GatorCast Ep. 18: National Importance - Federal Government in Community Colleges (Part 2)
By College Relations, Media Services and the Office of the President, September 16, 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. Casey Sacks, deputy assistant secretary for community colleges at the U.S. Department of Education. This is part two of my conversation with Dr. Casey, exploring the importance of community colleges and the role of federal government in supporting community colleges nationally. If you haven't had a chance to listen to part one, I encourage you to hop off and listen to that first, but if not, jump in and enjoy part two's conversation with Dr. Casey Sacks from the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.
President Johnson: If you had to pick what the main motivation for you or main objective for you to say "Yes" to joining the Department of Education at this point in time, what was the main driver? You're leaving a great mentor, a great experience from what you've described in West Virginia. You weren't there very long. I remember you moving from Colorado to West Virginia, and then this opportunity at the DOE emerged. What were the main reasons for you taking that job?
Dr. Casey Sacks: I mean, I couldn't imagine saying no to this opportunity. It's incredible. It's sort of one of those once in a lifetime, people don't call you every day and say, "Hey, do you want to move to Washington "and have a national impact "on the reauthorization of this bill "that you know all about? "And while we're at it, "let's work on some other legislation "that has been important to you for the last decade." I couldn't imagine another response . Couldn't imagine,
President Johnson: All right.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Not doing it.
President Johnson: Sure. So, now that you're the deputy assistant secretary for community colleges, what are your greatest challenges in this role?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah, so in West Virginia, I was in charge of the system. So I had a boss, everyone always, everyone has a boss, but I had a chancellor who was incredibly supportive and that was sort of it. So, if I wanted to do something and it was statutorily allowed, I could pretty much do it unilaterally. That is not at all true in the federal government. That bureaucracy,
President Johnson: Really ?
Dr. Casey Sacks: It's really different from being in a state where, I mean, it's just so different and not to say that there wasn't bureaucracy or there wasn't oversight in West Virginia. I mean, every state has their own processes. And certainly if I wanted a legislative change in West Virginia, that meant that we needed to do a lot of the same work that you would do here in Washington, it means going to the Hill, it means advocating. It means really setting up what's the data and what's the background and testifying and Senate committee hearings. And so, those were all things that we did in West Virginia. That was part of my role there.
President Johnson: Sure. Same activities here in our State of Washington. Yeah.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yep, so, those very same activities are what happen at the federal level. But I marvel at all of the secretaries of the executive branch pieces of our government, because they have hundreds of bosses. If you think about the House of Representatives and the Senate being your bosses, and they really are, that Congress sets the laws and then the executive branch is asked to implement these programs and services. And so, sometimes they don't make sense. Sometimes no one's looked at them in 40 years. I was working on a project recently for very small regulation that's part of Perkins, that's been in place for literally 40 years. It's not changed, but six different administrations have issued guidance about how schools should implement. And so, we've got the original regulation and then six subsequent pieces of guidance and people are asked to sort of become historians and figure out how to implement all of this work and it's piecemeal and it's not coherent and it doesn't necessarily make sense. And so, that's a challenge, certainly for me, that it takes somebody who's really willing to dig in and do the research and unravel it. And then to say, you know, we've learned a lot in the last 40 years about career and technical education and access and success and how we can help students get on a career path that's going to be really meaningful for them. Let's take some of our best thinking right now and apply it to this policy. And so, I love that work and I'm grateful that I get to do it, but it's also probably my biggest challenge because it involves massive consensus building and helping stakeholders and really understanding the different mechanisms that we have to be able to make that kind of change. Sometimes, you know, my team will come up with some amazing suggestions and it's like, "Okay, well, this is exactly the right thing. "And actually what we should be doing, "but it's going to take significant congressional action." And anyone who's watched the news lately has seen that Congress is spending their energy in places besides rewriting things like the Higher Education Act. And so, we're challenged because we have the laws that we have to implement. And even if we know based on research and based on what schools are telling us that something else might be more effective, we can't just implement that without additional congressional action. And so I think for me, that's what's challenging.
