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Making Their Mark

In the ongoing discussion about the benefits of higher education, the personal stories of individual students shed light on the value of the college experience.

By Karla Hignite

CHAPMAN UNIVERSITY

Johnson
Jonathan Johnson
Degree:
B.A., Religious Studies (2010)
Chapman University, Orange, Calif.
Current position: Founder and CEO, Rooted School, New Orleans

Investing in the Future

Jonathan Johnson never intended to be a teacher, and he certainly didn't envision himself a mere five years out of college developing an innovative new school that would gain national attention. Rooted School, a public charter high school that Jonathan piloted in New Orleans, mixes a digital curriculum with industry-focused lessons based in the real world, with real jobs attached.

"We project that over the next 10 years, more than 7,000 digital jobs will become available in New Orleans," Jonathan said in an interview on National Public Radio. "Yet no school locally—and I would argue nationally—is placing within its mission the goal to connect kids to these opportunities that are right in front of them."

Jonathan knows a thing or two about investing in students. He enrolled at Chapman University, Orange, Calif., thanks to support from a merit scholarship, institutional aid, and a first-generation scholarship. But, like many first-generation students, Jonathan met unanticipated expenses. When a professor called him in to discuss low exam scores, Jonathan revealed that he couldn't afford the textbooks. The professor immediately walked with Jonathan to a campus ATM, withdrew enough cash to cover the books and a week's worth of grocery money, and handed it to Jonathan.

"I teared up. I asked him, 'How do I pay it back?' and he said, 'Go and read right now'," says Jonathan. He did that and more. Jonathan excelled in his coursework, explored academic options from business to philosophy, and took on positions of leadership. The Black Student Union chose him as president when he was a sophomore, and he went on to serve as president of the university's student government association.

Jonathan's experience with leadership and government nudged him toward law school, but as things progressed, he chose education instead "because it had radically redefined the trajectory of my own life," he says. Teach for America recruited Jonathan, and he considered options in New York and Chicago. Then he looked harder at New Orleans, deciding that was where he was needed most.

A few years in, the shooting death of one of his social studies students moved Jonathan to further action, leading him to establish Rooted School, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2017 with support from 4.0 Schools and New Schools for New Orleans. "This is what I believe about my students," Johnson writes in his Rooted School introduction: "Somewhere their destiny has been written by our country, but they can choose to write their own. The catch is that they need to be shown the path."

COLLEGE OF SOUTHERN NEVADA


Saladino

Caitlin Saladino
Degree:
A.A., International Languages (2009)
College of Southern Nevada, Henderson
Current position: Instructor of public speaking, College of Southern Nevada, and Ph.D. student, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Connecting Past, Present, and Future

In a 2004 commencement speech to Stanford University, Calif., Steve Jobs stated: "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future." As an alumna of the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), Caitlin Saladino could have never imagined how her dots would connect to lead her to where she is today.

Caitlin was 16 years old when she enrolled in her first college course. She has a vivid memory of eagerly waiting for her birthday for the sole reason that she would finally be able to enroll at CSN. Through a dual credit program offered through CSN and the Clark County School District, Caitlin was able to become a full-time college student in her junior year of high school through the College of Southern Nevada High School program. Ultimately, she graduated with her associate's degree one month before she graduated from high school as valedictorian of her CSNHS graduating class.

With her transfer to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Caitlin became a member of the Honors College and worked hard to become a part of the culture of higher education. But, what truly changed the trajectory of Caitlin's life was the guidance and support of her instructors from both CSN and UNLV. Faculty and staff reached out to her and encouraged her to take advantage of all the opportunities that college had to offer. 

Caitlin explored different areas of study and changed majors to communication studies. She studied abroad in Italy, and was encouraged to begin teaching in higher education. Her role of teaching first-year experience courses to incoming honors students made her realize that she wanted to build a life as a college instructor. Once again, it was her former instructors who encouraged her to pursue graduate education.

With a master's degree in communication studies, Caitlin returned to her alma mater as an instructor, where she now has the privilege to encourage and mentor the next generation of CSN graduates. Nothing brings Caitlin greater joy than being able to tell her COM 101 students: "I was in your shoes, and the college experience has the power to completely change your life."

MIAMI UNIVERSITY

Devante Johnson
Devante Johnson
Degree: B.S., Engineering Management, and Electronics and Computing (2017)
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
Post-graduation plans: Help bring affordable energy to low-income neighborhoods

Igniting A Personal Passion

When Devante Johnson's financial aid package arrived from Miami University, Ohio, it not only meant the opportunity to attend college, but also the freedom to get the most from his college experience.

Devante is a member of the College of Engineering and Computing's Lockheed Martin Leadership Institute, president of the Delta Upsilon Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., and vice president of Miami's Gentlemen of Distinguished Character organization. While he is passionate about his electrical engineering major—an interest he developed while helping in his grandfather's television repair shop—he is grateful that his college experience extends beyond the classroom and laboratory.

Devante's academic track has also ignited a passion for the environment and sustainability, and a focus on harnessing abundant, accessible, and renewable energy sources. The opportunity to discover what is yet unknown excites him, and Devante hopes to help make energy costs more affordable for low-income neighborhoods such as the one in which he grew up.

