Are we losing our soft skills due to technology?

One of the principles of my blog is “Critical/Objective Thought” meaning that I usually try to see things from all angles as opposed to just one.  I might lose some readers here, but yes I do switch between CNN and Fox News when trying to understand what’s happening politically and in current events.  Recently Tucker Carlson interviewed Mike Rowe of the show “Dirty Jobs”.  I support Rowe and his messages about all jobs being necessary and important (even the dirty ones), and that our society has over glamorized college and the pursuit of white-collar jobs at the expense of trades, and blue-collar jobs.

Towards the end of their discussion, Carlson and Rowe talked about the growing use of Emojis which have become a very, very popular form of digital communication using symbols as opposed to complete or even truncated words (great vs gr8 for example).  Rowe said something very interesting which is that the use of these Emojis may be eroding the “Soft Skills” in our society – particularly for individuals seeking employment which involves talking with potential employers during face to face interviews, and where understanding the nuances and complexities of both verbal and nonverbal communication is highly advantageous.  He further said that he would encourage individuals looking for jobs these days (some for the first time) to develop their Soft Skills.

According to Investopedia, “Soft Skills” are character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationships with other people.  Just off the top of my head, Soft Skills involve being able to speak clearly, listen and also understand the nuances of verbal and non-verbal communication – making eye contact with other individuals, and being able to give more than one word answers for example.  It can also involve being able to read someone’s mood by the answers they give and don’t give, or simply their body language.  Again these are important on job interviews.

But a job interview is just getting your foot in the door.  What about staying at that position?  Once hired, soft skills can make all of the difference in the world in terms of excelling in that particular position and helping an organization thrive – particularly when achieving the mission involves working on teams.  In any organization there are personalities to work with and juggle which can affect the mission.  Some personalities work well together while others clash.  There are rare individuals who get along with everyone.  Personality clashes and petty bickering can cause production to grind to a screeching halt to the detriment of that organization.  Soft kills are critical in navigating interpersonal issues and conflict resolution.

Emotional Intelligence” can fall under soft skills.  According to Psychology Today, Emotional Intelligence is defined as the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.  The other are explanations for it, but I tend to think of it in terms of forming alliances, and not burning bridges.  This involves awareness of self and of others – understanding what drives your colleagues, understanding current and past rivalries between colleagues, understanding who is on the fast track towards promotion, and also being more emotionally proactive and less reactive in adverse circumstances, particularly in groups – meetings for example.  A good example of Emotional Intelligence is being happy for a newly promoted colleague as opposed to being outwardly bitter – or at least not openly showing your disappointment and letting it affect your performance.

Where does one learn soft skills?  We actually learn our soft skills from a multitude of places.  Here I will defer to Dr. Ralph G. Perrino’s essay titled, “The Socialization Process and Its Impact on Children and Learning”.  In his essay Dr. Perrino, a veteran educator, describes the most profound external forces on the development of children and teens all of which have lingering effects well into adulthood:

  • The family from which one’s “Ascribed” status is derived;
  • Attendances at a public school or an exclusive, elite private school;
  • The composition of peer groups;
  • Exposure to mass culture and media;
  • Involvement in voluntary groups and;
  • Religious affiliation/spirituality.

Soft skills can further be learned and improved through reading and formal trainings.  One of my favorite trainings offered through my job is the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  Soft skills can also be learned through in depth discussions with mentors – particularly those in leadership positions with years and years of experience leading others.  Lastly, Soft skills can be learned just by observing others.

I’ll close by going back to Mike Rowe’s question.  Is technology negatively impacting our soft skills?  I would say that it can.  In some instances, communication over email and or text-messaging can be easily misunderstood which is particularly detrimental when there are conflicts to be worked out.  Digitally you can’t look into someone’s eyes, see their body language, or gauge the dynamics of a group in real time.  These are all things for “Millenials” and subsequent generations to be aware of.  With the new technologies that captains of industry such as Elon Musk are working on, and with the coming of Artificial Intelligence, this is something to be very cognizant of for students, educators, employees and employers alike.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  Lastly, follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful.  While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Kaep steps away: discussions on Colin Kaepernick’s early retirement from the NFL

While the main areas of my blog are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, I will occasionally comment on Social and Political topics where I see it appropriate – especially when they relate to principles of my blog – in this case critical thought, and empowering others.  This particular topic has the potential to get people fired up due its polarizing nature but I’ve decided to reach my hand into the fire nonetheless.  In writing this I’m not seeking to give an opinion that everyone should follow – just to capture the main points and questions from the discussions that have ensued.  I have to give credit where it is due in that I decided to write something about this after listening to the YouTube channels of Minister Jap, and Oshay Duke Jackson who weighed in heavily on this – both receiving agreement and backlash from their listeners.

