Inauguration Speech of Dr. DeRionne P. Pollard
President of Montgomery College
October 29, 2010
Thank you. Thank you for sharing this moment with me today. I cannot tell you how much it means to me to see so many of you here.
I want to take this moment to thank everyone who joined us today: my dear friends and family, the Board of Trustees, our Foundation and Alumni Boards, our elected officials, our valued community members, our alumni, my colleagues from higher education, this College’s esteemed former presidents, and the outstanding faculty, staff, and students of Montgomery College.
To my mentors—my “mother-sistah-friends”—thank you for being here today, and thank you for the presence and power you have in my life. I have been blessed to have had you intercede in my life. Thank you, Gretchen and Helen!And to my friends and family—perhaps by blood, by marriage, by childhood, by college, by choice, by circumstance, by spirit—the best of me is a reflection of your love. No one comes into this world fully formed, and each of you has contributed to this space and place.
Thank you for seeing potential in me to which I was blind, challenging me to not play small with my life, and occasionally redirecting my energies to more productive ends. And, Robyn and Myles, thank you for letting me be me doing this—and for frequently reminding me that I am only the president at Montgomery College.
Thank you all for championing this College. While we are here to celebrate my inauguration, today is not about me. It is about us, and this College we love.
As you know, I’m one of Montgomery College’s newest fans. I am grateful to join such an incredible team of people who have given fully and tirelessly to this College.
You’ve given our students and our community your time, your passion, and your compassion. I am so glad that we start from such a strong place as we shape our future together.
We all agree: Community colleges are potentially the most transformative institutions in contemporary America. We have seen, firsthand, how Montgomery College can change the trajectory of an individual; transform the quality of life for a family; and enhance the intellectual, economic, and cultural essence of a community. Just look at our mission statement: We are in the business of changing lives.
And the word is spreading. Just last month, we watched as the president of the United States celebrated our transformative power at the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges. President Obama made it very clear: Community colleges are essential to a thriving economy. To our nation’s future success. And closer to home, we are essential to our state and our local communities.
Now is the time to celebrate this transformative power. To throw open our arms to ensure that every person receives a college education. Because at a community college, we serve both the “haves” and the “have-nots.” We pride ourselves on being inclusive. On being fully relevant to our entire community. On being relevant to each individual student.
My vision is for Montgomery College to become the most relevant community college in the country by meeting the needs of our students and our community. The Board of Trustees and I want this institution to be as meaningful to the lives and goals of our students, employers, and community as we can possibly be.
The Business of Changing Lives
I’d like to share a few stories to illustrate just how special community colleges can be. I’ll start with mine.
It may come as a surprise to some of you, but I didn’t always plan to be a college president. In fact, it took me a while before I found my calling. Like many college students, I changed my mind a few times.
I considered being a Marine, a minister, and later an attorney. I fell for the written word and chose to major in English.
And then I hit that wall of self-doubt. I considered dropping out and becoming a nanny. But one of my mentors—a college professor—made me realize that I was running away from my future, that I was afraid to shine. She gave me the insight and the courage to follow my dreams and complete college.
I’m so glad I did. My college experience shaped me as both a person and a leader. But it wasn’t until I joined the English faculty at the College of Lake County—not far from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois—that I realized the power of community colleges. I learned about the diversity, the talent of the faculty and staff, and the breadth and depth of the student body. I also found opportunities for real connections to occur.
I thought teaching at the local community college was going to be a stepping stone for me. But in fact, it was my milestone, a place where my life was changed.
I hope for our students that Montgomery College is more than just a stepping stone on life’s journey. That they find their experience here to be a milestone, a place that is truly relevant to their lives. Students like Marcia Williams.
Marcia Williams earned her General Equivalency Diploma (GED) last year through the College’s Adult ESOL and Literacy-GED Program. Marcia moved successfully from Montgomery College to culinary school and then to an internship. Finally, on May 24 of this year, Marcia opened her very own business, a small food shop serving federal workers in Rockville. And it is only the start… as Marcia says, “Determination, hard work, and a goal is all you need.” I couldn’t agree more.
Goals have also been instrumental to the success of Montgomery College alumnus Jorge Urrutia. Jorge wanted a quality college education, so he worked nights to pay for his MC classes during the day. After earning his associate’s degree from Montgomery College, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from Harvard.
Eventually, he started his own engineering company, MSI Universal, right here in Montgomery County. He often shares his educational message with local schools, urging students to earn a college degree.
