community colleges in prime time

Let’s face it, community colleges are often the Rodney Dangerfield of higher education on film and TV. I have cringed at the cheap shots.

But I get it.

Community colleges began in 1901 and swelled in the 1960s and ’70s, some 200 years after the first public US university opened. Until this current generation, two-year colleges were largely overlooked, serving primarily students with no other options. It was only a generation ago that most were junior colleges that looked a whole lot like 13th and 14th grades.

My how times have changed. Public community colleges are now the predominant mode of higher education nationwide and in Florida, enrolling 46 percent of all U.S. undergraduates. There are many other wondrous facts I could share with you about university-transfer rates,  closing achievement gaps, affordability, honors opportunities, diversity, lifelong learning and the like — but I’m really preaching to the converted here.

I raise the issue because NBC is unveiling a new fall show on Thursday nights, “Community,” debuting Sept. 17 at 9:30. I find it encouraging that we’re working our way into prime time; after all, most educational sitcoms take place in high schools. Is this a sign of our ubiquity?

It stars Chevy Chase. I’m not sure what that means exactly; I’m afraid I’m having a “Caddy Shack” flashback. The early previews (“a place where anyone can begin again”) are somewhat promising, though the description on the NBC website plays up the stereotypes. Of course comedy relies heavily on underdogs, and you’ll find a whole study group full of them on “Community.” (Think Isle of Misfit Toys).

Here is one preview.

What do you think?

We know that our colleges are places of hope and opportunity. I’m hopeful we’ll see some of that experience reflected here.

I’m willing to keep an open mind.

courageous conversations to support our learners

I read an article this weekend in the New York Times about how the economy is impacting the ability of students to afford tuition and of foundations and colleges to offer scholarships.

The article, “Scholarships for College Dwindle as Providers Pull Back Their Support,” paints a dismal picture of a perfect storm: At the same time families are struggling financially, institutions are cutting back on private student aid.

There’s a logic to a conservative approach by the leaders in higher education and nonprofits, to ensure their sustainability and long-term fiscal health.

Yet, if our mission is to serve students, how do we back down when the need has never been more urgent?

Valencia Foundation’s board asked itself that same question in many discussions over the past six months. They weren’t always easy conversations and the questions were challenging: Are we who we say we are if we take the easy way out? How do we ensure we meet our fiduciary responsibility for the financial future of the foundation? What if things get worse?

My observation is that the questions were a necessary part of the board’s due diligence but, as I watched, the outcome seemed to be a forgone conclusion. Their intention was to meet our mission and assist our students, whatever it takes.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some “yikes” moments along the way.

The next question was how, and that was a little simpler: We will raise the necessary unrestricted, new dollars to maintain our support from last year — and maybe even increase it a bit. That allows the endowment to recover at the same time that students are served.

The next steps will be less simple, securing those dollars. Over the past five years, the foundation tripled its disbursement of scholarship dollars, so the price tag is not modest and donors are tightening their philanthropic belts. (This reality inspired most of the yikes moments. :-))

It was a courageous commitment — official early this month — that runs counter to the strategy many nonprofits are taking, which is to await the economic upturn so they can return to normalcy. I can’t help wondering: At what price comes safety?

We have a volunteer board of 60 local leaders who “get it.” They are in this for the students and never forget they are our first priority.

Together with our loyal donors, we’ll make it happen. I have no doubt.

for students: sos funds may help in a pinch

Many of our students face sudden life crises that may force them out of school. Often they are an unexpected car bill, a change in child care arrangements, an insurance premium increase or other expenses that occur when “life happens.”

Too many times, a relatively minor expense looms large, and forces a student out of school.

The foundation makes available modest SOS grants — which don’t impact financial aid eligibility — of up to $300 to assist eligible students based on the recommendation of Valencia student advisers. The turnaround is typically just a few days.

The intention is to keep our students learning and enrolled in class, making progress toward their ultimate goals.

If you need a hand, please visit the student Answer Desk on campus to speak with an adviser and apply.

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it’s not because of us . . .

This month has really impressed upon me how much of the foundation’s good work isn’t of our own design but that of small community groups working for a larger purpose.