A very recent and interesting story is former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s retirement. I won’t go far into who Colin Kaepernick is as his background is available online via a simple Google search.  The entire timeline surrounding his retirement is actually captured in an article written by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports titled, “Colin Kaepernick is making his choice: Activism over the NFL”.  It was graciously shared by a Facebook friend.

Put simply Colin Kaepernick was a very electric player in the NFL at the quarterback position who had about three great years with the San Francisco 49ers before his career bottomed out into mediocrity. With his combination of size, quickness, mobility and a strong arm, the tattooed signal caller looked like the future of his position.  With his good looks and a unique image/persona, he was also destined to clean up money-wise on endorsements, modeling and in the media off the field.

His ascension sputtered though when his brilliance on the field seemed to stagnate and regress which for me was surprising. His decline was mostly due to defenses adapting to his skill set which hadn’t yet evolved to make him more of pocket passer.  The departure of Head Coach Jim Harbaugh back to my alma mater also didn’t help, nor did the dismantling of the roster that surrounded him when the 49ers made their run to Super Bowl XLVII.  All in all, in the last year or so, even though he signed a $126 million-dollar contract, it wasn’t clear if he still had the skills to play in the league.

As all of the police shootings of black men were caught on tape within the last two to three years (Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Walter Scott for example), Kaepernick’s focus seemed to shift from returning to the All-Pro quarterback he had been, to becoming more of a vocal “Social Justice Warrior” championing the causes of police-brutalized African Americans who seemed to be victimized more and more. During the 2016 season, he made the bold protest at the beginning of 49ers’ games at first sitting during our national anthem, and then later on opting to famously take a knee.  The reactions to his protests were mixed everywhere.  In the league, some players and teammates disagreed with the protest, while others supported him and joined in.  Kaepernick further did other things like vocally showing little confidence in our voting/electoral process which makes me wonder in hindsight if his example impacted the 2016 Presidential Election.  Many people actually do follow the examples and leadership of celebrities/pro-athletes, and a low voter turnout on the Democratic side was actually said to have helped Donald Trump win the presidency.  In another instance Kaepernick took it a step further by wearing socks to practice depicting the police as pigs – perhaps inspired the “Pigs in blanket: fry em like bacon,” chant by Black Lives Matter in Minnesota in 2015.

In my circle of friends, the question came up as to whether or not Kaepernick should’ve been focusing strictly on football and getting back to where he was a couple of seasons ago. It came up a lot actually.  The other question was whether or not he was being a distraction to his team and organization, and if he was permanently burning his bridges in the NFL – a traditionally conservative organization which didn’t like controversies and always sought to, “Protect the shield,” as talk show host Jim Rome always says.

In Black America, points of view varied as they normally do with all things political and socioeconomic. The Pro-Black Activists and the “Stay Woke” folks vocally and fervently supported Kaepernick.  Others questioned his motives and newfound interest in Civil Rights issues – particularly because he was bi-racial, raised in a white family and never openly took an interest in such issues before – black on black crime for example which some would argue is responsible for more black deaths.  As a result of his protest, many also rallied behind the uncovered origins of the Star-Spangled Banner and rejected our national anthem.  Something I interestingly missed but that a mentor pointed out, was that our traditionally liberal US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg even disapproved of Kaepernick’s protest which was surprising.

But what would be the outcome of Kaepernick’s protests? What good would come of them?  He may have been, “Following is heart,” as said by a cousin on Facebook, but were his actions the best thing for him and people he was looking to help?  Some felt that Kaepernick had “won” because he had gotten people talking about him and his protests.  Whether or not they would affect real change remained to be seen.

Fast forward to this summer of 2017 – Kaepernick, now a free agent had one tryout with the Seattle Seahawks who ultimately didn’t sign him leading to his retirement announcement. I heard about his retirement on the above mentioned shows where the discussions got very heated.  Some of Minister Jap’s listeners for example called him all kinds of names like, “Klansman”, in addition to today’s en vogue black on black slur, “Coon”.  The comments in both shows were surprisingly split down the middle in rebuke of Kaepernick vs. rebuking the hosts.

