Counting Your Blessings

In the faith tradition in which I was raised, we regularly sang the hymn Count Your Blessings. They say that you learn much of your theology through the music of your faith, and this hymn clearly made an impact on me. To this day, despite having left that particular faith tradition behind, I believe in counting my blessings rather than my woes.

In the spirit of that old hymn and the gratitude that it calls folks to, I thought I would count some of my professional blessings as we recover from the Deep Freeze.

  1. I’m grateful for colleagues who are friends. As friends, we check on each other (as we did via text last week), we laugh with each other, we mourn with each other, we sometimes roll our eyes at a shared bit of amusement, we celebrate with each other, we ask for help from each other, and we hold each other accountable for good work.
  2. I’m grateful for the staff at ACC who tended to the animals at Elgin during the freeze, and who dealt with water leaks, frozen boilers, sprinkler leaks, frozen cooler towers, pipe damage, and more across our multiple buildings and campuses.
  3. I’m grateful for instructional leadership who figured out, on the fly, how to move facilities-intensive programs and classes into other facilities. Why are they moving those classes? See Number 2 above.
  4. I’m grateful for senior leadership who believe in grace, compassion, flexibility, and humor. And who have worked tirelessly to steer the great ship that is ACC through these immensely challenging waters.
  5. I’m grateful for the deans and executive director whom I directly support. They are brilliant and thoughtful and funny and dedicated, and our weekly meetings are always lively and restorative.
  6. I’m grateful for the department chairs who have done so much to support their faculty and their students, and who continue to “roll with the punches” when I know they’re tired.
  7. I’m grateful for faculty who keep students at the center of their decision-making.
  8. I’m grateful for my newish Executive Assistant who, in the last two months, has helped me do my work more effectively. And I’m grateful for my “borrowed” Executive Assistant who got me through some sad and difficult times in 2020.
  9. I’m grateful to work at a college whose mission I believe in. That mission inspires me every day.

Gratitude keeps me focused. Yes, we all get tired, and frustrated, and irritated, and whiny. But I regularly count my blessings because I know this most of all – I work at an institution that is going to save the world. And that blessing keeps me going.

ACC’s Adult Education Program

Do you know much about our adult education and literacy program? Before I was named AVP in December 2016 I knew a bit – I was in meetings with the previous Executive Director of AE periodically so I had a very general sense of the good work that goes on in Adult Ed. And in preparation for my interview for this position, I spent an hour with the current Executive Director to learn more. (Funnily enough, even though my role includes supporting Adult Ed, I didn’t get a single question about it in my interview!) I’ve learned a lot more about Adult Ed in the last four years, and my admiration for their work is deep and lasting.

Adult Education is a world of complexity (behind the scenes) aimed at offering opportunities to vulnerable students who need both skills development and basic academic development. AE students take AE classes for free. Their goals vary: they can study and learn and then sit for a high school equivalency exam (what used to be known as the GED), they can learn some basic English, they can prepare for college credit classes, or they can gain job skills while also developing their academic skills.

Why is it a complicated world? Aside from some institutional funding (“hard money”), our AE colleagues mostly do their great work with grants (“soft money”). And grants come with strict deliverables and reporting requirements. Imagine funding your work primarily with multiple grants from multiple agencies with multiple deliverables and multiple reporting requirements. Imagine serving students who have limited resources, perhaps limited English, and limited skill levels – especially in the age of COVID. Answering questions, advising, assessing, supporting enrollment all has to be done in a virtual environment at present with students who may have nothing more than a smart phone, or a family member to translate. Our AE colleagues are heroes.

In the summer of 2019 the Adult Ed Division launched a UFCU Scholars program, thanks to the generosity of University Federal Credit Union, with the goal of helping AE students successfully achieve their educational goals, move into meaningful work, and improve their family’s lives. UFCU funds support scholarships for AE students who complete their AE coursework – thus helping them transition to college credit classes. In the first year of the program UFCU contributed $70,000 to support educational costs for AE students. For instance, those funds helped pay for the cost of the high school equivalency test for students. Primarily, those funds provided tuition and fees for a credit course after AE students completed their AE coursework.

