Michigan's College Access Blog

Paving the Road to Equity: A Journey through African American HERstory

Vernon Jordan, a prominent figure in the civil rights movement and an advisor to President Clinton, once said, “You are where you are today because you stand on somebody’s shoulders. And wherever you are heading, you cannot get there by yourself. If you stand on the shoulders of others, you have a reciprocal responsibility to live your life so that others may stand on your shoulders. It’s the quid pro quo of life. We exist temporarily through what we take, but we live forever through what we give.” My college access journey began far before my own two feet walked the campus of Michigan State University. The pages of my story were written before I had the ability to conceptualize postsecondary education.

I stand on the shoulders of women who come from a rich lineage of beauty in the midst of pain, struggle, and breakthrough. These women embodied strength in the midst of weakness, trials, and barriers that were meant to deter their path, but still, they were able to rise. Their leaves never withered, their flowers forever bloomed, and their labor produced an excess of fruit. These women are Black HERstory.

Trailblazers such as Lucy Sessions, Mary Jane Patterson, and Rebecca Crumpler shifted what college access means for African American women.. Lucy Sessions was the first African American woman to earn a literacy degree in 1850. She defeated odds and began to dismantle chairs of oppression as she received her degree fifteen years before slavery was abolished. Mary Jane Patterson was the first African American woman to earn a Bachelors of Arts in 1862, three years before slavery was abolished. Rebecca Crumpler was the first African American woman to earn a Medical Degree in 1864. Each of these women planted seeds for young women of color to pursue postsecondary education in the midst of one of the most terrifying times in African American History.

African American trailblazers within education that have directly impacted my pursuit of postsecondary education are Marrietta Drew and Rosemary Higgins. Marrietta Drew, also known as Ma Dear, was my maternal grandmother. She was born in Louisiana in 1921. During the time that Ma Dear was of age to complete primary and secondary schooling, the highest level for African American students in her county was middle school. Ma Dear had a love for education that caused her to continue to go back to school even after she fulfilled the requirements that were necessary. She went back to school 2-3 times despite completing schooling because her love for education allowed her to find beauty in learning new information as the curriculums of the school systems evolved. My grandmother’s desire to pursue education but inability to do so due to racial prejudice motivated me to push past barriers and pursue my passion for service, literature, and advocacy.

Rosemary Higgins was my middle school counselor at Ivan Ludington Middle School on the Westside of Detroit. She played a pivotal role in my college access story by providing my family with resources to help me prepare for the high school placement examination for competitive Schools of Choice in Detroit. She also worked with my parents to fill out the application for the Wade McCree Scholarship and the Detroit College Promise Scholarship. Both scholarships paid for tuition for a 2 to 4-year college for students interested in pursuing postsecondary education in Michigan. This opportunity made college more of a reality for me, it held me accountable. I was thankful that my city believed in me enough to invest in my college education.

The stories of the women in my life have continued the trail of perseverance that Lucy Sessions, Mary Jane Patterson and Rebecca Crumpler started. Their desire to create roads where there was no pavement and climb mountains that often appeared to be unbearable has birthed my desire to help other young people fulfill their postsecondary goals as well. As a first-generation college student, I am thankful for the shoulders that I stand on and the brave women that endured so that I could have the opportunity to pursue an education as well. Our mission at Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) is to increase college readiness, participation, and completion in Michigan, particularly among low-income students, first-generation college-going students, and students of color. The women that came before me kept their eyes on their objective, understanding the roads of equity that still needed to be paved for students of all backgrounds to have access to postsecondary education.

Author: Shavonna Green
Posted: Feb. 26, 2019

Black History Month: A Brick in the Foundation of Equity

The spirit of Black History Month has been ingrained in my cultural and academic upbringing since the earliest days of my childhood. I reflect upon those early roads that would lead me to Michigan State University as a second generation student (my mother, Kyle Smith, is an alumnus) while having a clear sense of my identity and culture, and the knowledge to honor those African-Americans before me with the power and courage to forge a path that not only allowed me to attend a university one day but to also be in the position now to advocate for greater equity in the field of education – specifically in the Metro Detroit region that serves as my hometown.

