students are and adapt to them, because our community's success depends on our ability to help that student be successful. And the biggest predictor of a student's success is if they have a relationship with someone in the institution. That gives them all kinds of advocacy. It gives them confidence, and it gives them support. And if they have someone that will advocate for them and they'll listen to them and believe them, they will rise to whatever standards we put in their way as long as we provide support to help them get there.
President Johnson: I couldn't say it any better. So Russell you've been in higher-ed now for many, many years. You've been president Amarillo now in your fifth year. What motivates you each day? What gets you up and driven each day when you go to work?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: It's the conversation we've just been having. It's the students whose future is so intimately intertwined with my community's future and therefore my future. I'll see a student that's waiting tables or delivering groceries or checking me out at a store, and I know that that job is not the longterm solution for their economic prosperity or for my community's economic prosperity. So if I want my community to grow, I've got to provide a pathway for that student, that citizen become a student to get a degree that leads to a living wage. And that's what keeps me up at night. That's what gets me up in the morning. It's that I know my community's future rests on my colleagues' and my ability to shift our institution to be responsive to our students are and what they need from us. And I see it happening. I see the successes starting to create the economic viability in our community, and it's exciting. It's scary, because we can't hold on to two traditions in higher education that aren't linked to any empirical data that says 16 weeks are the magical learning period. It's scary to move away from traditions that have so often defined our sector, but we can either protect our traditions or we can protect our communities. But so often our traditions are pushing up against the needs of our community, and we're gonna have to be brave enough, courageous enough, innovative enough, and serious enough to determine when our traditions our moving our communities forward and when our traditions are keeping us from being responsive. And I'm excited to be in community college sector right now, because I see so many community colleges willing to push up against tradition for the betterment of their communities, and it's fun. It's fun work.
President Johnson: So what words of inspiration might you have for this college, for Green River, for those of us who work here, staff and faculty, and for those who attend here as students?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: You have so much economic possibilities in your particular part of the world. Yet you have so many students that are drowning in generational poverty that are working two and three jobs just to make ends meet and still not making ends meet. And you are actually the conduit of connecting them to the economic possibilities that exist in your community. But they're not going to just knock on your door and say, "I'm ready." You're gonna have to go find them. You're gonna have to love them into your door. You're gonna have to love them through your process. You're gonna have to love them through your classes. And when you do that you will be able to love them into an economic reality that they couldn't dream of even 10 years ago. You have that opportunity. You don't have to create economic diversification. You already have the economic outlook that your students need. But you're the conduit for getting them into that economic pathway and how exciting that you have a community that needs you so desperately and all you have to do is simply love your students through your institution .
President Johnson: And to our communities that we serve and to our students what would you say?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I think as a student is you're always gonna have barriers in your way, but find someone that is willing to help you navigate those barriers. Success in community colleges isn't doing it by yourself. Success is asking questions that you have, because if you have the question, I promise you that a thousand other students have the same question. When I talk to secret shoppers what I'm always stunned by is that our students think they're the only ones that don't know or the only ones that can't find. And it's simply not true. If you don't know something, it means a thousand other students don't know it. So have the courage to reach out the hand and to ask someone to help you, because they're always willing to. So don't take no for an answer. Keep asking until you find someone that will help you get to a yes.
President Johnson: Okay. To wrap up our conversation today Russell, I was wondering if and when you retire and not certain whether retirement is in your plans, but if you're at a point when you retire and you're looking back on your career, what would be the markers or the measures, the metrics that you would look at to determine whether this was a successful career or not?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: That in my community that we have a 50% education attainment rate, that we have the average wage is a living one, a living wage, that we have diversified our economy to include tech and bioscience jobs and that it's a community where more students want to stay in rather than leave.
President Johnson: Thank you so much Russell Lowery-Hart. You have been listening to Gator Cast, Green River College's official podcast, Green River College in Auburn, Washington. I can't thank you enough Russell. Thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for your thoughts and your insights. Wish you all the best. Wish Amarillo Community College all the best. Can't wait to have you back out here again sometime. Looking forward to our next conversations. Have a fantastic day.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Thanks for having me and for sharing in this deep commitment to helping our students and our communities.