President Johnson: Sure, and you know, I, from being outside of Washington D.C, as I know, pretty much most of our listeners are, you know, the inner workings of what fills your day or another person's day in the Department of Education. It's hard for us to get our heads around, right? And of course, you always want to think you know all the nuances and the intricacies about how things go, but you never know unless you're inside in those offices, right? It's the same for any kind of organization, right? Unless you're inside an office doing what that office does, you don't really know what that office does.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah.
President Johnson: Can we talk about the Higher Education Reauthorization Act for a minute?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Sure.
President Johnson: What happened?
Dr. Casey Sacks: I mean, I would have to get my crystal ball to totally answer that question. And by that, I mean, getting my crystal ball is that it's such a complicated what happened.
President Johnson: 'Cause I, I have to tell you, you know, we have many individuals that, you know, in terms of our state board system and as a president we talk with and, you know, they always give their various predictions. And what I heard toward the end of the fall term, 2019, was it, you know, it's been years and years, it hasn't been reauthorized. Don't look for that to happen anytime soon.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah, so, for listeners who aren't familiar, the Higher Education Act is legislation that authorizes a whole bunch of what we do in higher education and notably it's where financial aid lives, but there are a number of titles within that particular act. And so, there were things that were proposals for reauthorization that I think everyone would agree on, things like FAFSA simplification that did end up getting passed as a, as its own measure.
President Johnson: And that's the financial aid application form that students fill out to get help to go to college, right?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Exactly, so to shorten that, to make it simpler was something that, in a very bipartisan way, everyone said, "Yeah, that makes perfect sense." Another piece that I'm actually really hoping we can get through this year is around a program called Second Chance Pell. So, that allows people who are experiencing incarceration to access Federal Pell Grants so that they could experience higher education and get a post-secondary credential while they're incarcerated.
President Johnson: And I believe that education has been shown to be a very good impacter in a positive way to reduce the likelihood of a person returning to prison. Make a good reason.
Dr. Casey Sacks: It has been. And the other thing that I didn't even realize about the program until I started getting really involved with it is that it also improves behavior within the correctional facilities. And so, one of the things that wardens report is that their prisons are safer when there's education in them.
President Johnson: Good to know.
Dr. Casey Sacks: So, but that's another one that I would say will have very broad bipartisan support that we could probably get passed, but that would be something that would fall into the Higher Education Act. But it's, the whole thing's not all bi-partisan and simple. And so, there's a program that our community college advocacy organizations have been very vocal in support of that I'm guessing you're very aware of, Suzanne, is a program called Short-Term Pell.
President Johnson: Yes.
Dr. Casey Sacks: So, that would be to allow students to use their Pell Grant for programs that are shorter than 600 hours. Right now they're not allowed to use their grants that way. And so, the idea is if you have a person who could learn some cybersecurity skills in a short term period of time, and then you have an employer in the area who says, "Yeah, I would love to hire somebody "with the cybersecurity certification, give them to me." Plenty of our students would want that, plenty of our students want that kind of employment opportunity or that opportunity to upskill. And so, there's a lot of business support for something like Short-Term Pell, but the community at large is worried that it could be abused or that there might be bad actors or that there aren't enough kind of safety nets for students to be able to choose how to use those programs. And so, it's one of those things that hasn't been quite as easy as part of the reauthorization. And then certainly as you start digging more into what else might be in a HEA bill, there's a lot of conversation around student loans. And this is, I mean, this has made the presidential debates. We have a huge student loan portfolio, whether that-
President Johnson: Right, student loan debt, right.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Student loan debt's a big deal and where's personal accountability versus where's the responsibility of the government to shoulder those costs? And so, if you, as a learner made really responsible choices and you went to a community college for two years, and then you transferred to a state institution, you owe a lot less money than someone who made less responsible choices and decisions. And does that fall on a taxpayer to pay off on your behalf? And so, there's a lot of questions in that space about who benefits from higher education and who should pay for it and who should be accountable for those loans and for that loan portfolio. A lot of conversations about should colleges have some of that responsibility? Your institution takes on a whole bunch of students who take out a whole bunch of debt and then they never graduate. Should there be any accountability for a college because of that? And so, those would all be things that would fall into a reauthorization package and that aren't sort of widely accepted by one group or another. There's quite a good deal of controversy. And then certainly the, I would argue, most controversial provision of the Higher Education Act is something that's called Title IX. Title IX is about gender equity, but it's made the news quite a lot because there have been significant changes to Title IX provisions and enforcement over the years. And so, having Congress look back at it in a holistic way and saying, "Hey, we want to reauthorize the act where this lives," what does that mean for our institutions? Really starts to further deteriorate the conversation around reauthorization.