Another alumnus, Dr. Irv Jacobs, already had multiple degrees when he found Montgomery College. At age 68, this nontraditional student sold his dental practice to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an actor—yes, going from dentist to actor! With faculty support, Dr. Jacobs found the confidence and training he needed to achieve success on stage and screen. Now, at age 90, he volunteers his time to help the next generation of actors at the College, encouraging them to be courageous and pursue their passion.
These are living, breathing examples of just how audacious Montgomery College—through its faculty and staff—can be in the lives of our students.
Transforming Endless Possibilities into Realities
Relevancy has never been more important. There is a national consensus that an educated workforce is key to maintaining our standing in the world, the key to the very future of our country. In just a decade, the U.S. has fallen from first place to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.
- Let’s look at one such community where more people could benefit from higher education:
- Where nearly 30 percent of public school children rely on free and reduced meals at their schools each day;
- Where 13 percent of public school students are enrolled in ESOL courses;
- It’s a place where a family of four needs around $100,000 to live without government assistance. (referenced from Wider Opportunities for Women report, 2010.)
- Unfortunately, it’s a place where many families don’t reach that threshold.
This picture isn’t just anywhere in America. It’s the reality in Montgomery County today.
All of us feel the weight of a struggling economy. If we don’t have debt problems or housing problems, we know someone who does. Families wonder how to pay for college. We feel—we see—increasing desperation for more and more Americans who are struggling to pay their bills, maintain a roof over their heads, and take their kids to the doctor when they are sick. People worry about getting—or keeping—the kinds of good jobs that support a middle class life.
And yet, there are good jobs out there, like registered nurses, computer support specialists, police officers, and auto mechanics. Area employers are still looking for skilled employees, but the reality is that while 48 percent of all jobs in Maryland are classified as middle-skill, only 37 percent of Maryland’s workers have the education and training required to fill these positions. And, they require a college education or certificate.
So, how can we address these challenges and help ensure economic security—the middle class American Dream—for all our residents?
You know my answer.
Education. It is the only truly liberating and equalizing force I know.
The most reliable way to break a cycle of poverty for a family is for one family member to get a college degree. Studies show that going to college has both personal and national benefits, including higher salaries, improved health, increased volunteerism, and reduced reliance on welfare and other social support programs. An educated, contributing member of a community should be a preferred future.
That is why higher education simply cannot be viewed as a nice “extra” any longer. Why it’s imperative that we acknowledge its value as a public good; acknowledge that a college degree benefits not only the individual, but the broader society. That in an innovation economy, a high school diploma isn’t enough anymore.
President Obama has challenged community colleges to produce an additional 5 million graduates in the next ten years. The state of Maryland has also embraced the completion agenda, and Maryland community colleges have committed to increasing their graduation numbers by 20 percent in just two years. That’s right. Two years.
Why? Because your community college has never been more important. With every degree, certificate, industry certification, and new skill attained, our students can become more economically secure. In fact, students who earn an associate’s degree from Montgomery College, when compared to those workers with only their high school diplomas, earn $593,000 more in salary over a lifetime. Think about it: an additional half-million-dollars, just for earning an associate’s degree. With more economic security, there is greater civic participation and fewer societal costs.
But, do not get me wrong: Increasing degree attainment will not be easy. Simply passing more students is not an acceptable option. This will be a journey. And it will take every one of us.
We will need to address the high number of recent high school graduates who still require developmental courses at Montgomery College. In a recent period, 36 percent of recent high school graduates needed developmental English, while another 64 percent required developmental math before they were ready for college-level math or English.
Let me say here that the Montgomery County Public School system has been out front and forward thinking in its desire to graduate students better prepared for college.
We appreciate these efforts and we must continue to partner with MCPS and support college readiness programs.
While on the path to excellence for all Montgomery County students, we cannot accept a “poverty of ambition” when it comes to our own students—the students who come to us in need. It has been demonstrated that if we can guide students through their developmental courses, they are just as likely to succeed as those who never needed developmental coursework.
And we are already doing this. Our math faculty is taking a proactive, innovative approach to developmental math; they’re moving to a mastery-based, learn-on-your-own-pace program to better meet student needs and accelerate the path to college-level math. It’s a major undertaking, but too important not to do. It takes real courage to step up and think about how we operate and how we teach our students. So thank you to our faculty members who have invested their energies into revamping our developmental math program.
I know your work will result in a number of student success stories, like Erica Melendez. Erica’s story is important because it illustrates that students who take developmental courses can be successful.