Whatever happens to Colin Kaepernick, I hope that he lands on his feet somewhere and there is a happy ending to his story unlike what some others are predicting. A couple of points stand out to me from Kaepernick’s retirement and the discussions I’ve listened to surrounding it.  They are:

  • For all the younger people witnessing this, think about the long-term effect on your life and job prospects when seeking to make political/social statements. Ask yourself if it is really worth it in the end? Is it the appropriate time? In other words there are consequences to our actions.  My former stepfather once told me that a particular black activist back in Buffalo made quite a few blacks in the city “self-destruct” and self-sabotage their careers. In a way the title of the above mentioned Yahoo Sports article is deceptive in that it sounds as though Kaepernick is highly coveted and doesn’t want to play anymore, versus not being wanted by any of the NFL’s 32 franchises.
  • Change and power in the United States is economic and only minimally impacted by protests and marches. If Kaepernick will no longer command a million-dollar salary and endorsements in addition to his former platform, how will he now effect meaningful change for those he wants to help? One of the arguments on the above mentioned shows was that he could’ve used his salary to build businesses and employ other blacks to make real change – similar to Magic Johnson who has done quite well since his playing days.
  • Not all black people think alike on anything. Issues over politics and race divide and fragment the race a whole. The fallout and name calling whenever there are differences of opinion are always striking to me.
  • Lastly even in 2017, there is a genuine distrust of bi-racial blacks by other blacks – particularly those raised in predominantly white households, who then take pro-black stances when it appears to be convenient.

One of the talk show hosts stated that at some point reality will crash down hard on Colin Kaepernick – if and when his resources are depleted, he’ll be forgotten – similar to what happened to MC Hammer once all of his resources were spent. Likewise, the same people he is seeking to help will eventually turn their backs on him even after some of his gestures of generosity such as giving suits to felons.  Again, my hope is that he has thought all of this out, and will have a productive life after football.  For that stretch of two to three years, #7 was definitely great one in my opinion.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful.  While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

JCSU DC Alumni Chapter President Robert Ridley discusses the 150 and Beyond Campaign

One of the focuses of the Big Words Blog Site is Education – all aspects.  Higher education is not just a means to a career and upward mobility, but it’s also a business with both benefits and costs to the student, parents, the institution, and society.  Likewise, one of the major concerns of parents and students, in addition to getting into a school, is actually financing the college tuition, room and board.  The amount of money awarded students was, in fact, one of the major discussion points recently at the Richard T. Montgomery High School and the Alfred Street Baptist Church HBCU College Fairs.  Students received both onsite admissions and financial awards from prospective Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Like many of my peers I have two alma maters – one a predominantly white institution (PWI), and a the other an HBCU institution.  When I think about the University of Michigan I tend not to think about financial challenges.  The opposite is true for my first alma mater, Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) and other HBCU’s.  I first heard about anemic alumni giving to HBCU’s in one of Spike Lee’s earliest films, School Daze.  These discussions continued throughout the years, and when writing for the Examiner I had an opportunity to interview Allstate’s Cheryl Harris, a Florida A & M University.  She talked about low alumni giving and the Allstate campaigns with the Tom Joyner Foundation for raising money for HBCUs.

Four years ago, I became active in the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter which has been a very educational experience.  Alumni Chapters at smaller institutions are critical for steering new students to schools and helping to raise money so that they can remain open; again, something critical for HBCUs.  Since becoming the Treasurer for the local Alumni Chapter, I have had the privilege of working alongside my fellow Class of ‘99 alumnus and Chapter President, Robert “Big Philly” Ridley (Community Health Education).

Through his love for JCSU and the DC Alumni Chapter, Robert has worked tirelessly over the years to give back to our alma mater and future generations of Smithites.  Under his leadership, our chapter has recently embarked on the “150 and Beyond Campaign” to raise money for the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter’s scholarship endowment.  To help get the word out about the campaign and encourage participation, Robert recently agreed to talk about the DC Alumni Chapter and the 150 and Beyond Campaign.

Anwar Dunbar:  First, Philly, thank you for allowing me help get the word out about the 150 and Beyond Campaign.  I’ve learned a lot about higher education, what Alumni Chapters do, and some of the inner workings of JCSU by working alongside you, Brenda Jones-Hammond and Marion Massey (and others) in the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter.  We’re all volunteers and do what we do because we love Smith and as President, you’ve basically driven this whole movement.  In my opinion Smith is very fortunate to have someone like you advocating and being an ambassador on its behalf.

So first, let’s get some background information.  How did you come to be the President of the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter?  What are your goals for the Alumni club?  What have been some of the challenges?