President Johnson: So, this has been debated for a number of years. When's the last time, do you know off the top of your head the last time the higher ed reauthorization occurred?
Dr. Casey Sacks: I could look it up. It wouldn't take me long, but I would say a decade ago.
President Johnson: Yeah.
Dr. Casey Sacks: It's been awhile.
President Johnson: But important, all important issues occurring in higher education,
Dr. Casey Sacks: Absolutely.
President Johnson: Whether community colleges, four year public, private institutions, these are all elements that matter greatly, not just to those who attend a college or work at a college. These matter greatly to our society and to the communities we serve.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Huge implications for our country. And what should the investment in post-secondary education and training be? I mean, they're very essential philosophical questions about the direction we want America to go.
President Johnson: Well, that's actually a great transition point for us to talk about community colleges and the opportunities we provide in present and how that might look for the future. So, let's talk a little bit about community colleges and the opportunities we provide. And from your vantage point, sitting at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C, what message would you have for faculty who work in community colleges across the country?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah, well, for faculty and staff, I would always tell them that their schools are great because of their work, that our community colleges work because of the community. And what I think's so incredible about our faculty and staff is that these are people who are really deeply committed to the communities where they're working. And the mentoring they're doing for students is exceptional. And the connections that they have with business people in those communities are exceptional. And a huge reason why we're able to build transitions for students and get them into jobs and really able to connect. I mean, these faculty and staff in our communities are the connectors and able to help our students transition in a way that's so meaningful and exactly what they're asking for. When I talk to students at community colleges, they talk about wanting to be employed. They talk about wanting to stay in the communities where they are and our faculty and staff make all of that possible.
President Johnson: And actually that's a great segue to our students and our communities. What sorts of messages do you have for the students who come to Green River or to any of the schools that you had some oversight in, whether Colorado, West Virginia?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Sure. I would tell students to make a plan. Your plan can change, but to really help the mentors and to help the staff and faculty at Green River and at other community colleges to really be able to guide you in a way that's meaningful, to be able to say, "Why are you at college? "What is it that you're doing there? "What are you trying to accomplish?" That really matters, if you're a student who comes and you're there because you want to get a promotion at work, you're going to get different help from a faculty member if you're really transparent. And you say, "I'm here because I want to get a promotion at work." In six months, you can decide, "Gosh, I got that promotion at work, "and now I want to go on and get the next degree "in my degree path, because I see what else is possible." And that's amazing. And now you have a new plan, but always to have that plan and to really tell people that, you know, make a plan and then share it and tell your mentors and tell the people around you, because you sort of never know when you're going to run into that next opportunity for growth or that next opportunity to learn something. And it might be something that you're learning that's going to change your plan. And that's completely fine. But if I'm able to call you tomorrow, Suzanne, and say, "Gosh, I've decided I want to do X, Y, Z." I don't know who you know, I don't know everything you know, and you're going to be able to give me some sort of insight or connect me to someone else who's going to give me an insight. And that's true for our students in spades.
