Good morning, everyone. I am honored to be here today. Thank you for the invitation to speak. The Career and Technology Education (CTE) Project Lead the Way Counselor’s Conference serves a much-needed purpose within the State of Maryland and the broader community. For many of you, this work is a labor of love. Thank you for having the courage to pursue your passion.
Recently, I read a journal article that discusses how to enhance the high school experience and chart pathways for student success in STEM.
“Young children dream of becoming firemen, doctors, and teachers; those in middle school imagine themselves as athletes, actors, and criminal investigators,” it notes. “By sophomore year in high school, the overwhelming majority of adolescents expect to attend college, often at elite institutions such as Harvard or Stanford University (or, I would add St. Mary’s College of Maryland!). Jobs become less defined as the choices for how to acquire them become more immediate.” 
Why is this? Why are we not able to get to the point where our students’ dreams become their realities? Why is it that so many of our students’ dreams become less aspirational as they embark on their postsecondary journey? How do we fill the achievement gap, especially for underrepresented students? I wish I had time to really address these questions. However, that is not my task today.
As is apparent, these are all important questions that are a part of a larger conversation in higher education. Is there a secret to being able to transcend the challenges associated with being a first-generation college student of color and become part of the upper echelon of higher education with a doctorate in a STEM field? No. There is no “secret,” but like all victories – whether in life, in your profession, or in relationships – you have to remember that no one, absolutely no one, achieves success alone.
Today, I was asked to share my story. What led me to my career choice; my current position. Who helped me along the way. I will share a few stories that chronicle parts of my journey from a first-generation college student to the present as President of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. There is a common element throughout my journey. I am certain many of you will have identified it before the end of my remarks.
I grew up in the 1970s. A time of political awareness. Watergate. Fight for equality. Equal rights. Women’s rights. Civil rights. Any Beatles fans here? The 1970s saw the disbanding of the Beatles – a band that for whatever the reason, I still have not developed an affinity for despite its popularity. Maybe I was too busy listening to Earth, Wind, & Fire, who also sang about love and peace, or Gil Scott Heron, who was a bit more “outspoken” about the turmoil and injustices in the world. Probably some of the counselors, educators, and administrators with us can relate to this bygone era.
For the young students here, the things we fought for in the 70s kind of sound like today, don’t they? You are becoming, I hope, civically engaged and politically aware. Watergate has been replaced with…Russia-gate? The fight for “equality” has been superseded by the fight for equity and inclusion. The Beatles? I have no idea who has replaced them. Doesn’t matter. Whoever it is, I probably will need to call up one of my twins and ask them what the group is saying!
On one level, those of us who are older may be inclined to say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. That adage is both true and not. Challenges are the same but more global. The students still want to make the world a better place and believe they know how. Our job as the more senior citizens continues to be to equip them to do just that.
Growing up, my grandmother was one of my biggest mentors. My grandmother worked hard all of her life. With only a third-grade education, she had to work mighty hard to make ends meet. Despite the struggles of such a lifestyle, I have fond memories of our times together. Often, she would admonish me to do what it took to ensure I could support myself and to make decisions – based both on necessity and on what I believed that I could do – not solely on the perceived reality of the situation. In her own way, she challenged me to strive for a world of potential that I could only dare to imagine. Thus, when it is all said and done, I will always attribute my pursuing an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a Ph.D. in biochemistry to my grandmother, a woman who had no idea that such things existed, but who was my first mentor.
As a first-generation student, I was not in the best position to think about and understand choices about life after high school. I remember my family, my teachers, and my guidance counselor telling me I had to go to college so that I could get a good job but, what was college about? How did you get in? I remember going to my high school counselor, and she would patiently try to explain things to me, but somehow I got stuck on this thing called a “major.” What was that? When she explained that it was an area I had to focus my studies on, anxiety started to creep in. Focus? Why do I need to focus? Lord. Everybody in my family tells me I am smart. Why can’t I just go to college and BE!?
Thinking about trying to take care of myself as a responsible adult who went to college, I figured I needed to do something where I could make lots of money. I had no idea what that was. I thought about all of the rich people I “knew.” Actors on television. Me? No! I’m an introvert, and the last thing I wanted to do was speak in front of people! Athletes? Hmm. I played volleyball and football, but the thought of getting banged up and sweaty every day was not appealing to me! What? I thought about all of the biographies I read and the people who inspired me. Madame CJ Walker. Madame Curie. George Washington Carver. Could I be a scientist?
When I thought about learning science in schooling, I hated it. We were taught earth science – soil, plants, clouds. I didn’t care about that stuff. No. Biology? Back in those days, they didn’t teach biology the way they do now. All I remember was “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family genus, species.” I remember saying, “who cares?” Then I discovered chemistry, and the world began to make sense for me. I told my guidance counselor I thought I wanted to be a scientist. She told me I was behind and had a lot of classes I needed to take if I wanted to be a scientist. So, I took physics, advanced biology, and calculus in my senior year in high school to catch up. In my later years, I questioned why she hadn’t counseled me from the very beginning to take those classes since she thought I was “smart.” I read a study a few months back about how students from underrepresented groups underachieve when they choose colleges. They are afraid of failure. Students listen to authoritarian figures. Counselors are the ones they depend on. If you know a student has potential, tell her and push her to strive for the best and to be the best every time you see her… You may be surprised at how far she will go.