Robert Ridley:  I have been the President of the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter/Club for the past eight years.  When I became President, I was originally designated to be the Vice-President.  The designated President accepted a position overseas a month before the election.  Without any additional candidates, I was voted to become the youngest President in the history of the Chapter.

My primary goal as President is to increase membership and awareness about our Alumni Chapter.  During my tenure, I’ve increased membership from 24 members to more than 100 at its peak.  The biggest challenge in leading the Chapter is ensuring that our activities reach all alumni regardless of age.  Membership is trending down currently because it’s a constant struggle to provide activities to such a broad range of alumni age-wise.  We struggle as a chapter to create narratives to encourage younger alumni participation.

AD:  Yes, we’ve scratched our heads quite a bit in terms of the “Young Alumni” (the Millennials) and their participation, or the lack there of, and we haven’t figured it out yet (laughing).

You’ve actually talked to the younger alumni in the DC area about the kind of things they’re looking for and their lives post JCSU.  You’ve also done some research on Millennials and their needs and tendencies, and the bulk of our chapter participants/members are interestingly over 30 years of age.  Do you want to say anything about this?

RR:  As it relates directly to the younger alumni, I encourage them to participate, share their voices and don’t become frustrated with the more seasoned alumni.  I have found in my time as President, that the seasoned older alumni are open to any ideas you have as long as you can support them and they’re well thought out.  The JCSU DC Alumni Chapter offers a perfect opportunity for you to be engaged with others from your alma mater, along with providing you an opportunity to shape the HBCU landscape for future generations.  I don’t want to be the President for life and I am looking for young leaders to step forward and make the position their own. I encourage them to share their ideas and ways of communicating, and I ensure you it will be rewarding.

AD:  That’s interesting Philly.  And yes, to any younger alumni reading this, questioning your ideas and trying to better understand them isn’t necessarily rejecting them.  Sometimes it further helps in their development.  It’s also true that, depending the generation, individuals can communicate and interact very, very differently.

What is the 150 and Beyond Campaign?  Where did the idea come from?

RR:  The 150 and Beyond Campaign was created to bring awareness to JCSU’s 150th Anniversary.  We’re looking for 150 alumni to give at least $150 to JCSU by June 30, 2017.  The idea came from myself and others within our chapter when we made a strategic commitment to have everything we do in 2017 speak to the University’s 150th anniversary.

AD:  For the lay person, what exactly is an endowment and why are they important?  I remember frequently hearing talk about endowments when I was student at JCSU, and the DC Alumni Chapter recently started one.  As students enrolled at universities and alumni, it’s often not clear what goes into the health and maintenance of an institution.  Why should alumni give to the endowments at their alma maters?

RR:  Approximately five years ago, the University reached out to the Alumni Chapter to switch our annual scholarship to an endowment.  The endowment for the Chapter was created to ensure that funds are there to support students from the DC, MD, and VA (the DMV) attending JCSU.  Students currently enrolled at JCSU who are sophomores, juniors, or seniors with a GPA of 2.7 or higher are eligible for scholarship awards from the Chapter’s Endowment.  The award is given to students with the most need and who meet the above criteria.

Endowments are important because they allow universities to provide funding assistance for students.  They increase the financial health of the institution and it shows perspective funding corporations that your school can raise funds.

AD:  Who can donate to the 150 and Beyond Campaign and where can they donate?

RR:  We are asking for 150 of the 900 plus alumni in the Washington, DC area to give towards the 150 and Beyond Campaign.  Friends of the University are also welcome and encouraged to participate.  To date we have about 30 donations to the campaign which include longtime friends of the chapter like Ms. Glenda West and Mrs. Wade.

AD:  Okay, Philly, thank you for allowing me to help get the word out about this.  Smith (JCSU) did a lot for us, and it’s very important to make sure that the Smithites who are coming after us get the same chances to succeed and advance.  Are there anymore announcements or upcoming events regarding our Chapter?

RR:  Yes, we’re hosting our annual Bulls Brunch on June 1, 2017, which is also a fundraiser.  The details will be on our website.

AD:  Okay, thank you.

To make a donation to the 150 and Beyond Campaign, go to the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter website at: www.jcsualumnidc.org.  The Chapter can also be followed on Facebook, and on Twitter and Instagram at @JCSUAlumniDC.  Thank you for taking the time to read this interview.  Please share it and or leave comments.