The UFCU Scholars wrote thank you notes to UFCU. Here’s a small selection from those notes:

“I’ve always told myself I wasn’t going to go to college. Look at me now, I can proudly say I’m a college student.”

“I am a mother, a part-time student and I work approximately 65 hours per week to make sure my family has everything we need. Receiving this scholarship has helped me to get one step closer to pursuing a career where I know I can truly make a difference.”

“Your generosity has inspired me to help others and give back to the community. I hope one day I will be able to help students achieve their goals just as you have helped me.”

“I never thought that I could afford to go to college, so I never planned on going. My advisor made me feel like college is possible for someone like me and that I can continue my education. “

“Being in college has given me so much to be proud of. I thank y’all for believing in me.”

Adult Education can sometimes be invisible to us – but you should know that it is an essential and compelling part of our mission, vision, and values. And you should also know that the Executive Director of our Adult Education program – Kathy Dowdy – was just named the Adult Education Administrator of the Year by the Texas Association for Literacy and Adult Education. Kathy would be the first to tell you that it’s a recognition of her wonderful, dedicated, and hardworking staff and faculty. But it’s also a recognition of her commitment, her heart, and her hard work. Kudos to all – most especially the students whose lives are changed by our Adult Education programs.

What Can We Do?

What can we do in response to the world that we see on television, online or in the newspaper? What can we do in response to riots, and beatings, and attempts at mob rule? What can we do when the body politic is not just divided, but, in the minds of many, at war with itself?

Community colleges can save our world. I truly believe that we can make that much difference. After the mob-led and violent insurrection attempt on January 6, 2021, I have a renewed commitment to the role of community colleges in fostering the mutual respect and civil dialogue that are the essence of a mature democratic republic.

After the events at the Capitol, and in light of the continued belief of millions of citizens that somehow a national election was “stolen”, the work that we do at ACC becomes even more important. We help our students learn about our history as a nation (the bad as well as the good). We help our students learn about politics and policymaking (the bad as well as the good). We help our students learn about activism, teamwork, respect for differences, the rule of law, peaceful conflict resolution, the vagaries of human nature, institutional racism, xenophobia, the power of the vote, and so much more.

Student success is our mission and goal. But student success is about more than just the courses students take. It’s about students’ personal growth, it’s about students being challenged by contradictory ideas that make them uncomfortable, it’s about students making connections with those who are different, it’s about students learning to think critically. It’s about saving the world.

As we start a new semester and a new year – as a new administration begins in Washington – as we continue to struggle with the social, economic, educational, political, psychological, and health impacts of a pandemic – as we recognize the work still to do to achieve “a more perfect union” that “provides for the general welfare” of all the people – let’s renew our commitment to the vision and values of ACC that affirm our commitment to being “a catalyst for social equity”, respect for each individual student, equal opportunity and support for all students to succeed, and the “promotion of equity as a means to understanding, an appreciation of cultural and individual differences, and a democratic society”.

Let’s go save the world.

Team Lift

One of the many things that is different in 2020* is the fact that I can take a brief break from constant computer use and go for a quick walk around my neighborhood. Sometimes it’s ten minutes, sometime it’s 20, but these walks not only get me away from the computer, they also help my psyche.

On one of my walks recently, I saw a big, heavy box outside a doorway, with “TEAM LIFT ONLY” in big bold letters. Doesn’t that perfectly describe ACC in 2020? The notion of team lifting is to make individual loads lighter. And haven’t we all collaborated to make loads lighter?


Team lifting is often the key to success. I have a weekly meeting with the instructional leadership who make up my work family, and in August we welcomed a new Dean of Liberal Arts – Social & Behavioral Sciences. Imagine starting a new job in a new college in a new city in the midst of a hundred-year pandemic. Where would she have been without folks to help carry the load by offering wisdom, advice, and experience. In fact, she has coined a new word for us: the deanery. The Deanery has been helping lift not only each other’s heavy loads, but the loads of our administrative assistants and department chairs and full-time faculty and adjunct faculty and lab technicians and instructional associates – all in the service of ACC’s mission.

