Valencia College West Campus President Falecia Williams’ journey was an unconventional one. Wanting to make a difference and change lives, the first-generation college student was transformed by her experience in higher education. When she graduated from Rollins College, she was attending Emory University in Atlanta to focus on clinical psychology and teaching part time. Family obligations, however, led her back to her high school home in Lake County, where she worked at Winn-Dixie while taking care of her grandmother.
Back home, Williams encountered teachers and administrators who helped her break into teaching. Williams would go on to teach emotionally challenged, gifted and honors students at the secondary level, and also served as director of a community-based grant program purposed to increase enrollment and college completion among first-generation college students. In 2000, Williams joined Valencia College as an adjunct professor. She then took leadership roles in workforce development, high school outreach programs and dual enrollment. Williams also led a team charged with the creation of the Valencia’s first-ever bachelor’s degrees. Under her leadership, Valencia College West Campus has continued to evolve with the world of higher education.
Using Experiences to Relate to Students
My life experiences resonate with the stories of my students in many ways. For the students who come in with varying levels of adversity in their background, I can deeply identify with them. For those who are honor students and have been exposed to the most challenging curriculum and are making smart economic and learning decisions, I identify with them as well. I believe the diversity of learned experiences I’ve enjoyed, as well as the diversity of life experiences I have, resonate with the population of students here at Valencia and in the hallways at many other community colleges. People have asked me why I stay at the community college level, and it’s because I believe fundamentally it’s that open door that provides access to a variety of people who are interested in education as the catalyst for change.
Education Transforming an Area
Here I was, having grown up in an impoverished household, and we didn’t have a car. The first car in my family was the one I bought when I received a job offer to teach at Eustis Middle School. In the meantime, I had a $100,000 college degree from Rollins and was riding my bicycle to Winn-Dixie. I would look around at the other workers, friends and people I knew from the neighborhood, and I’d ask myself what was different in our story, and it was that I had the opportunity to be somewhere else and make other employment choices I was academically prepared for.
That elevated the importance of a college education for me and clearly portrayed the opportunity to move from a place of poverty to a place of sustainability. The minimum credential for being able to do that has become some form of postsecondary education or certification. It’s rapidly moving to bachelor’s degrees in some fields. There are still other ways, and there are always going to be exceptions. There’s entrepreneurship and small business ownership, but when we look at the masses of people, the wide mechanism is education.
Shifting Roles in Order to Help Students
It’s easy for us as educators to have a very narrow way of thinking and just believe that students are really interested in getting their degree. However, when you get down to a fundamental conversation with students, we recognized the degree becomes the credential for what the real goal is — a profession. We introduced a metaphor that states, “We are not the destination; we are the bridge.”
It became important for us to think about how we help people move towards their real goal that is beyond the institution. For many, their goal requires a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in some fields.
It’s also important for us to be the bridge and minimize any types of barriers that would preclude them from being able to continue in the pathway that will ultimately lead them to their goal. Through our short-term technical programs, the degree can be the destination. They can have a family-sustaining wage for a lifetime with just that degree.
Hopes for the Future of Education
My continued hope is that we offer affordable models that provide the greatest degree of access for higher education to all members of our community. I’m hoping we’ll find more innovative ways to ensure our students are successful in their progression in higher education, so we’re not just getting students in the door, but recognizing it’s about the student moving through the process and exiting with that credential that makes a difference and allows them to enter the workforce with a great deal of confidence and a higher degree of skill.
Doing this will lead to deeper partnerships with other institutions, from community colleges to universities, as well as partnerships in our K-12 system. There’s still more work to be done in terms of streamlining the student experience and ensuring each transition is shored up so more students are successful.