After I was fixed on a major, I had to figure out which college to attend. In today’s world, students sit down with a grown-up, figure out which schools have a program in their major, then look at college rankings, locations, amenities, how successful graduates are from that institution. Not me. My parents didn’t attend college, so I didn’t know how to choose one. You know what I did? I applied to the schools of the football teams I liked, including USC, UCLA, and Penn State. One day, I was waiting to see my guidance counselor, and on the table outside her office, I saw a little brochure about Fisk University. I hadn’t heard of the school, so I opened up the brochure and started reading. It told the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of students who toured the country and later the world at a time when the school was in dire financial straits. All the money the students raised was sent back to the school.
I said to myself, “There must be something special about a place where the students would go out, raise money, and send every dime back to the school.” That’s a special place. I was intrigued by the story, and I applied. When my Dad drove me down to Nashville from Maryland to enroll in Fisk, and I stepped out of the car onto the hallowed ground, I knew that place was special and that I was supposed to be there. It is the place that transformed my life.
While at Fisk, my speech communications professor, Dr. GI Ford, told me to apply to the Minority Access to Research Careers – MARC – Program. I didn’t know exactly what research was, but I knew two things. (1) Many of us students were terrified of Dr. Ford, and when she told you to do something, you didn’t question it, you just said, “Yes, ma’am.” (2) If I got into the program, it would pay my tuition and give me a stipend, thereby relieving the financial strain my family was under to support me in college. In exchange, all I had to do was (1) keep my grades up, (2) do research, and (3) get a Ph.D. in the sciences. Hmm? A Ph.D.? I wasn’t exactly sure what that was, but I said “I can do that!” and that I did.
My undergraduate experiences as a chemistry major paved the way for my future success at Purdue University, where I became the first African American woman to obtain a Ph.D. in biochemistry. My experiences planted a seed in me to want to reach back and give all students an opportunity to pursue a higher education – even when the odds are stacked against them. This conviction has also guided my professional career, including: at Xavier University of Louisiana where I co-founded the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Research and Creativity; at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where, as the first African American Director of Science Education, I led the Science Education Alliance and developed a national program that engaged primarily first-year college students in research in genomics and bioinformatics; at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon as the first African American Dean of the College; and, now as the first African American President of St. Mary’s College of Maryland where we have developed a strategic plan entitled A Time for Rebirth and are in the process of reimagining liberal arts education for the 21st century student. I have always felt it my responsibility to make an impact in the world. To do something good. To inspire the next generation to be the very best they can be. And, along the way, I have had individuals appear just in time to guide, advise, and mentor me.
Now that you’ve heard some of my story, has anyone figured out the common element? The secret? [PAUSE] Isaac Newton, English mathematician, astronomer, and physicist, once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What does this mean? Who are the giants? Where do they find their strength? I find this quote inspiring. For me, it speaks to the power of mentors. The power of those who serve as guides. A teacher. An inspiration. By standing on the shoulders of giants, aspiring individuals can see a little further. Feel a little more secure. Reach a little higher.
Research shows that mentoring is one of the most effective ways to diversify the pipeline. Sixty-six percent of the US population is white. However, nearly 75% of US scientists and engineers are white. Although African Americans and Hispanics make up 26 percent of the workforce, they “represent only 11 percent of all STEM employees.” As you can imagine, the dearth is even more pronounced for women. It is imperative that we fill this gap. That we get more underrepresented students to pursue careers in STEM.
This lack of proportional representation in the STEM fields is nothing new. The demographics have been shifting for a long time. The question is, are we at a tipping point? I can’t say for certain. I have been speaking on the need for science education reform for well over a decade. How to get it done is complex and needs to start before students enter pre-school. One thing that is not so complicated is the fact that students need good and committed role models and mentors to guide them and encourage them along the way.
Often, first-generation and other underrepresented students need to look beyond their immediate families for guidance and support. Early on, Dr. GI Ford was that for me. As educators, we know that the mentoring process begins well before college and that the early experiences of students “often determine the trajectory of their academic preparation, educational expectations, and career knowledge – all of which are critical for achieving post-secondary success.” At St. Mary’s College, I recently initiated a program specifically for first-generation students to help them realize their potential and to provide the support they will need to get there. Among other things, I discuss with students the need to take advantage of the resources we have to offer. 1st gen students are incredibly resilient and self-reliant. This self-reliance is both good and not. Sometimes before they realize it, they are in trouble and fail a course or drop out. To try to mitigate this, among other things, these students get introduced to 1st gen faculty to serve as role models and touch points. I also meet with parents, the reason being that if the parents are comfortable with “college,” they can provide greater support for their student’s success. I discuss with the parents this “college thing” and answer questions they may have that aren’t in the brochures, or on the website, or presented during the orientation such as “when are the parent-teacher conferences?”, “where do they go when they are sick”? The parent engagement is of tremendous benefit to the student, and the parents recognize that they can continue to mentor their student through the college experience.