I won’t be able to list everyone who has been part of my 2020* team lift, but off the top of my head I can come up with two dozen or more names (in no particular order): Carolynn, Tammy, Rich, Gretchen, Dianne, Georgia, Mike, Kathy, Margaret, Ruth, David, Stewart, Matthew, Sam, Charles, Gerry, Erica, Jennifer, Shasta, Don, Nancy, Kathy J., Melissa, Marilyn, Suzanne, Courtney, Susy, Jeanette, Theresa, Mary, JoAnn, Carol, Pam, Marie, Katie, Matthew C., Charlene, Kristi, Erasmus, Mison.

Okay, I’ll quit. That is an incomplete list, but we have all been part of large and small team lifts in 2020*. As the year finally, finally, finally draws to a close, please raise your virtual or actual glasses to the members of your team who have been lifting with you this year. A toast from me to one and all for their help, good cheer, brilliant ideas, patience, insights, and fortitude.

I wish you peace and rest and joy and laughter in equal measure. See you in 2021.

*2020. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year that consisted of endless crises, reinvention of systems and processes, and no relief from staring at a computer monitor ten hours a day. May we never see the like again.

Picture published 2007 by the California Department of Industrial Relations. CC BY-SA 4.0

Sound Tracks

If you’re like me, you associate music or sounds with moments in your life. I grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and I spent my childhood summers at a pool called Crystal Plunge. I have a clear memory (yes, crystal clear!) of coming up out of the water and hearing “One is the Loneliest Number” playing on the speakers. Thank you Three Dog Night for that bit of my life’s soundtrack.

I also can be back on a bus singing along with the Doobie Brothers on “Black Water” with my high school friend Jimbo whenever I hear that song on the radio. Or I recall listening endlessly to U2’s “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” when I was dealing with some particularly difficult personal struggles. When I hear that song I know that actually I can get out of difficult moments. (Thank you YouTube for the musical sound track flashbacks!)

But it’s not just music, it’s also sounds. Growing up, the screen door in our house had a very distinctive rhythm when it closed. Unfortunately, I can’t replicate it here, but it was “BANG . . . bang, bang” (long. . . short, short). That is such a clear sound in my head, and when my dad replaced that screen door I gave him a hard time for a year or more for taking away part of my life’s sound track.

My 2020 pandemic soundtrack includes “You’re on mute”, “You’re frozen”, and “We can’t hear you”. But it also includes the sounds of dogs barking in my neighborhood, and a little boy on his tricycle who LOVES to bike up and down my side alley and splash in the puddles, and a persistent cough that a neighbor has that I hear every time she walks her dog past my house, and the trash/recycling/composting trucks every other Friday. And it includes this little tidbit. My condo is undergoing some remediation work, and I spent a week recently listening to that sound all day every day – the sound of sawing into the stucco around all my windows. In one or two of my meetings that week, I’m pretty sure I was shouting so that I could hear myself over the din.

2020 has been topsy turvy. Instead of my 2020 soundtrack reflecting the chatting of colleagues in the hallway, or the voice of my colleague on speakerphone in the next office, it reflects the sounds of my neighborhood, and the virtual world of Google Meet/WebEx/Zoom/GoToMeetings/BlueJeans. And that’s okay. It’s part of how I will remember this year when I look back on all that we did, individually and collectively, to keep ACC not only afloat but sailing forward.


Friends and colleagues

Philip, my friend of 30-plus years, loved good food, good wine, good company, and a good debate. He loved to tell stories – and he had quite a few “Gaye Lynn stories” because we met in the late 80s when we were both new adjuncts at ACC, me in the Government Department and Philip in the History Department. Philip worked by day at the Texas Education Agency and taught History classes by night. And we spent many an evening in the basement of Rio Grande holding office hours and developing an enduring friendship.

Philip and I were part of a small group of friends who met regularly over those 30 years for “beer night” at The Tavern. Out of that group, two are now gone. I lost my stalwart friend Rex last year, and I lost my stalwart friend Philip this month. It’s a blessing to have friends over the course of decades, friends who see you through hard times, friends who love to tell stories about you when you were an earlier, younger version of yourself, friends who make you laugh, friends who tell you the truth, friends on whom you can call anytime, anywhere.