I vividly remember my studies at Bates Academy in Detroit as an elementary student, being introduced to Black History Month through a game show called “Bates Battle” where we formed teams to compete against each other based on trivia about Black pioneers. That incentive to study more about my culture, (albeit for bragging rights) helped reaffirm the desire I had to learn more about its surrounding history. Pairing that with a litany of books, articles, and other resources I could find at my disposal at home, I had an enhanced understanding of the African diaspora even at a young age. It was over time that I’d realized how anomalous that understanding had been compared to some of my friends. By the time I’d made it to MSU, I’d realize just how many Black students grew up learning so little about the efforts and achievements of their ancestors.

Black History Month is centered in the spirit of college access – an initiative ascending from the establishment of Negro College Week, created by historian Carter G. Woodson and intended to be celebrated in the second week of February. It would take 44 years between that announcement in 1926 and the first celebration of Black History Month, proposed by Kent State University in 1970, for a month-long calling of educators instituting, and adhering to, a curriculum centered on Black history.

When we speak to the idea of equity, fairness, and impartiality, providing just a month alone to assert the idea of an integrated curriculum in schools still falls short of that balance. While knowing the road ahead of us, it’s important to note the existence of Black History Month as a precedent aimed to hold entire departments of education accountable on a statewide level, then push them to continue to develop changes that will serve students regardless of their race, creed, gender, identity, or economic status.

Continuing our mission to increase college readiness, participation, and completion in Michigan – particularly in this instance thinking about students of color – it is important to understand the impact of resources that expose students to a more inclusive curriculum from early childhood through high school. That is why we celebrate the spirit of Black History Month every year.

Author: Jahshua Smith
Posted: Feb. 20, 2019

Student-centered Transformation at Jackson College: Our “Total Commitment to Student Success”

A number of years ago at Jackson College, a community college located in Jackson, Michigan, we had an epiphany. For a very long time, we focused our efforts on getting students college-ready. Like most community colleges across the country, we offered a host of developmental education courses in reading, writing, and math. We piloted small-scale initiatives to help students who were not deemed ready for college yet. We did all this work with good intentions, but with minimal, small scale results.

We believed we could and should do more to support the success of our students. To that end, about eight years ago, we began working to reimagine the future of our institution, engaging in research and contemplating innovative strategies that tested long-held assumptions about what works best for students.

We concluded that nothing short of cultural and institutional transformation was necessary to get us where we needed to be. Long story short, we became laser focused on what we call our Total Commitment to Student Success, or “TCS2” for short.

TCS2 has led us to make many significant changes as an institution. For example, we implemented guided pathways, a student-centered model that provides clear curricular roadmaps for students to more efficiently and effectively complete a credential. We redesigned the role of college advisors into Student Success Navigators, and hired enough Navigators to ensure that we had client ratios of less than 1:300. Our Navigators proactively check in with their students regularly throughout a term. We also worked to replace standalone developmental education with more innovative and effective co-requisite course designs. We adopted a holistic approach to help students address the range of non-academic challenges they, unfortunately, too often encounter. Some examples of our “Serving the Whole Student” efforts included opening a food pantry, modifying our student meal plans, expanding transportation options, adding a health clinic in partnership with the local hospital, and creating a mental health clinic on our central campus, called the Oasis Center, in partnership with a local provider, which is readily accessible to students who need the support.

Looking back, we have recognized the TCS2 transformation we have experienced could be summed up in this way: Instead of focusing on getting students college-ready, we shifted the focus on us as a college to be more “student-ready.”[i]

By putting students first and becoming more “student-ready” as a college, we recognized that we needed to ensure that equity is at the center of everything we do. As an equity-driven institution, we aim to give every student what they need to be successful...

  • Instead of inquiring about how to address student actions or behaviors that might be holding students back from being successful, it requires that we ask hard questions of ourselves about what college policies and practices might be holding students back—and changing them.
  • Instead of relying on a transaction-based college advising model that enrolls students in classes as quickly and conveniently as possible, TCS2 has guided us to embrace a relationship-based college guidance model that is rooted in Navigators taking the time to get to know their students and supporting them throughout their academic journey.
  • Instead of offering more developmental courses or adding more pre-requisites to gateway courses in response to the growing numbers of students who are deemed “unprepared” for college, we have tapped into the grit and talents that students already have, connected them with the best, most student-centered and passionate faculty on campus from day one, and provided them a launch pad into college-level coursework their very first term.
  • Instead of accepting the notion that college is supposed to be challenging and weed some students out, we moved to proactively provide more holistic supports to students, so they can focus on their academics rather than worrying about where they are going to get their next meal or how they are going to manage the unrelenting stress in their lives.

