Even though I had spoken with her briefly before her keynote address Friday, I really didn't expect much more than an academic lecture from Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Wheelan addressed students and community college faculty and administrators during Bluegrass Community and Technical College's Multicultural Opportunities, Strategies and Institutional Inclusiveness Conference.
Shortly after she began, she grabbed my attention with these words: "The people in this room work with people who many others don't think will ever amount to much," she said. "I personally love to make people eat their words. I'm thinking that is what you do, too."
And then she began to weave stories that depicted people who existed outside of the realm of selective admissions institutions but who wanted to learn and be successful.
Those students, Wheelan said, are either unprepared and in need of support, or they're older and wary of new technology. Regardless, she said, the old adage that it doesn't matter where they start but where they are going applies to them.
"It is very difficult to impart that message to people who have felt downtrodden for so long," Wheelan said. "They may have to come from farther out to get where they need to go."
When those students come to the community college system, they want to learn. They want to succeed. The difference-maker will be the staff and faculty.
"I hear faculty say the students are different," she said. "We're different, too. We've gotten a lot less patient.
"We have to remind ourselves that students come to us brand-new to this experience."
Her words were so refreshing.
We've entered a time when students in higher education are fast becoming nameless numbers whose tuition and fees are used to fuel a machine that produces fewer and fewer results that meet expectations.
Wheelan said that community colleges have an opportunity to give the labor market what it is looking for: qualified employees.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which Wheelan leads, oversees accreditation for schools in 11 Southern states, including Kentucky. Before that, she was secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Virginia and was president of Northern Virginia Community College, one of the largest community colleges in the United States.
It's that background that has familiarized her with the students who enroll in community colleges.
"We have right now, as community colleges, a wonderful opportunity to shine," she said. "Everyone is depending on us to train the work force."
Technology obviously will play a major role, but so should nurturing and academic support.
"Even though technology has changed the way students learn, it hasn't changed how students feel about learning," she said.
Students are more acquainted with technology, such as the computers they carry on their hips in the form of smartphones, but they don't quite know what to do with that information, Wheelan said.
And the jobs they are competing for are totally different than the ones held by their parents — if those jobs exist anymore at all.
"The labor market has changed, and the qualifications of students have had to change," she said.
Wheelan said she had once dreamed of becoming a check-out clerk. Now, she said, people use machines to check out.
The people needed to fill 2 million job vacancies just aren't out there, she said. Those jobs require more math and science than students are taking.
"Not only don't we have as many people in the work force, but 30 percent of the students are not graduating from high school," Wheelan said. "We don't have enough people to pull from and don't have enough who are qualified.
"We have to step up to make sure they leave us prepared."
Community colleges need to provide extra support for those students, she said.
"They need us to know they can succeed," she said. "They need us to put in that extra time to listen to things that don't have a thing to do with their course work."
The students need people in their lives who push them, who use tried-and-true strategies we all used in the past to learn, and who are role models who aren't necessarily rock stars or athletes.
"We have to go back to the '60s, where people cared about each other," she said. "We have to care about this generation, not because we are educators, but because our nation's economy depends on it.
"We are more of a socially engaged society than we are a hard-working society. We have to help our students understand that."
We have to have all institutions of higher learning understand that.