I can finally confirm some great news. I have been offered and have accepted a position in the administration of President Barack Obama as a senior policy adviser in the Department of Education. I’ll be sworn in at the LBJ DOE building in DC on Monday, July 13. We’ll be moving to Washington a few weeks later. Here is a link to the press release.
Already, the question I am hearing most frequently, particularly from friends and associates outside the orbit of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, goes something like this: “How did this happen?” A presidential appointment is a pretty rare event, to be sure, and many people seem intensely interested in understanding how an opportunity like this came my way.
The answer is I hang out with the right people: the people at our local community college district, Foothill-De Anza.
The truth is that has long been the key to my professional success. My pending appointment to the Obama Administration is just the latest example.
That’s one reason why community college, and Foothill-De Anza in particular, is a path I recommend without hesitation to others, especially to stressed-out students, displaced workers and/or unemployed folks who may be feeling the pressure or heartbreak associated with deeply troubling personal concerns. In these difficult times many wonder, for example, how they can possibly keep their heads above water, or get ahead, or how they can they live satisfying, independent lives and be truly happy in our highly-competitive world where self-esteem is too often dictated by the thick and thin envelopes sent by collegiate admissions officers, or by where you attended college or, in other cases, more like my own experience, where financial hardship and associated difficulties made career-building attendance at college either impossible or a distant secondary consideration to what was an almost daily fight for economic survival.
Fortunately, I found my answers to those questions many years ago at our local community college district. And the remarkable thing is, three decades later, it is my service to that very same community college district, my attempt to give back, that has instead rewarded me with something I could never have ever imagined: a chance to contribute to the administration of someone I greatly admire, President Obama, in a position where there are just two people between me and the president. In other words, here is what I have discovered: if you want to participate at the highest levels of our national government, sure, it helps if you can attend Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Brown or one of the other more traditional conduits to national leadership. But what my experience demonstrates is that you can also get there right from where you are, wherever you are, via your local community college.
Here’s how it happened to/for me:
Thirty three years ago, when I first entered Foothill College as a freshman I had barely graduated high school, having mostly dropped out in order to work in a variety of often depressing, low-paying jobs as a result of economic problems in our single-parent home, where we often relied on welfare and food stamps. Attending Foothill College part-time while working fulltime I encountered a phalanx of gifted and dedicated educators who illuminated a path for me from the drug store clerk I was to the professional writer, broadcaster and journalist I became. At Foothill, I met great humanitarians disguised as bookish professors, people such as Irv Roth, Herm Scheiding, Truman Cross, Bill Tinsley, and Bob Pierce, each of whom took a personal interest in my development, inspired me, prodded me and celebrated my every small success. They were my coaches and my cheerleaders, teaching me everything from punctuality to punctuation. They jumped into my life with a passion that is common in community college instructors, a passion to help students grow and turn knowledge into personal power. They had only one common request: when you make it, they would say, when you make something of your life and yourself and of this education, please live up to your responsibility to come back and give back and do what you can to make sure that what we offered you remains available to others. Armed with their support, I enjoyed many successes in my chosen profession, helping to create new public radio programming (public radio’s “Marketplace”), editing a variety of publications, working for prestigious news networks, and writing hundreds of articles on assignment, including many from foreign locales.
In 2003, nearly thirty years after I graduated from Foothill, many of those same professors and other community leaders led a campaign that made me the first graduate of Foothill College to ever serve on the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Governing Board of Trustees, which oversees Foothill and De Anza Colleges, two exceptional community colleges that provide an unparalleled education to more than 45,000 students. At the time, I had an idea I wanted to pursue, a public policy idea based on my desire to involve our system of higher education more deeply in the collaborative production of free public domain learning materials. Once elected to the board, I found ready partners eager to work toward that goal, with our progress on that issue and others like it helping to more firmly distinguish our community college district as a national leader. And now, I find myself once again being lifted up by the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, this time in the person of its former Chancellor, Dr. Martha Kanter, to whom I will report, who last week was confirmed as President Obama’s Under Secretary of Education, which makes her the highest ranking federal official responsible for post secondary education.
We live in difficult times. It is easy for people to become discouraged or worse. But the story I want to share at this momentous time in my life is the story of how I found my way, both as a student many years ago and more recently through service. It was a path that led me first to professional success and now, decades later, to a presidential appointment in the most significant federal administration of my lifetime. What’s more, it was a path I could feel good about, one where the educational opportunities extended to me did not come at the expense of denying opportunities to anyone else.
Here in California, our community colleges are now threatened by severe budget cuts. But they remain one of the few avenues to upward mobility open to everyone without regard to who your parents were, where you came from, what you did before, or how much money you have. It’s a route that if taken more often will lead to a prosperity that is more widely shared. It was, for me, the most important turn in the road.
Great things happen at community colleges. They can happen to you, too. Trust me. I know.