MIDLANDS TECHNICAL COLLEGE

Alphonzo Royal

Alphonzo Royal
Degree:
Certificate, Network and Data Communication Analyst (2014)
Midlands Technical College, Columbia, S.C.
Current position: President and CEO, Tech SME (Technical Subject Matter Expert), Columbia, S.C.

[HEAD] Building High-Demand Skills

Alphonzo Royal got a job offer the day he graduated from Midlands Technical College (MTC). "I got a call from a company that needed networking engineers and I thought, I love networking. You are going to pay me to do that?"

That job offer was especially meaningful since previous to enrolling at MTC, Alphonzo found himself suddenly unemployed. "I had never been unemployed before, so I started doing a lot of research. I wanted to better myself. That's when I stumbled on the Growing Resources for Information Technology program at MTC." The purpose of the GRIT program, an IT scholarship program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, is to build a training infrastructure to high-growth, high-demand IT occupations for unemployed veterans, minorities, women, and others through a technical skills program that includes on-the-job training.

"You not only listen to instructors lecture on a topic, you actually sit down and work. Before you know it, you are committing the skills you learn to muscle memory. I gained confidence because now I know I have the ability to do the work. I think that is key," says Alphonzo. "MTC also helped me find my niche because IT is such a broad field. There are so many different avenues that you can turn to and so many different paths you can choose."

At first, Alphonzo didn't think he had what it takes to own his own business, but then he met some of the MTC staff who own their own businesses. "They encouraged me to follow my passions. After a few years of working for other people, I branched out on my own. From there, it kind of took off, and here I am today. I feel like this is where I am supposed to be," says Alphonzo. Tech SME currently has contracts with the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and Shaw Air Force Base. "I am amazed at how far I have come in such a short period of time."

UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, BALTIMORE COUNTY

Sayre Posey

Sayre Posey
Degree:
B.A. History, Education Certificate, magna cum laude (2016)
University of Maryland, Baltimore Country
Post-graduation plans: Teaching social studies at Edmondson-Westside High School, Baltimore

Nurturing Interests and Commitments

When Sayre Posey enrolled at University of Maryland, Baltimore Country, her only solid post-graduation plan was that she did not want to be a teacher. "My whole family is made up of teachers, and going straight back to public school after I graduated from college seemed so unglamorous," says Sayre.

However, after volunteering with The Choice Program at a high-risk school in west Baltimore, she learned of the educational disparities facing many underrepresented students in Baltimore City. Through this freshman volunteer opportunity, Sayre quickly realized the only career she wanted to pursue was teaching.

This experience also nurtured her commitment to support underrepresented groups through education, which led her to serve in several Baltimore City afterschool and summer programs; mentor at-risk high school girls; tutor Burmese students; teach reading and math to elementary and middle school students; and work at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth.

"I am passionate about eliminating inequalities in low-income communities and opening students' eyes to the amazing world of possibilities available to them—like going to college," says Sayre. Now she is following in her mother's footsteps as an urban public school teacher, and she is thankful for UMBC and the Sondheim Scholars Program for the experiences and education that inspired her to do so.  

WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY

Allegra Koupal

Allegra Koupal
Degree:
B.A., Human Development; Certificate, Human Services Case Management and Administration (2016)
Washington State University Vancouver
Current position: Case manager and community resource coordinator, Open House Ministries, Vancouver, Wash.

Catalyzing Leadership Potential

There was little in her past that prepared Allegra Koupal to succeed in higher education. Following a difficult childhood, Allegra got into trouble in her teens. She dropped out of high school and became addicted to drugs. She was arrested on felony drug charges and burglary, and imprisoned for 108 days. Then she began to turn her life around.

While incarcerated, Allegra participated in a YWCA program and began to work toward her GED. Learning and education became her personal 12-step program. After her release, she enrolled at Clark College, and in 2012 she transferred to WSU Vancouver.

Allegra's commitment to scholarship is reflected in her 3.73 GPA and induction into the Human Development honorary society, Kappa Omicron Nu. As a departmental teaching assistant, she contributed to the development of case studies, grading, tutoring and encouraging struggling students, and she lectured in two classes. She also completed several off-campus trainings to learn how to facilitate support groups and help children who, like herself, have been victims of sexual assault or exploitation.

The leadership Allegra exhibited on campus and in the community indicates her future potential. Under her presidency, membership in the university's Human Development Club tripled, and it received the Club of the Year award. And in her senior year, Allegra received WSU Vancouver's Chancellor's Award for Student Achievement, which recognizes one student each academic year on the basis of academic achievement and love of learning, overcoming barriers in pursuit of academic goals, future leadership potential, and involvement in campus life.

"My determination, motivation, and drive all came when I transferred to WSU Vancouver," says Allegra. "It energized me and pushed me to have the opportunities to re-identify myself and to be recognized in the community as something other than a convicted felon."

As a first-generation student, and first in her family to earn a degree, Allegra is extraordinarily proud to be graduating. Her love of learning has proved infectious. Her brother, mother, sister, stepfather, and brother-in law enrolled at WSU Vancouver—three as human development majors.

"This degree is the highlight of my marriage. My husband urged me to pursue my education because he saw it in me before I saw it in myself," says Allegra. "Now I am able to show my daughter what being a strong woman looks like and set an example for other people who have gone down a similar path that I did." 

For additional graduate profiles, read "Individual Impact" in the July/August 2016 issue of Business Officer.

KARLA HIGNITE, New York, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.


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