Philip loved teaching History at ACC. And in his day, Rex loved teaching Government at ACC. Think of the thousands of students they influenced. Think of all the students who dread walking into a required History or Government class when the semester starts, and who walk out at the end of the semester understanding the power of learning about history or politics or policymaking.

Today, as we are so tired of 2020, worn down, and ready for a brief Thanksgiving break, I give thanks for all my friends and colleagues at ACC who persist, reinventing their courses, and teaching our students. And in the spirit of Philip and Rex and decades of beer night at The Tavern, I raise a metaphorical beer in praise of your good work.

Thank you for what you do.

Image by Christian Birkholz, CC-BY licensed and available on Pixabay.

An AVP’s Aspen Journey – Chapter 5: The Pandemic Pivot

The Aspen Rising Presidents Fellowship typically runs from July (an exhilarating and exhausting week at Stanford) through April (a gathering in Aspen where each Fellow presents a “capstone”). But . . . I was a member of Cohort 4, what became the COVID Cohort (Best Cohort Ever!).

Because the world turned on its head in March, our cohort suspended its formal work in the Fellowship. But that doesn’t mean that we suspended our connections with each other or with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. The Aspen Institute pivoted to online teaching and learning just as we did. They offered a variety of workshops and virtual sessions to help the Fellows navigate unfamiliar terrain – after all, who among us ever expected to lead in a hundred-year pandemic?

One of the workshops was in late May and it was with Dr. Sandy Shugart, President of Valencia College, who spoke about transformation in a time of crisis. I wanted to offer some of his words of wisdom here.

  1. People don’t fear change, they fear loss. We must honor what we each value most deeply, even in the face of transformation.
  2. Walk in chalk, not stone. We have to learn from everything, but that doesn’t mean everything we try or do is precedent-setting.
  3. In a storm, be careful what you throw overboard – you may need it later.
  4. If you can’t get out of it, get into it. Have a “joyful conspiracy” to get through the storm and keep moving toward your institution’s mission and vision.

And finally, “play the game on the ground of hope, not despair”. If we focus on the horizon and our goals, we’ll move forward with purpose and commitment.

Planning

In January we launched our academic master planning process to develop the common goals that would drive us forward in the next five year.  By April we had suspended that work, but we will take it up again in a few weeks, with a presentation of the Academic Master Plan to the Board scheduled for November.

This recent article in Inside Higher Ed about design thinking as an approach to strategic planning – recommended most especially for institutions that are planning in the midst of a pandemic – caught my attention.  How do we plan?  In our daily lives, in our professional lives, in our classrooms?  Do we design to achieve outcomes, or do we plan around activities?  I’m afraid I am often guilty of thinking in terms of activities – hopefully  with an eye to outcomes, but probably with too much focus on the activities themselves.

The author suggests that we start with the problems we want to solve rather than trying to draw a map for where we want to be in five year.  In an age of constraints – both fiscal and physical – he further suggests that constraints can provoke creative thinking.  He recommends empathy throughout, and an intentional focus on a few things rather than trying to do everything.  And of course, for ACC our planning should reflect our mission and our passion for a more equitable world.

Whatever you may think of some of his recommendations, I found his approach thought-provoking as well as serving as a reminder that creativity and empathy are the keys to the things that we do as a college.  Whether we’re designing our courses for the Fall semester or designing the college’s academic master plan for the next five years, let’s not forget to rely on empathy, experimentation, and creativity.  They will serve us well as we move forward towards a more equitable classroom, college, city, and world.

Engineering!

ACC does so many good things in so many corners of our vast and far-flung college – it can be hard to keep up.  So today I thought I’d highlight our partnership with Texas A&M in the Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academy.

Especially in our current reality – one that challenges our college, our city, our state, and our nation – the TAMU Engineering Academy is a tremendous opportunity for current and soon-to-be ACC students.  As we see in this edition of the President’s Podcast, engineering jobs have a bright future – and the ACC/TAMU partnership makes that future even brighter for our students.