I recently traveled to the Osceola/Kissimmee area for a meeting of the Hispanic Business Council. This didn’t seem to be formal meeting with strict adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order (although I’m sure Robert was there somewhere) and I was awed by the camaraderie of individuals gathered. They shared—not reported—with each other updates on government budgets and spending, with guidance from representatives from local agencies and, my favorite, discussed what could be done to continue to support students with scholarships. I witnessed community and business leaders coming together for more than just business networking and lunch – they were coming together for the good of their community and all it encompassed.

Every year two organizations, Commercial Real Estate of Woman and American Institute of Architects, each hold a golf tournament using their organization’s resources and membership to host the event. Last Friday at the AIA tournament, Valencia student Dominique Walker thanked AIA for the opportunity to continue his studies in building construction. These two groups, seemingly unrelated to Valencia, do more with these tournaments than fund membership event, they fund a future for students.

Tuesday I met with three Rotary Club of Southwest Orlando members to look at how they can effectively utilize their current scholarship budget to help students defer college costs.  Over a glass of iced tea these gentlemen impressed upon me that they really take the Rotary club’s motto  ‘service above self’ to heart. This group is committed to making the world around them just a bit better — in any modest way they can.

These groups and organizations aren’t doing good work because of the Valencia Foundation. They are preparing their community, no matter how it’s defined, for a better future. It’s the leadership, guidance, and foresight of our donors, people just like you, who want to create a better place for others.  The support Valencia Foundation provides to students: It’s not because of us . . . it’s because of you.

— Donna

lisa macon: the inspiration of students who defy the odds


As a child, I was often labeled “overachiever,” or, sometimes, “geek.” The term applied depended on who was doing the labeling. None of these semi-derogatory names vexed me in the slightest, because I knew I was going places. I was going to do the big things and, consequently, make the big bucks. I knew this without a doubt and no one dared to contradict me.

Flash forward to the year 1995, and my life was proceeding as planned. Following my BS degree – completed in 3.5 years, thank you very much – and my first master’s degree, I was working in a very exciting, fast-paced environment as a software developer for a highly priced, highly skilled consulting firm. We were doing cutting-edge work for high-profile clients and there was never a dull moment. My paychecks were big and my skill set was growing ever larger.

And I wanted to throw myself out of a fourth-story window every single day.

Here is what they don’t tell you in school – or at least, they didn’t tell you back then. Bosses are demanding and very often, mean. Your best work, which you were taught to produce as a student, is TOO good, and it won’t encourage the clients to call us back in to do more work and pay us more money later on. Profit-oriented business can be cut-throat, painful and completely unfriendly. I was making all the money in the world, but I had no will to spend it and my child was growing up behind my back while I missed most of the experience. It is difficult to explain how much I hated my work environment without resorting to some sort of profanity.

So, I left the business, went into temporary financial ruin, and re-evaluated my situation.

Life can take some strange and interesting routes to get you where you are meant to be. Following certain events such as divorce, moving to another state to sponge off very wonderful parents and learning to deal with single-motherhood, I found myself standing in front of a classroom of somewhat willing yet none-too-eager finite mathematics students at UCF when the thought occurred to me that for the first time in a long time, I was doing something I actually felt good about. And there was icing on the cake – I was getting paid to do it. Not much, mind you. But, still… getting paid, and most importantly, feeling good about it and not at all like jumping out of a window. This, my friends, was progress.

Continue reading

mdc invests $1 million in valencia and florida

MDC Inc. this week committed more than $1 million to Valencia and the state of Florida to expand groundbreaking developmental education programs that promise to boost the college completion rates of low-income students and students of color.

Every year, roughly 375,000 Florida degree-seeking students attend a local community college, with nearly 40 percent of them having to take remedial classes to build basic academic skills. Many are unable to meet their goal of completing college. National studies have shown that nearly two-thirds of those who take remedial classes never graduate. However, successful programs at several colleges demonstrate that these numbers can be improved.

The grants announced will support innovative remedial programs developed by Valencia Community College through Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, a multi-year national initiative that is aiming to dramatically boost college graduation rates among low-income students and students of color. The remedial education models pioneered by these colleges represent some of the most promising work in the country for boosting college completion rates among struggling students.

Valencia will receive $743,000 over three years. Continue reading