A Black History month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris part two

This is the continuation of my Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), originally published on the Examiner in February of 2016.  Not only is he a scientific peer, but he is also a hero of mine.  In addition to his duties at Howard University, he regularly takes his team out to the schools in the DC Public Schools system to conduct science demonstrations.  He is an example of regularly being visible, and working to fulfill the needs of students in the community.  In part one of the interview, we talked about his scientific path and his research.  In part two, we discussed his efforts to expose the students in the DC Public Schools to science.  Our discussion actually delves into some of the complexities and challenges of teaching science in the DC schools – only someone involved on the grassroots level would know and understand.

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Anwar Dunbar:  At the 2015 Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference there were numerous Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) panels discussing what needs to be done to get African American kids involved in STEM.  You actually go out and do it on the grassroots level though.  You and Miles Holloman, you guys get the chemistry experiments and scientists together, and you go to the various schools in Washington, DC, which is very, very impressive and it’s very necessary.  How did you all get started doing the Community Science festivals?  Also, what was your motivation for doing so?

Vernon Morris:  We started in 2009 and part of our motivation is that we were seeing fewer and fewer students from Washington, DC who were coming to chemistry, or even coming to Howard and majoring in STEM at all.  Secondly, Miles is from DC. He grew up here and went to Dunbar High School and was thus familiar with the school systems close to campus.  I had become more and more familiar with the school systems and some of the deficiencies that needed addressing: retention in science, challenges to science education, and so it was really a response to the fact that our kids weren’t getting science.  They weren’t getting access to science mentors.  They weren’t getting access to why science is fun and it’s an exploratory kind of thing.  Even when I was young, while I didn’t get encouragement from the school, I was always encouraged to get out and explore nature.  I had telescopes.  I had microscopes.  I had computing machines and equipment that my father would buy.  There was no resource for science that I didn’t have access to in the house.  It’s just that when I went to school, I had teachers shuttle me to things like woodshop.

But here in DC, Howard is sitting right in the middle of the community and there wasn’t an effort that I could readily latch onto that was readily going into the community or to the schools and saying, “Here is a network of Ph.D.s and professionals in STEM, and now here is your resource for your teaching or for your classes.”  I couldn’t find anything, so I said let’s just start going out a little bit.  We can put together some experiments, and it will help both the undergraduate and the graduate students communicate science, and build some of that giving back mindset towards the community.  It has been sustained, which is great, and I think the students have picked up on it and really enjoy it.

AD:  So the kids at the schools you’re going to, they really enjoy it?

VM:  Yes, the kids really enjoy it in addition to the Howard undergraduate and graduate students.  I think we’re getting better at it as well.  At the most recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS science) Day, the coordinator actually came over to our booth, thanked us and told us that we were one of the favorite tables there.  I think we find things that are engaging and bring the science to the kids’ level.  And the community is important.  Its good to have those more polished events and venues to go to, but I think it’s equally, if not more important, to get out into the community because it not only brings experience and exposure to the kids, but we can also talk to the parents about how to support them, and I think that’s what is missed.

All of these diversity programs are great, but the parents and the schools are deficient, we know that.  One of the things I notice about our Caucasian and Asian counterparts is that their parents are heavily invested.  Even for me, without my parents encouragement, it was not going to happen.  And so one of the things we try to stress when we go out is that the parents come.  So before they drop off the kids, or when they’re standing around watching, we always have a student or someone talking to them saying, “Your child really likes this.  Do you know about this or that resource?  We’ve got these camps that they can come and apply to, some of which are free.”  We try to get information to their parents to support their kids, so that’s what the difference is going to be.  We’ve had STEM programs for the last 30 to 40 years, but the percentage of African Americans going into STEM hasn’t changed, and it’s because we haven’t engaged the parents.

AD:  So regarding the low participation in STEM in the DC schools, would that just be in Southeast DC?  And would you say that’s due to budgeting?  Is it an economic or a cultural issue when the parents aren’t really pushing their kids to be involved in or fostering that love for science?

VM:  I don’t think it’s cultural.  I think it’s socioeconomic.  I think you’d find a similar thing across all cultures if the economic stresses are great enough.  If the economic stresses are lower, parents have more time to go to the family science fairs or AAAS for two days.  There may be some cultural aspects, and I wouldn’t say that its limited to southeast, but we know which Wards have the majority African American populations, and we target those Wards preferentially.  The schools we know in those Wards tend to have the least parental engagement and that tends to be the case wherever schools are disadvantaged or challenged.  You find that the parents aren’t necessarily involved and making sure the standards are met.  I think cultural is too strong a way to say it.  I can’t accept that as an African American culture, we don’t expect the highest in educational standards.