We are headed into our fourth year of this partnership, and we hope to have over 100 students in the entering cohort.  This is a tremendous opportunity for them – they are Aggies from the start but they are also Riverbats from the start – so they call themselves AggieBats.  They start their engineering future with us and immediately learn from a TAMU Professor of Practice, they have various outings to the TAMU campus in College Station (including presenting projects at TAMU showcases), they can take advantage of all the things ACC has to offer (including excellent instruction and tutoring as well as saving money) – in other words, they are part of a TAMU/ACC learning community that provides a clear pathway to the career and the life that they want.

Celebrate this corner of ACC and the impact that it has.  Congrats to all involved with the TAMU Engineering Academy at ACC!

Picture openly licensed by Steve Bidmead, from Pixabay

The Power of ACC

ACC has great power.  I want to take a moment of personal privilege and talk about the power of ACC to affect one person:  Rhonda Little.

Rhonda passed away on Sunday, June 14.  She started working at ACC in January 2013 and she was immediately hooked.  Her professional life had been in the legal field, working for large law firms.  Switching from that world to a community college was, I expect, rather like going down the rabbit hole with Alice.  But, while she took a considerable pay cut, and didn’t know anything about who and what we are, she dived in with her spirit of “let me help” and “I will learn”.

I hired Rhonda to be an administrative assistant in my office when I was Dean of Social & Behavioral Sciences.  She supported not only the work of my office in tandem with Mandy Cummings, but also the work of the Geographic Information Systems Department.  Have you ever thought about what it might be like to plunge into an entirely different professional environment where you don’t know the norms or expectations or protocols?  In Rhonda’s case, everything was different.  The expectation of professional dress was different (read:  much more casual).  The expectation of supervisory authority was different (read:  don’t tell faculty what to do).  The rhythms of the job were tied to the rhythms of semesters.  The holidays – oh, the holidays!  Outside of education, most folks don’t get ten days at Christmas, a week in March, two days at Thanksgiving – plus accruing vacation leave.

Rhonda loved ACC from the beginning.  She loved the power of our mission.  She loved helping students.  She loved learning – and we are, after all, a learning institution.  She took advantage of multiple professional development opportunities and accrued scores of hours of PD.  She served as an officer in the Classified Employees Association.  She applied for the Leadership Academy but was, unfortunately, unable to participate due to her challenging health issues.  She loved helping me organize events (the annual SBS convocation, two conferences last year).  She loved taking notes at my meetings, or purchasing “swag” for the faculty coordinators to give to students at AoS information sessions, or figuring out some new process or procedure or protocol.  She loved everything about her job.  And that’s because she loved what ACC is, who we are, and how we can save the world, one student at a time.

Since the announcement of her passing, I’ve received lots of emails of condolence.  One friend here described Rhonda as “fiercely protective of me”.  She was indeed that.  She was my work partner, my defender against all comers, and my dear friend.  She never thought I was wrong (bless her!), and she would do anything I asked or needed.  She thought I needed a caretaker, and she appointed herself to that role.  The emails I’ve received mention laughing with Rhonda, having good conversations with Rhonda, and learning from Rhonda.  She has been described as wonderfully kind, cheerful, helpful, patient, sweet.  She was born to be an executive assistant and she did it well.  And we were a great team.

Did she get frustrated with ACC’s processes on occasion?  Yes.  Did she get irritated when people wouldn’t return phone calls?  Yes.  Was she sometimes stubborn and overly-critical?  Yes.  Just as ACC is imperfect, Rhonda was imperfect.  But ACC also provided her with the security of extended leave thanks in part to the generosity of colleagues who donate to the sick leave pool each year.  And ACC provided her with benefits that mattered in the midst of extended health challenges.  And most especially, ACC provided her with a caring community – and gave her reason to get better.  When she was away from work with her illness, her goal was always – always – to return to work.  That kept her going when life was a struggle.  She was so captivated by our mission and impact, and by our people, and by our students’ stories, and by the commitment of our senior leadership, and by her daily interactions with friends on the 6th floor of HBC.  She loved coming to work and making a difference.

ACC has great power.  In this instance, its power helped Rhonda fight the cancer beast for five and a half years.  She is irreplaceable.  I will miss her sparkle, and her quick wit, and her ability to be my sounding board, and her ever-ready willingness to support me and defend me.  But what I will miss most is her belief in the power of Austin Community College.