President Johnson: Absolutely, and you know, one of the things that I find, and as you've pointed out, we have so many diverse students that come to a community college and a college like Green River. A lot of our students are the traditional age college student, right? 18 to 21, 22 years of age. We have some younger doing the dual enrollment, and obviously a number of students that are older than that. But a lot of times I find that the younger students who are at the front end of their education, they feel this great deal of stress, because, when you talk about having a plan, I think their perception is that they need to decide what they're going to do for the rest of their life until they retire and die. And one of the things, for all our student listeners out there, one of the things I hope you're learning across all of these conversations from season one, when we interviewed a lot of people from the college in terms of the different roles they play right now. And from season two, it's rare that you, at the age of 16 or 17 or 18, figure out what you want to do, and you do it the whole rest of your life. There are people out there that do that, but that's not typical. And so, this idea that you have to make a decision for, that you have to stick to for the rest of your life, puts a level of pressure on you that probably causes what's called fear paralysis. It's so daunting. And you're so worried about getting it wrong that you opt to make no decision because you're paralyzed. And what I often like to say to students, when we talk about this at Pizza with the President, oftentimes, it comes up, I say to them, and I'll say to our listeners, when you're making a plan, you're making a plan based on the best information you have right now on the kind of person you are and what you think you're going to want to do. And that can change. It can change because you discover other things about yourself, or it can change because you have opportunities like Casey's sharing in her story about how things sometimes come up. I mean, she created situations that created opportunities for her, like writing a note to a president of a college saying, "Here's my resume. "What can I do for nothing?" Right? And then they're opportunities that come to you. And every single person that's listening to this podcast has had these situations, right? We can make opportunities happen because of our own actions and opportunities can come to us because of where we are in our lives. But having a plan does not mean it is written in stone and it won't change either because you want it to change or things occur that cause it to change and sometimes for the better. The other thing that I would say, because we have so many students who are coming here as transfer students, right? This is their first destination in terms of college education. And they have chosen a good educational option that costs much less money than other educational opportunities that are out there, equally good in terms of educational quality but the price tag is different, right? And they'll say, "I don't know what I want to do. "I have no idea." Sometimes your plan is to discover what it is that you have more interest in than not. And that's why getting good advising at our career and advising center is so important because,
Dr. Casey Sacks: Great point.
President Johnson: Exploring is a plan. Exploring's saying, "I'm here for the next two years," if they're full-time, right? Or maybe three years if they're part-time "To get my basic general education associate's degree "so I can transfer to the next destination." That's a plan. You don't necessarily need to know what you'll major in when you get to that next side. But saying, "This is my plan. I'm exploring. "I'm taking my liberal arts classes "across many different areas. "That's my plan for being here," is a plan.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Well, and that plan is, "I plan on transferring." And so, that's really clear
President Johnson: Exactly.
Dr. Casey Sacks: in the sense that it gives you what the next step is. And I think that's an important part of a plan, is that your next step even can change. You might fall into an internship and decide, "Gosh, I want this company to hire me. They're amazing." And that's great, but you've set yourself up in a way that it's like, "Okay, well currently the next step is." To transfer!
President Johnson: Right, right. "What are the steps I have to take to make "that dream come true?" So then, what would you say to our service area? We have, we're in South King County, it's one of the most rapidly growing, diverse, communities in the nation. You probably know, Washington State has been in the top 10 states for economic growth and economic opportunity since I think around 2012. And that's not the whole state, that's really King County and it's not the whole King County. It's really South King County that's driving that because it's Seattle and it's proximity, right? Those things around Seattle, which is smack dab in Green River's zone, what would you say to our service area, to the communities that we serve about the, about community colleges? And it's not just Green River. We have a lot of wonderful other community colleges within South King County of which we partner and are great collaborators and collegial institutions. What would you say to our communities about community colleges?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Well first, I know that King County is growing, actually because of you Suzanne, a couple years ago, you did a presentation that included a visual about cranes and where there are cranes all over the country. And actually, for years now, whenever I'm in a new city, I count the cranes and think of you and think about economic drivers must be.
President Johnson: I want all the listeners to hear this because staff and faculty have found it quite amusing that I like to, every year in the fall, about the state of the college, I always like to talk about how many cranes are happening. It is actually a legitimate measure, indices, I just, in my defense but anyway.
Dr. Casey Sacks: When I look out my window in Washington D.C. and see the cranes, I'll have you know that I'm thinking about you.
President Johnson: Well, thank you for that.
