Raising the next generation of diverse leaders

Warner Pacific College president Andrea Cook discusses the college’s transformation, and how it’s fostering a new generation of leaders.

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At one time Warner Pacific was an insular college nestled at the foot of Mt. Tabor Park in Portland’s southeast. Over the past several years it has made efforts to attract first generation students who are predominantly low income and from ethnic minorities. In the following interview, president Andrea Cook talks about the college’s transformation and how it is working with Portland businesses to foster a new generation of diverse leaders.    

Why is it important for you to attract first generation students to the college?

We see a very diverse population where we are located. Part of our intent is to keep students in the city and raise them up to be the next generation of leaders because their communities need them and the city needs them as leaders for the future. We have taken a very localized approach; our traditional and adult degree programs are predominantly serving students right here in the Portland Metro area, and providing them access and success in completing college. We have changed dramatically in the past 8 years. 50 per cent of our students are students of color, 50 per cent are first generation students and more than 50 per cent are Pell-eligible students. All three are considered risk factors for retention and success in college.

At what point did you realize the college needed to attract more diverse students?

This is something I have paid attention to for a long time. I read a book in the late 90s about a young man who was from the urban area of Washington DC, who went to college. He realized that as a first generation student he was stepping into a completely different culture with a completely different language and completely different set of systems and assumptions. He was challenged to navigate that.

We recognized how we needed to think about providing students with wrap around services that engage them and support them and give them a sense of belonging because they don’t have anyone in their family who has gone before them that knows how to navigate it all. To make an assumption that they can come in and know how they can get through all the processes and all of the systems and know how to be successful is wrong thinking.

What is the biggest challenge first generation students face in sticking with a college program?

We see kids questioning their competence academically and that affects their confidence. A lot of students feel the pull of home. A lot are responsible for childcare and supporting their family financially. They feel an obligation to work to help mum and dad and siblings out.

How do you create a support structure for first generation students?

We started to think about how we would wrap services around them. We have had a first-year experience program for years. But we changed that program in substantial ways and developed what we call first-year learning communities. It is something that every single freshman participates in. In our adult program, every student is in a cohort. They are in small group for their whole freshman year. That small group is mentored by upper division students as well as two faculty members that work with them their whole freshman year. Their mentors meet them every couple of weeks to help them navigate questions; help them know how to engage the processes; walk with them through moments of doubt and fear and discouragement. What we see with a lot of our first generation students, if they get into a place where they think it is not for them, they call parents, who of course have not lived this experience and sometimes say, ‘well you don’t have to stay.’

andrea cookHow can the business sector get involved in encouraging first generation students to graduate?

Just this year a group of businesses came together to form the Emerging Leaders Internship Program. The Portland Leadership Foundation is the group that organized it. They brought 30 to 40 businesses together to focus on identifying internships for diverse students. One of the things Ryan Buchanan, the CEO of eROI (a marketing firm that helped form the internship program), recognized is that our business sector was very white and very male. So they developed the Emerging Leaders Internship Program. We are in our first year of that. We have several of our students participating. They engage students from all the colleges in the Portland area.  It is a great way for businesses to see who is coming up and who will be the next generation of leaders.

How important are work experience/internships to first generation students?

We encourage our students to be engaged in internships because it builds their confidence and competence in recognizing what the work world looks like. One of the things we ask students to do is engage in service in the city. In some cases students will be involved in internships directly tied to their majors. In some cases they will be doing service with agencies around the city. Part of what is important that students get out of education is not only the critical thinking and problem solving that comes through a liberal arts education, there are also some soft skills of knowing how to relate to people, knowing how to speak well, and how to show up. Internships give them additional practice at that. It is wonderful to see students develop a sense of themselves and to be able to go out and engage successfully.

Is the business sector welcoming of a diverse student population?

One of things businesses run up against when they think about hiring diverse populations is they oftentimes say, ‘we don’t know where to find them.’ We need to be working on a pipeline and giving visibility both to businesses and students about opportunities. When you look at the high schools you can see that it is a very diverse workforce that is coming.

Why is this so important to you personally?

I am starting my 40th year as a college administrator. For so many years students who are first generation, low income and diverse have not had the opportunities and have often been left on the sidelines. The human capital there is huge. As I look at the economic disparities I realize if we don’t educate and provide opportunities for these students it will affect our country for generations to come.