AD:  Are the schools you go to receiving adequate resources from the school system?

VM:  I think it’s changed over the last couple of years.  Some of the schools have significant investments, while at other schools, there’s not enough.  There’s a big differential in who gets what in DC.  If you look at the overall budget in DC, people argue that it gets more money per student than a lot of other school districts that are performing better.  I think some of that is the culture of the school system and the dichotomy between the governance of the school systems in Washington, DC.  That’s always been vulcanized and it’s tough to enforce standards when the body who generates the standards has no authority over what goes into the schools.

There is a separate body that governs what goes into the schools.  The politics of the DC schools, Michelle Rhee and all of these education gurus, its seen as a big experiment to a lot of people and the investment in the child has not been there, from what I’ve seen until recently, and I think they’re trying to do some good things now.  The turf wars also create a lot of turnover of good people.  It’s tough because the charter school system has degraded the amount of money that goes into the public schools and most of the schools. Now the private schools actually have access to government funding for education in DC.  So you have rich kids who get additional resources, the best teachers and the smallest classroom sizes, at the expense of schools who really need novel solutions to improve education in general, but STEM education in particular.

Dunbar High School did not have a lab.  There was no teaching lab in Dunbar High School until they built the new school a couple of years ago.  You’ve got one of the more famous high schools in Washington DC, and they couldn’t possibly teach a lab in that school.  They couldn’t teach any biology or chemistry.

AD:  So when you say a turf war, are you referring to competing for dollars between public and private schools?

VM:  Typically, you’ll have a public school office and the state, but since DC is a district and not a state, you have two different offices; DC city public office and then you have another office to govern the schools, but it doesn’t make any sense.  You have two offices that are in charge of the public school system.  So the way that it was drawn up I think is that when the schools were failing, the federal government created another office that would then take over.  The authority of that office, however, never quite usurped the powers that the city already had in existence.  The money goes to this other office, so they get to implement programs, but they don’t have the authority to tell the teachers what they need to do.  That comes from the office that doesn’t have the money.

So you have this schism in managing the school system.  And because you have that infighting there, you have the charter schools that have edged their way in, insisting they’re a part of the school system and should get some of the money, and you have the private schools that have been able to make a similar argument, because charter schools are essentially private schools as well.  You have some very elite private schools in Washington DC (the International School for example), but I don’t know that they need the resources from the DC government.  At the same time, you’re shutting down historical schools in the District because there are so few kids left going to them.  The students get shuttled off to another school that gets over crowded as far as teaching goes.  It’s very nuanced here in DC.  It’s different than a state school system where you have counties and districts and where you have a well-defined hierarchy of management.  Here it’s split.  It’s bifurcated.

AD:  What advice would you give to young African American students who are interested in science, or those who have a curiosity about it, but are not sure that they can do it?

VM:  I would say this about a science career in general, it’s a very rewarding career.  I really enjoy what I do and I love coming to work every day.  It’s part exploration, mentoring and teaching, and writing and being creative.  It’s being quantitative and using both sides of your brain.  And you can give back to the community and the nation in a very unique way.  And I think there are so many opportunities in science.  People think, “I don’t want to do chemistry and I don’t want to sit in a lab and mix chemicals”, but there’s a whole world of stuff outside of the lab that you can do.  It’s the same thing for physics or mathematics, or biology.  It’s an area that if you study it, the world is open to you.

If you study science for example, you can become a writer, but if you study writing only, you won’t necessarily be able to become a scientist.  I think you have much greater opportunities if you study science and follow that pathway.  And I think the fulfillment is a wonderful thing for me.  I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  My advice would thus be: do not fear it, really engage it, and see where it can lead you.

AD:  Well Vernon, thanks a lot.  There were a lot of valuable nuggets that you shared and a lot of people will benefit from this.  Keep up the good work and I will definitely see you soon at one of your community science festivals.

VM:  Okay, that would great.  We’d love to have you come out and help out Anwar.

A special thank you is extended to Dr. Morris and NCAS for providing the pictures in this post.  As described earlier part one of this black history month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris was published in a separate post.  If you enjoyed this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.  If you’d like to receive my most up to date content as it gets published, please subscribe.