To the Project Lead the Way CTE students here with us today, I am certain you realize how fortunate you are to be part of this program. The onus is on you to set your priorities and keep your focus. It is possible to have fun and still get your work done. Know that you are in good hands. Or perhaps I should say, you are standing on good shoulders – “the shoulders of giants.” To all of the mentors, know that you are the key to the future success of our State and our nation. Project Lead the Way is a trailblazer in its own right. Its programs have been adopted by the State as a national model of college and career preparedness in STEM. What makes the programming unique is that it prepares students to be successful both in college and beyond in the professional world. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, this pairing of academics and practical, real-world skills is what we call a practical liberal arts education.
The need for education integrated with practical and professional training has never been greater. Today’s students, GenZ, have a profound need to live lives of substance and relevance. As educators, we must prepare students to be engaged, global citizens and, importantly, we must prepare them, immediately upon graduation from high school, college, or graduate school, to land a job and be prepared for multiple careers throughout their lifetime. To prepare today’s students, it takes not only preparing them to be thinkers. It takes preparing them to be doers. Thinkers and doers who can then reach back and help others to reach their full potential.
To the students with us this morning, I would like to share a few pieces of life advice. Actually, when I think about it, the ideas apply to us all.
- Develop – or continue developing – your human capital. It’s the key to your success.
As I noted, an integrative education is needed now more than ever. Despite any challenges you may encounter financially, continue to believe in the value of higher education. Individuals who hold undergraduate and graduate degrees are in a much better position to obtain “good” jobs and continue to better themselves. I very much appreciate the passion of students who want to change the world. They believe they can just “be,” confidently state what they believe is right and true, and the world “should” follow. I am here to tell you that the world will not follow, at least not immediately. The onus is on you to understand the world and its systems and practices. Only then can you truly understand what is required, and get significant and relevant support, to change it into something “better.” This is the power of credentialed education – both formal and informal. This leads me to my second point.
- Even when you have a diploma in hand, commit to being a lifelong learner.
At St. Mary’s College, we are committed to ensuring that students are equipped with the practical and professional skills needed to be successful in the world. In today’s world, it is not enough for students to be prepared for a single job. The 21st century is a time of rapid change, and we must prepare students to have multiple distinct careers within their lifetimes. To be successful in the long-term, it is important to be committed to learning and growing regardless of your age or position. Time brings change, and we must be able to change with it. An education grounded in the traditions of the liberal arts prepares students for lifelong careers because liberal arts institutions prepare you to think, analyze, and adapt.
- Think of your career path more like a climbing wall than a traditional “career ladder.”
The Time article from which I’ve adapted these pieces of advice notes, “Sometimes you need to go sideways to make progress. You may even have to move down the wall at certain points. The key is to keep growing and learning.” My career path has been pretty traditional except for the time I spent at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. That experience has been invaluable with respect to broadening my perspective and making me more marketable because it forced me to view “the world” through a much wider lens. The diversity of my experiences as a student and professionally in academia and the world beyond the traditional academy, have all shaped me into the person I am today. Had I treated my career trajectory as strictly linear and not embraced the unique opportunities that were presented to me, I would have missed out on a lot of possibilities.
Earlier, I talked about preparing today’s students to be both thinkers AND doers. These thinkers and doers are the ones who become the giants Isaac Newton refers to. Perhaps the most profound thing about the concept of “standing on the shoulders of giants” is that in time, we realize the giants are not really giants at all. They just seem that way. Larger than life. Mentors. Saviors. Friends. In time, we realize the giants are human. Just like you, like me, and like us. Humans with more experience. More grit. More heart.
In time, we also realize that we sometimes find giants in the least likely of places. They are not always the loudest, the boldest, or the most popular. However, they are committed to making their mark. To humanity. To giving back. To inspiring others. To lifting as they climb.
We find ourselves in a period of extraordinary change. Technology has brought us into A Brave New World faster and in ways we never imagined. How do we prepare our students not only for this reality but for that not yet imagined? How do we prepare them not to be “robot replaceable”? We must be their mentors and their guides. We must be forward-thinking and do what we can to support those who are willing and ABLE to think outside the box. The future rests solidly with the students we have today. It is imperative that we prepare them for the world not yet imagined so that they have the toolbox to leap off the shoulders of the giants on whom they now stand and BE.
 Schneider, B., Broda, M., Judy, J., & Burkander, K. (2013). Pathways to college and STEM careers: Enhancing the high school experience. New Directions for Youth Development, 140, 9-29.
 Shaw, S. (2015, July 9). Mentoring is critical to keeping minorities in STEM. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com.
 Schneider et al. (2013). Pathways to college and STEM careers: Enhancing the high school experience. New Directions for Youth Development, 140, 9-29.
 Ferguson, R. (2015). Your career path will be more like a climbing wall than a ladder. Time. Retrieved from time.com.