Erica didn’t finish high school. Instead, she got a job, married, had a family, and earned her GED. But her husband always pushed her to reach higher, to strive for more. With the promise of a better, more secure economic future, she enrolled at Montgomery College in 2004—but she was demoralized by her performance in developmental math and dropped out.
She chose to try again. This time, Erica sought more help and forged real connections. Her counselor found the right mix of classes for Erica and helped her map out a strategy. A faculty member helped her successfully complete her developmental math classes. Erica is now thriving in the Renaissance Scholars program, while still working and raising a family. So it can be done. Erica proves it. We would all agree that having dedicated faculty and staff there to guide her was a major factor in her success.
And Erica made another smart decision: Before she transfers, she’s committed to getting her associate’s degree.
Erica has committed to completion, and we need more students to follow Erica’s path. All of higher education has a completion challenge. Nationally, only about half of all students who start a bachelor's degree reach their goal in six years. The data for associate-degree-granting institutions is just as compelling.
In Maryland, community colleges average a completion rate of 14 percent. Add in the statewide transfer figure of 20 percent, and the average success rate for Maryland community colleges is 34 percent.
And where is Montgomery College? Fourteen percent of our full-time, degree-seeking students earned a degree or certificate within three years. Another 32 percent transferred to four-year colleges or universities. Our total success rate is 46 percent.
Folks, among Maryland community colleges, fourth place is not good enough. It’s time to take first.
This is our wake-up call. Yes, our rates don’t include those who attend part-time or those who are studying for an industry-based certification or taking a few classes to improve their work opportunities. Many of those students do accomplish their goals without a degree.
Still, the state and federal governments measure our success by our 14 percent for graduation rate and our 32 percent for transfer rate. We should aspire to do better.
We must do better.
We will do better.
As a faculty member recently wrote me, “I do hope we will consider being the community college that sets the benchmarks instead of one that just meets them... especially in terms of how we define and measure student success.” Absolutely!
This is what I love about the faculty at this institution—their willingness, perhaps even an expectation that we are and should be defining the standards, rather than living up to them.
We have a social responsibility to see that every student has the opportunity to realize his or her full potential. Every student that falls through the cracks is one less writer or teacher, one less nurse who will care for us at an area hospital, and one less biotech bench worker who will turn today’s research into tomorrow’s cure for cancer.
The question is: how do we transform more lives? How can we be equally relevant to more students?
Accessibility and Accountability
We start at the beginning. Montgomery College is an open-access college. We welcome everyone who can benefit from college, no matter a student’s background, age, or skill set.
How do we ensure that accessibility?
First, we ensure that we remain affordable—this is where public support of community colleges is so essential, as are the efforts of our foundation board to raise funds for scholarships. It’s essential that we advocate for the necessary resources for our students, because what we do here is too important not to.
Montgomery College’s first message must be clear: Our doors are open and we welcome you. We value you.
But providing access alone is just not enough.
We also need to know our students and their goals from the beginning. And we need to help them chart a course to achieve those goals.
All evidence suggests that students who lack direction and a clear, charted path are more likely to fail.
Therefore, let’s consider adopting individual learning plans. Plans that chart a path from a student’s first class to his or her final goals, be it a career path or transfer.
Also, I want all of our Montgomery College students to have someone on whom they can call. Someone who can guide them through the complicated maze of college.
Because all the research shows, those personal connections are a crucial indicator of success in college. Every student success story that I will ever share with you—including my own—includes a powerful mentor.
We will be fully relevant to even more students if we can help them see the value of attaining a degree or credential. Part of that means working with our community partners—employers and the four-year colleges in our region—to incentivize the associate’s degree. We need employers to seek out associate’s degree graduates, to give bonuses or additional benefits to employees who earn their associate’s degrees. And we need universities to give additional scholarships and greater support to the associate’s degree holder.
Remember an earlier statistic: Students who earn an associate’s degree from Montgomery College earn $593,000 more in salary over a lifetime, when compared to a person with a high school diploma. That’s real money, with real benefits for the individual and our community, since as many as 90 percent of MC students remain in the state and contribute to its economic growth.
Employers consistently tell us they need good writers and critical thinkers—people who can work on teams, who are adaptable, who can accept and benefit from constructive criticism.
At the same time, there are very specific skill sets that need filling. Montgomery College needs to play a key role in building the future health care and STEM workforce—the scientists, the engineers, the information technology and cybersecurity workforce.
