On last Friday, it was all about the students.
At the closing plenary of the 2023 Dream Conference in Chicago, Achieving the Dream (ATD), a reform network of over 300 community colleges, handed the microphone to students who either currently attend or graduated from a community college.
Motivational speaker Frederick Shegog shared how the support he received at Delaware County Community College (DCCC) was crucial to his evolution from a life of substance addiction to a life of spreading hope.
“Let me take you back to how it started. My whole life I felt stupid, less than. Being in this system with these barriers put me in a position that, almost seven years ago, I was downtown panhandling for change,” said Shegog.
After going to therapy and rehab, Shegog turned to education to start over. Faculty and staff at DCCC embraced him, Shegog said, seeing him as a human first and foremost, asking him to share who he was, his past, and his dreams. Consistent, holistic support put him on track to transfer to a four-year institution and gave him the tools and confidence to share his story with others. He now owns his own company, The Message LLC, and is working on a master’s degree while traveling and speaking across the country.
“Tonight, when you lay in your beds, I ask you, ATD, what is your legacy? What footprint are you leaving in the building, and what do they say about you when you exit?” asked Shegog. “W.E.B. Du Bois was right: education doesn’t just teach books; it’s supposed to be teaching life.”
Shegog’s experience was echoed by seven of the eight community college students of varying ages, racial and ethnic identities, backgrounds, and career pursuits selected to be ATD’s 2023 “Dream Scholars.” For almost a decade, ATD has selected Dream Scholars for this unique opportunity, offering networking and financial support as they grow their leadership and critical thinking skills.
“These Dream Scholars exemplify leadership and a commitment to improving higher education,” said Dr. Monica Parrish Trent, chief program and network officer at ATD. “When they depart Dream, they stay connected. The bond they share is unmatched.”
Throughout the conference, these scholars shared poems they created with the guidance of author, educator and activist Dr. W. Joye Hardiman. Each poem begins with the phrase “I am from,” relaying the challenges they overcame, many traumatic, and their ultimate triumphs. The learners shared what they’ve learned from their time at the conference, how their community college experiences transformed them, and what community colleges must still do to improve and expand access and opportunities for all.
Zachary Arreola, youngest dream scholar and student at the early-college program Gateway to College at Laney College in Oakland, CA, said community colleges must invest in housing for unhoused students right away. Dream Scholars Tommy McCall, a student at Tallahassee Community College in FL, and Eve Miclaus, a student at Roane State Community College in TN, said community colleges need to improve communication, doing more to share events and available resources.
“If I were community college president for a day, I would make student representation a bigger part of school,” said Miclaus. “We can all learn from one another. Sometimes students don’t know how to share their knowledge. [There’s a] lack of student representation within the big rooms.”
Luis De Luna, a student at MiraCosta College in CA, said community colleges should offer more life skills courses, including things like how to pay taxes or manage credit cards, something that could be particularly impactful to those in underrepresented communities who provide translation of complex government documents to their elders.
“I would also make therapy and mental health services available year-round, through the summer,” said De Luna. “When I went to therapy, I was afraid of the end of the semester because my services would be cut off.”
Tena Rynn Quackenbush, a student at Western Technical College in WI, said she was pleasantly surprised to learn about the postsecondary opportunities her institution was providing for incarcerated people, offering them crucial second chances, something she said everyone deserves. Quackenbush is pursuing a degree in nursing as she advocates for harm reduction. Her activism and efforts to spread awareness of life-saving tools like Narcan helped Jackson County, WI achieve zero accidental overdoses in 2019.
Quackenbush and her fellow Dream Scholars also expressed deep appreciation for the work happening behind the scenes at conferences like Dream.
“It’s a big deal you all care about us, analyze data and talk it over, share with each other what it is you’re doing to break down barriers and work towards equity and diversity,” said Quackenbush. “Thank you, everybody, for that.”
Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of ATD, handed each Dream Scholar a check for $3,500, the largest ever financial support ATD has been able to offer, gathered from generous donations in and outside the ATD network.
“As our Dream Scholars remind us, we need to be guided by the voices and lived experiences of our students. We should see our community in our curriculum,” said Stout. “Our guideposts need to start with students and community, and our journey must be driven by the need to eliminate systemic barriers, address student needs, and increase social justice and equity.”
Liann Herder can be reached at email@example.com.