The results to date of our TCS2 transformation and our efforts to become more “student-ready” have been extraordinary. In 2015, 35% of our first-time-in-college (FITIAC) students earned at least six college credits their first term; in 2017, that percent doubled, reaching over 71%. In 2015, 17% of our students completed both college math and English in their first year; in 2017, that percent also more than doubled at just over 36%. 

Something I’m particularly excited about is what our math department is embarking on. Last semester (Fall 2018), we piloted an innovative co-requisite math model whereby students, who placed in developmental math, enrolled in two math classes (one developmental, one college-level), actively studied math for two hours each day Monday through Thursday, and received collaborative inquiry-based instruction from some our best faculty on campus. Previously, just about two in ten students who placed in developmental math would pass college-level math within two years... In the pilot, nearly all students passed their developmental math class with flying colors, and better yet, nearly seven out of ten students passed college level math their very first semester.

Our mission at Jackson College is “Together, We Inspire and Transform Lives.” As part of our efforts to transform lives, we realized we needed to transform ourselves. We have grown deeply committed to the service of others and are putting equity at the center of everything we do by being totally committed to the success of each and every student.

Our transformation is only just beginning. We continue to strive to be a student-ready college in many ways, including by offering more 7-week classes, embracing competency-based education, and expanding our early college programs. We are on an exciting journey and welcome the chance to connect with other equity-driven, student-centered colleges, so we can learn from each other and inspire each other. We have a great responsibility as higher education institutions; the work we do matters.

Kate Thirolf, Ph.D., is Vice President for Instruction at Jackson College. More about Jackson College can be found at www.jccmi.edu.

[i] Note: The book Becoming a Student-Ready College (2016, Association of American Colleges & Universities) by Tia Brown McNair, Susan Albertine, Michelle Asha Cooper, Nicole McDonald and Thomas Major, Jr. deserves credit for coining the term and promoting the need for colleges to be “student-ready.”


Author: Kathryn Thirolf
Posted: February. 12, 2019


2018 CARDINAL AWARD RECIPIENT: North Branch High School

These award recipients boost the college access activity in communities on the ground level helps drive the state toward the Big Goal – 60 percent by 2025. They also promote campaigns that urge students, parents, school staff and citizens to take direct action helps to create a sense of urgency around the postsecondary planning process. The recipient of this award is an individual or organization that has advanced the college-going culture through significant investment in statewide campaigns. 

1. College and credentials can be life-changing to people across the state, why do you believe that is true in your community?

North Branch is located in Lapeer County, where the current degree achievement rate is only 29.5%. As we strive to increase the achievement rate in the North Branch community, we also believe it will increase the economic status of our community and have an overall positive impact on our county.

2. As a college access champion, how will you continue to work toward promoting college access in your community?

We will continue to have a strong relationship with the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) as we work to achieve our common goal of 60% obtainment by 2025. The next few years will be vital and we understand that those in our current and upcoming graduating classes are extremely vital in achieving this goal. Our Post-Secondary Advisory Council (PAC) has already begun working on ideas for next school year to further promote our college-going culture at the high school and expansion to lower grade levels.

3. Your hard work and commitment are helping us draw closer to Goal 2025, please describe a challenge you faced in your postsecondary planning process, and how your efforts helped to address it?

The most difficult challenge was getting started and figuring out what would have the strongest impact in a short amount of time. We opened our PAC membership to everyone and in effect formed a strong group of individuals who believe in the work and are extremely excited about it. We also have the support of our administration and Board of Education, which we continuously update on our progress, ideas, and implementation.

North Branch was extremely fortunate to receive a Reach Higher grant and then the following year to have the privilege of including an AdviseMI Adviser.  The support of MCAN has been extremely vital in the acceleration of promoting the college-going culture in our district.

Author: Amy Hyrman
Posted: February 5, 2019 


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