Dr. Casey Sacks: I would tell your community and really any community, I would talk about supporting your community college. That it's an incredible, incredible economic driver. And to really look at the return on investment of the institution that you're so lucky to have right in your backyard, that this is a place that's committed to economic growth, it's a place that's committed to helping your community get that next step, whether it's transfer for a bachelor's degree, like we were just talking about, if it's incumbent worker training, really filling that employee pipeline, direct partnerships with business. That, part of what's so cool about the community college is that they're really focused on the needs of your community. And so, if you're in a place like King County, that's growing, I would expect that the community college would really have the pulse on where that growth is. That there'd be a clear sense of, "Gosh, we know that we're going to need X number of IT jobs "in the next few years "or X number of manufacturing jobs in the next few years. "And let's really pivot the college so that we're responsive "to those needs so that people who live here "in King County can get the jobs "that actually exist here in the community." I think that's one of the real gifts of a community college is that most of our students want to stay in the community and work in the community. And that's part of why that economic investment for a local area is so important.
President Johnson: It's such a key important dimension that there is that synergy between the community college and the communities that we serve, because we can be such a hinge and supportive element to the economic growth and development of the cities that we reside in. And so many of our residents, you know, there are multiple generations that have lived here. They don't want to go elsewhere. They would love to do nothing more than to be educated and employed and live their lives out in this beautiful area of South King County. And you know, something that, for our listeners, you might not be familiar with, but Green River College is partnering with the mayors of Auburn, Algona and Pacific for a task force for economic development for our cities of Algona, Pacific and Auburn. And it is a mayor's task force. And the byline that we're using is strong education, strong careers, strong communities. And it absolutely is doing exactly what Casey is describing, which is building a synergy between our businesses and industries in our area and creating real, productive, conversations with the college and our K-12 partner, Auburn School District that serves Algona, Pacific and Auburn, in how we build a seamless pipeline of students from kindergarten, all the way through the school system, into Green River and to our employers or to another institution of higher education and onto the growth and development of the economic vitality and viability of these cities. We serve other cities as well. And we're working on similar projects and programs of this sort, but it's such an exciting work, kind of work, that our college can do with the cities. And we have wonderful city governments and electeds that see the value in not just Green River, but our other community colleges in the area. And we have, you know, wonderful university and college systems as well. So, what would you say, as we look at the present, 'cause I'm going to ask you about the future in just a moment, but in the present time, 2020, what are the greatest imperatives and needs that our community colleges are facing?
Dr. Casey Sacks: I mean, we have a huge skills gap in the country that would, that sort of rises immediately to the top for me. And what that means for listeners who don't read all of the same things I do every day, is we have hundreds of businesses that have jobs that are considered high tech, high skill, high wage jobs that they can't fill that while we have record low unemployment, and that's amazing, we also have tens of millions of Americans who are people who I would say are on the sidelines. They aren't looking for a job, so, they don't show up in the unemployment figures, but they're able body adults who could be working. And for some reason, they're not, they have some sort of barrier to employment and often they're barriers like learning disabilities or childcare, they're single parents, they could be experiencing homelessness. And so, it's more complicated than just telling folks, "Hey, go back to school," that won't just solve it. That it's, we need a more integrated approach to really helping people get off the sidelines and into employment. But it's really thinking about that in an intentional way. And that, community colleges don't have to solve all those problems. I'm not trying to suggest that, but they are certainly part of the solution to those problems.
President Johnson: Right, and that's such an important element because education and community college education, because of its high quality and high affordability, we are part of the solution. So many of the things that Casey is describing and the context of what kinds of barriers can exist, exceed necessarily what a community college's mission is and what we can provide to the solution. But we are absolutely a vital element of that solution. And, you know, the skills gap, for those of us here in Washington, we know very well. And it's been talked about for a number of years now, you know, at least 70% of all of the skills gap, in other words, that we have in our state, right? There are employers that are needing employees with particular skillset, requires some level of post-secondary, meaning after high school, post-secondary education and/or training, and the state is falling short of that in terms of how many high school graduates continue on into some post-secondary career technical education or, you know, college education in general. And these are career opportunities that are livable wages, family sustainable wages. And it's at a crisis point in some of our sectors in Washington State. And we can see that across the country and absolutely Green River and other community colleges are part of that solution. And of course, it's a larger conversation, right? How do we start in our communities to help educate the families of the children who are in kindergarten and first grade right now in terms of what the future is for their children? Which is all wonderful, but requires a continued commitment to education and further career training.