 

 

A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris part one

I originally conducted this interview with Dr. Vernon Morris in February of 2016 and published it in both the Examiner and the Edvocate.  Not only is he a scientific peer, be he’s also a hero of mine.  In addition to his duties at Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), he regularly takes his group out to the schools in the DC schools system to conduct science demonstrations.  He is an example of regularly being visible and helping to fulfill the needs of students in the community.

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While Black History should be celebrated throughout the year and not just in February, the month provides the opportunity to not only recognize African Americans who have made significant contributions in the past, but also those who are presently making history.  As there are numerous African American scientists and innovators who are typically celebrated during Black History Month in Science (Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)), there are also quite few African American scientists in modern times that are worth recognizing.  One such scientist is Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University.  On Feb. 16, in honor of Black History Month, Dr. Morris granted an interview to discuss his background, the path to his current career, and potential avenues for under-represented minorities to get involved in STEM.

Anwar Dunbar:  First Vernon, thank you for this opportunity to interview you.  My writings in February tend to focus on Black History Month.  There are African American scientists that we usually recognize such as George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, Mae Jemison and Percy Julian for example, but I realized that there are many African American scientists and innovators who are currently in the trenches expanding our scientific knowledge, and in your case making a difference in the community.  You’re doing great things in and out of the lab so I thought it would great to get your story out.  So with that, let’s get started.

Talk a little bit about your background.  Where are you from?

Vernon Morris:  I’m an Air Force brat so I don’t have a traditional home to claim, because I’ve lived in 14 different places growing up.  I finished high school in eastern Washington State; Spokane.  I’ve been living in Washington, DC longer than any other place, so this is my home now.

AD:  Now growing up, were there any scientists in your family who you were exposed to at an early age?  What got you interested in science?

VM:  No, I actually was not exposed at all.  I never had the chance to do science fairs or any of that stuff.  I think my first exposure to anyone who was in science was actually one of my mother’s friends, Carolyn Clay, who was an engineer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).  I used to talk to her a little bit and she actually got me into an engineering camp late in my high school years.  After that time though, I wasn’t even thinking about going to college to be perfectly honest with you.  Both parents were in the Air Force.  For much of my later youth my mother was a teacher and then a principal.  Truthfully, the only post high school institution I was thinking about was the Air Force Academy because they had a good boxing program.  I loved boxing and I thought I was pretty good.  My decisions throughout most of high school revolved around how to pursue boxing.

As I said, my mother’s friend got her doctorate in chemical engineering from RPI.  She had to be one of the few at that time, and I think she was working at Hanford Research Labs in Richland, Washington, which was a nuclear facility.  She worked there so I would see her from time to time when she would come visit my mother.

I always did well in science, but there wasn’t much encouragement to actually do science.  I liked math a lot.  I liked any kind of science; physics, chemistry, biology, all of those, but I got more discouragement in school than encouragement.  So she was one of the first people to say, “You know, you’re good at this stuff, so think about doing it.”  So the opportunity arose to go to Seattle (University of Washington), a more populated part of the state, where the camp was held and to see that engineering was cool.  I actually linked up with one of my father’s friends (a Mason) who was a steam engineer at the camp.  I apprenticed with him the rest of the summer on different projects.  It was interesting to see how things are being built, and how to apply the science, but it didn’t really change my course.

I ended up going to visit some friends and relatives in Atlanta.  There I saw the Atlanta University (AU) complex a little bit later and frankly speaking, that had a greater influence on me.  I received scholarships to go to other places, and visited them, but they didn’t have the same appeal as the AU Center.  Seeing my father complete his Bachelor’s Degree toward the end of high school, really made an impression on me as well.

AD:  So you went to the famous AU Center.  Did you go to Clark-Atlanta, Morehouse, or Morris Brown?  Which one?

VM:  I went to Morehouse and I had not made up my mind on a major.  I was literally running around trying to find a job and ran into Henry McBay, who is a very distinguished scholar and mentor for a lot of folks who got their chemistry degrees at Morehouse; and he basically offered to buy my books and a calculator, and take care of my school supplies if I would major in chemistry.

AD:  Really?

VM:  Yes, and I didn’t have enough money to say no (laughing).  I said, “Sure, it’s no problem.”  He told me that I would have to major in math if I majored in chemistry so that I’d understand the upper level courses.  And that’s actually how I selected my major in math and chemistry.  It was through Henry McBay.  I was literally running to get to another part of the campus and it was oriented in such a way that the Chemistry Building was my cut through.  He happened to be in the hallway and I almost ran into him.  He literally told me to slow down and then asked me about where I was going, what I was trying to do, asked what my major was, and through that conversation I wound up choosing my major.

