Our second stop in Rhode Island was to College Unbound, NECHE’s newest member. CU’s President is the irrepressible Dennis Littky, and for a small taste of his astonishing resume, take a hop over to Wikipedia.
One of the things I love most about my job is experiencing the incredible diversity of our more than 200 member institutions. Readers of this blog will doubtless have appreciated that richness by now, but College Unbound stands out even in that august group. With only 175 students, CU operates in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Providence, on the campus of a high school that Dennis founded some thirty years ago, called the MET school. The history of that enterprise began when Dennis was at nearby Brown University and it’s a fascinating story in itself.
The bold idea for College Unbound (and boy, does Dennis have a plethora of bold ideas) came from his realization that many students, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, had attempted to go to college but were never able to complete their studies. His belief was that most traditional institutions didn’t provide the necessary flexibility or support for the students he knew best, and those students were being required to fit into an educational model which doomed them to failure from the start. Our evening with CU began with us simply listening to the stories of these students. And oh, the life stories we did hear.
April began college in 1986 and just graduated from CU — thirty-five years later. In between, she worked as a highly effective middle school dean for fifteen years, even without a college degree. Leanne has been a teacher’s assistant for years, but her lack of degree prevents her from being promoted to a full teacher, with a commensurate salary. Although she’d returned to college several times and accumulated 74 credits, she was never able to make it to graduation until College Unbound. Liz dropped out of high school in tenth grade, became a mom at 15, and when her second child was just one year old, discovered he had severe lead poisoning. She worked for 25 years for a non-profit that addresses the issue of children and lead poisoning but her career was limited without the degree. Twenty-nine years had passed when she enrolled at CU. Now a proud alum, she’s just three classes short of her master’s degree from a nearby college. Damn!! (By the way, she and her husband have also raised and adopted 19 children along the way.)
We witnessed lives altered.
Generations of lives, in fact.
Speaking of community, Dennis and his team (which includes many graduates of CU, who are deeply emotionally attached to the school) serve dinner to all those who arrive after a long day’s work to attend three-hour classes every Tuesday and Wednesday night. Over supper, we heard more stories from Anita, Debbie, Rodney, Dorrie, Karla, and Jose. Jose was inspired to return to college while incarcerated, hoping to prove to his daughter the importance of education, and after his release, he managed to finish his degree at CU just one week before his daughter graduated from high school. His dream was to walk his daughter across the stage to her graduation as a college graduate himself, and he made it happen. I could have listened to these stories all night.
The College Unbound academic model is unique. Degrees are project-based, with the projects created and developed by the students focusing on one thing– their passion for the subject, which most often comes directly from a life experience. But more than that, the CU community felt unique and unequivocally supportive in ways impossible to describe but essential to witness.
That’s the whole purpose of these visits and tonight, we were certainly rewarded for taking the time to be on the road.