Dr. Casey Sacks: And to help people who are employed right now understand that they're going to meet retraining. There's an awful lot of jobs exist right now
President Johnson: Right, right.
Dr. Casey Sacks: That we could automate overnight. And so, if you think about people like cashiers, I go to my local grocery store and actually worry about the people who could be laid off truly overnight because we have the capability to automate their jobs. And when you ask people in those kinds of roles, "Gosh, what would you do if you're automated?" They tend to say, "I would go get the same job somewhere else." And so, that, that's still reasonable in the economy as it exists because everywhere hasn't automated cashiers. And so, there will still be some cashier jobs that exist, but we actually have the technology to get to a point where we could automate all of those jobs. And then the question becomes, what do those people do? And what, I mean, an ideal pivot is they become the people who become expert at fixing the machine that now checks me out at the grocery store, but that takes significant retraining. That means they need an entirely different skill set and helping people who are currently in jobs, particularly that can be automated, be able to pivot and do something else is not an insignificant lift.
President Johnson: Yeah, and that raises a question and an entirely different podcast in terms of the impact of automation and employment. But I read somewhere recently and I wish I could remember the source and I'm sure there'll be listeners, or maybe even you, Casey, will know this, but I read recently in terms of the impact of automation, it is quite differential, meaning it's not going to impact all employee opportunities equally. It absolutely is going to have a great, the greatest impact in some of the lowest paying jobs in our country. Things like cashiering because it is routine and predictable and can be programmed.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Right.
President Johnson: And of course, a huge percentage of Americans are employed in these easily automated roles
Dr. Casey Sacks: Millions.
President Johnson: And they oftentimes have a lesser education. So, one could argue they have an under education, as a result they're underemployed. And when these highly and easily automated transitions occur, our most vulnerable employees who are currently employed are going to find themselves in an unemployed situation with great need for further education.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yep, and so, the community colleges that have really identified where those gaps are in the labor market, and that can respond to potential learners and say, "You need to reskill for something that is going "to be a livable wage. "How do we get you into an area like IT?" "Where there's tremendous demand "and where there's a lot of jobs right now "in your particular service area." To retrain someone into another area where they're also likely to be automated out in the next six months to a year is, it's complicated. And so, not knowing exactly what the future will bring, but recognizing that we're going to continue to need to reskill is part of the message for folks and helping them understand where in the labor market they might fit in right now is also, clearly, something that I see community colleges doing really well.
President Johnson: It's really important to know the fact that community colleges are part of the economic solution, for sure, so that's our current state. So, what would you hope for community colleges and communities we serve looking toward the future?
Dr. Casey Sacks: What would I hope? I would hope that they're really able to continue doing what they're doing for the next wave of people who come in and who need retraining and upskilling and who want to transfer to their local institutions of baccalaureate education. I would hope that they continue to be economic drivers in their communities and that they continue to build strong business partnerships and that they continue to be. I see community colleges as the most responsive area in higher education in the United States, that we can develop curriculum faster, we can deliver new programs and services faster. And the flip side of that is that we're able to stop offering ineffective programs and services faster than any other segment of education that I'm familiar with in this country. And my hope is that community colleges maintain that nimbleness and maintain their ability to really serve the communities where they are.
President Johnson: And what would stand in our way of achieving those hopes?
Dr. Casey Sacks: I mean, ourselves. So often when I look at successful community colleges, I'm looking at success in leadership. I'm looking at success in either a board, a president, an executive team, all of those things that have really set a clear mission and vision for the community that they're in, they are crystal clear about why they're there and what they're doing and what they want to accomplish. And that's a little bit different in different communities. You see some places that are more focused on transfer, some places that are more focused on incumbent worker training. And so, there's certainly some variability, but when I think about what's possible in the future, the only bare, true barrier, is ourselves that we can get in our own way so often and keep ourselves from being successful in communities. But we have all of the tools we need to have, the partnerships that we need to help our learners be very successful.