Take Patience Mbulu, who came to the United States from Nigeria with dreams of a better life. She earned her associate’s degree from Montgomery College, and passed her nursing boards on her first attempt to become a R.N. Today she is an associate professor of nursing at Montgomery College and studying for her doctorate in adult education. Patience’s decision to attend Montgomery College has influenced her own daughter, Christine, who is following in her mother’s footsteps, studying nursing at Montgomery College.
We have a real opportunity here at Montgomery College to fill a growing need. Minorities are underrepresented in STEM fields; given our diverse student body, community colleges should be leading the country in solving key workforce shortages in science, engineering, and technology fields. To see an example of this, look no further than one of our science labs. I visited a physics lab recently; it was hopping with experimentation; with our future scientists— students from a range of cultures and ethnicities—working together, side by side. In them, I saw the future.
When it comes to making ourselves more relevant to students, employers, and the community—by continuing to provide accessible higher education; putting additional individualized focus on our students; meeting the goals of the completion agenda, and preparing the workforce of the 21st century—there is one common factor to ensuring success.
I’ll give you a hint: It’s not me.
It’s you—the faculty and staff of Montgomery College.
I’m sure you’re thinking that these plans—this completion agenda—sound well and good… but where does it fit in my life? How do I find the time—or funds—to experiment and see what works for my students? Or, how will I learn what’s working for my colleagues and implement it in my classroom?
You all know from experience: The good stuff—the real innovation, like Montgomery College’s Combat2College or Writing in the Disciplines program—starts at the ground level; it starts with innovative faculty and staff identifying a need and shaping a solution.
Our innovators need support for their efforts. So I want to take a page from the Harvard Business Review. The Fortune 500 companies I read about invest in research and development. They understand that the future growth and eventual success of their businesses is only possible with new ideas, new products, and the improvement of existing services. The leaders of these companies understand that they must give their employees the time and space to innovate and create. To build on what they’ve accomplished.
Montgomery College has a real opportunity to invest in our experts—our faculty and staff— and to lead higher education by embracing research and development that benefits student learning. That is why today I am proud to announce the creation of an Innovation Fund. A fund that supports cutting-edge ideas with financial resources… and a fund that helps the ideas of the future become a reality.
In times of declining public resources, we clearly must be innovative when it comes to supporting our Innovation Fund. Our foundation board is helping with that effort to seek private philanthropic dollars for this initiative and I am pleased to announce the first seed funding for this effort has come from the Webber Family Foundation.
This is not one-shot funding and it isn’t for one-time initiatives. The Innovation Fund is about creating sustainable, systemic, intentional organizational improvements at Montgomery College. Just like a good Fortune 500 company, each project should include creating a cycle of discovery, testing, and scaling up, because a good idea shouldn’t just live with one person, one department, or even one campus. If these innovative ideas can make a difference in the lives of our students, enhance their education, and improve services, the Innovation Fund can help. Please stay tuned… the Innovation Fund application process will begin in January.
We want the incredible ideas that are out there to become relevant to as many people as possible.
After all, we are one College, and together we succeed.
The Most Relevant Community College in the Nation
Today is a new day. The clock starts ticking now. Much lies ahead. And there are serious repercussions if we don’t take action: rising poverty and a growing divide between the haves and have-nots.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. As I said earlier: Community colleges are potentially the most transformative institutions in contemporary America.
This is our moment to be fully relevant. To respond to the broad goals of the state and national completion agenda, while understanding that the greatest successes at Montgomery College are accomplished student by student—students who are as varied as a retired dentist, an IT graduate working at a thriving Maryland company, a mother of five, and a young person who dropped out of high school. All were transformed here at Montgomery College.
My friends, there is no room for complacency. But there is room for all of us here to show our best selves, to put our all into this incredible institution.
If we give our faculty and staff the opportunity to innovate; if we shake things up—if we think creatively—then we will be more abundant than ever, even in the midst of challenging times.
And then, we will have realized our vision of being fully relevant. A place that is known as a leading innovator. A place that the community knows and values. A place that employers turn to first. A place where employees say, “It’s not always easy, but I love my job.” And, most of all, a place where every student who attended MC says “I met my goals at Montgomery College— and I had a phenomenal experience.”
Let’s not suffer from a poverty of ambition.
Let’s be unafraid to shine.
Let’s not play small.
Let’s be phenomenal.
Let’s be the most relevant community college in this country.
Montgomery College, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.