President Johnson: You know, it's such an important takeaway message, this year we've been focusing within our college culture on a growth mindset, abundance mindset, and appreciative inquiry. And recognizing that our work is never easy, day to day, but we are doing the high stakes work, right? People's lives depend on us in a very real way. And so, typically anything of value or significant meaning of this sort is never downhill work. It's always uphill work. It is hard, exhausting at times, frustrating at times, but the payoff is tremendously, tremendously, great. And to know the value of the work that we do, and no one's saying it was ever going to be easy when we recognize an abundance of, exactly what you're saying, we have everything we need to accomplish what we need within this college or another college. Of course, sure, you know, we can always say, "More funding would be terrific, "more grants would terrific" and so on, but in the context of skill and knowledge to make good on our mission and to bring our performance to a higher level in terms of partnership, we are the ones that can make that happen. So, what motivates you, gets you up, drives you each day, Casey?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah, I'm constantly inspired by the work that I get to do. It's certainly presidents like you who are so committed to their communities and to their students and who are really excited about the work. I love reading the newspaper in the morning and getting to see what community colleges across the country are doing. That is energizing to me in a way that I don't think a lot of other things could be. I'm so committed to being able to, I really believe that because the community colleges across the United States are such economic drivers, that there's such a clear path forward for so many learners to be able to reengage with the economy and to get the skills training that they need to enter the workforce or reenter the workforce. But I see the results and it's, that's what drives me every day. That's what gets me to come to work. It's too exciting not to. I took a group of my staff, we do field trips because what I've learned in being here is that a number of my staff members haven't ever worked at a community college or haven't worked in the field for many, many years. And so, we make it a point to do community college field trips and Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland was gracious enough to host us. And we got to talk to their English language learners and adult basic education courses at one of their branch campuses recently. And I was so inspired, particularly by the English language learner classes that I had a young man talking to me and he said, you know, I, "Explain this verb tense." And so, it took me a second because when's the last time you explained a verb tense to somebody?
President Johnson: I'm so old, my memory won't go back that far.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Right? And so, same. It took me a moment and I sort of thought through what he was trying to learn and what he was trying to say. And so, I explained it to him and I know enough Spanish that I could explain it in English and in Spanish. And he was like, "That! Thank you, I've got it!" And it was so neat being in that classroom, because the learners who were there talked to me about wanting to be able to access the economy in a way that they can't without better English fluency and the classroom spanned from people who used to be dentists in other countries whose dental certificates don't translate to the United States, who were trying to start over to folks who have been out of the workforce and working as housekeepers. And one woman said, you know, "I don't want to clean other people's houses anymore, "but I also recognize that without English fluency, "I can't access the mainstream economy "and I really want to." And so, just seeing, this is what your community college does. It allows people to really engage in a meaningful way in the economy in the United States. And I can't think of anything that's more important for their families.
President Johnson: Right, you know, if you were to ever take a field trip to Green River College and you visited our English language learning programs, you would discover exactly the same spectrum of stories and they are so inspiring. And you recognize the motivation and drive that people have who pick themselves up, come to this land of opportunity, come to America for a better life for themselves and their families and the courage and the bravery and the resilience they have to have. It's daunting to me. And I'm so grateful that I'm at an institution that can provide support and programs like this that help them get on their feet and get on their way in the country that they so much longed to be a part of and come to. So, I want to bring our conversation full circle. And, you know, you shared earlier in our talks that you spent some time, a bit of time in your career as a clinical psychologist and working with people at the end of their life. And you found on occasion, a common theme that many expressed, which was they were sitting, facing a life of regret. And it made me think of something that I wanted to share with our listeners before I ask you this last question, and I've said this to students before, and I've had to say it to myself at different points in my life, you know, life is full of opportunities and there's never a sure for sure outcome when you make choices, right? And I think that sometimes when people look at others who have taken great risks and have said, "Oh, I threw caution to the wind. "And I moved across the country "and I took this job "and I didn't know what the future would be." You know, I think that sometimes people listen to those kinds of stories and they say, "Wow, it must be great, "you know, being able to live a life fear." And they're talking about it from their vantage point in having wondered about "What if I did this?" Or "Wow, I really would like to have done that," or "I wish I would choose to do this, "but I'm afraid, I'm afraid to do it." And what I've told people is there's no difference between people who take risk versus those who don't. Everybody has fear, being human means that part of our human experience is having fear and stress, being anxious about the, what ifs, right? 'Cause none of us have those magic eight balls, but what people who take risks decide is they're just going to do it afraid.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah.
President Johnson: They don't let fear be an obstacle. And I've been, I guess, because of my own life journey, have read a lot about other people's lives and the kinds of risks they took in terms of their career choices and career decisions. And also the kinds of failures they encountered in their life journey. You know, reading about a lot of really successful people across all walks of life. And they talk about the successes and the failures that they had. 'Cause all of us have those. And for all the student listeners here, you will have great successes, great frustrations, sometimes something that's considered a failure, but what many people who have been greatly successful frame their life as being, is they had successes and then they had experiences where they learned because through failures, you learn and that helps you for greater success in the future. And what all of these people have in common is a life that's not full of question and coulda shoulda wouldas. "I wish I could have. I wish I would have. "I should have," because they don't want to end up in their life looking back and have it full of being the could've, should've, would'ves, wish I had, it's not a life of regret. It's a life that reflects who they were and having confidence and fear at the same time. So, one of the things I think I'm finding interesting to ask people in the podcasts of the second season and also as a way of encouraging students and people who are younger in their careers to do it afraid, just do it afraid, is to make choices in their life where when they get to the end of their life, whenever that would be, they can look back on it, not full of regrets, but full of a measure of "I lived a life that was true to me. "I lived a life that was meaningful. "I lived a life where I'm not leaving any regrets behind." Right? And that creates a whole different experience later in life, if you can have it full of less regrets, right? So, boy, that's a long preamble, but I'm hoping that some of what I just said really resonates with some students out there in particular and some of our listeners that might not be students. I don't know whether retirement is in your plan, Casey, but you know, and of course, we all assume that we're going to have long rich lives where we could have the option for retirement, right? But when and if you retire, what will be the measure for you of a successful career in community colleges? What would you look at to gauge your success?
Dr. Casey Sacks: Oh, it's about relationships for me, but I definitely think about my success in terms of the people who I've influenced and the relationships that I've maintained. I think about students who I've worked with over the years or faculty who I've really engaged with, I got a message from someone who had been, I set up a Dean's Academy years ago and really set up this training so that people who were emerging deans could learn how to be more effective. And someone who went through my first Dean's Academy class called me yesterday and said, "I'm applying to be a college president "at a small college in West Virginia."
President Johnson: Oh wow.
Dr. Casey Sacks: So, reference, and it made me so happy because I really do measure my own success on those relationships and being able to help other people and mentor other people and support them in their own success and their own journeys.
President Johnson: Yeah, and I think we're, you mentioned the Kris Westover, if I'm not mistaken, and she is serving as president in a rural college in West Virginia now, correct?
Dr. Casey Sacks: She's not the one, actually.
President Johnson: Oh, okay. Another Kris, okay.
Dr. Casey Sacks: Yeah, yeah. A different person.
President Johnson: Yeah. You know, this has been such a great conversation because it gives different perspective and vantage point in terms of the different roles and levels people might play within community college systems. And, you know, I know at this point in time and with our listeners, I know we have a very diverse and eclectic listening audience that run the gamut of the political spectrum. And obviously Washington D.C. these days is, well, it's never an uninteresting nation's capital, but right now it's especially interesting in terms of the depths of differing perspectives and values. And it's important for us to take advantage of having individuals from different roles on the podcast and know that there are individuals like you, Casey, that are doing the good work for community colleges and even in the Department of Education in Washington, D.C, at this point in time. So, I want to thank you for being here today. Everybody you've been listening to GatorCast, Green River College's official podcast. Stay with us for other information and upcoming episodes. You can find us at greenriver.edu/gatorcast and all prior episodes and upcoming episodes might be viewable there with various links to opportunities and additional reading and other links that might've been referenced in this episode or other episodes. So, thank you for listening and we'll see you next time.