AD:  Had the two of you met before?  You must have made quite an impression on him for him to make that offer.

VM:  No, I had never met him before.  It was my first or second week at Morehouse, and he was curious about whether or not I liked Chemistry.  He also introduced me to another professor who actually became my mentor later and who gave me a research job, Mr. John Hall.

AD:  So you earned your Bachelor’s Degree from Morehouse.  Where did you go after Morehouse?

VM:  From Morehouse I went to Georgia-Tech.  My doctoral studies were in Atmospheric Sciences, with applications in physical chemistry, so I took a lot of courses in physical chemistry and all of the core courses in atmospheric sciences.  My thesis was a combination of theoretical and experimental investigations of inorganic chlorine oxides, and the chemistry of the stratosphere.  It involved the application of matrix isolation, infrared spectroscopy, some ultraviolet spectroscopy to look at short-lived intermediates, free radicals that form from low pressure and low temperature reactions.  I performed quantum chemical calculations to help interpret the experimental results.

AD:  And just briefly, what did you find?

VM:  We found that some low temperatures stabilize some novel free radical structures that are completely unstable in the gas phase, and influence some of the heterogeneous reactions, and some of the actual gas phase chemistry that showed depletion.  It was actually related to the stratospheric depletion of the ozone.  At that time the stratospheric ozone hole wasn’t a well-understood phenomenon and they were trying to figure out whether it was dynamic or if it was chemical, and it turned out to be a combination of both.  We looked at the chlorine oxides in particular, extensively, and then some of the nitrogen oxides and how they contributed to the ozone depletion.

AD:  Now one last question about your thesis; what got you interested in atmospheric sciences?

VM:  It was John Hall.  I was again in a quandary about what I wanted to do, but it was either go into chemical physics, which is what he had done, or go into a more applied field.  At that point the ozone hole and stratospheric depletion of ozone in general was a really big deal and there were a lot of open questions.  It just seemed like a really exciting way to take the math, the chemistry and the physics and go after these larger scale environmental problems that were presenting themselves.  A single discipline wasn’t enough to address them.  You had to come in with a very multidisciplinary background.  I liked physics.  I tried to triple major in physics, but I it would have taken too long to finish so I just minored in it, and majored in the other two.  I liked applying chemistry and physics, and I liked understanding the environment.

John Hall actually had a joint appointment between Georgia-Tech and Morehouse, and while he was encouraging me to go to UC-Berkley or to Harvard, or some of his alma maters, the opportunity to go to a different school and still work with him was appealing, and actually my first daughter was born before I graduated, so weighing the prospect of leaving and not being near her sort of factored into my decision.

Anwar Dunbar:  So at Howard University you interestingly go out to the ocean and conduct research there.  Just briefly, talk about your research.

Vernon Morris:  We’re working on a lot of stuff, but the work revolves around trying to get a better quantitative understanding of how atmospheric particulates influence the chemistry of the atmosphere and climate across multiple scales.  These are multiple spatio-temporal scales.  There are time scales because the lifetime of aerosols tends to be days to months, but their influence in the atmosphere tends to range from that time scale to much longer time scales as clouds change their optical properties; that influences radiative balance and seasonal fluctuations.  If you look at particle evolution, once an aerosol is formed and injected into the atmosphere from the ground layer, how does it influence and have these multiplying effects across larger spatial fields as it moves around the atmosphere, and through larger temporal scales as it effects something that has a multiple “follow on” effect?

The ship experimental cruises allow us to look at the transport of aerosols that are transmitted from Africa either from the Sahara Desert or as a result of burning biomass from “Slash and Burn” agriculture.  Particles get into the atmosphere and influence tropical cyclone development, and they influence acidification of the upper ocean. They also influence microbiological transfer, the transfer of microbes across hemispheres.  They influence cloud properties and precipitation properties downstream and food security.  So they have all of these implications that are much longer and much larger than a particular fire, or a particular dust storm.  You have to connect that with field observations, laboratory studies and with space-based observations as well.

AD:  My first time meeting you was here in DC at the 2012 National Organization of Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) annual conference where you won the Percy Julian Award for excellence in teaching.  Was that for your teaching activities at Howard, or was it for the community outreach that you do at various local schools?

VM:  I think it was for the combination of teaching and mentoring.  In fact, I think it was the Henry McBay award actually, though there was a separate award for Percy Julian.  That was very special for me because I was a McBay mentee.  I think it was a combination of teaching and producing students at the university, the outreach internationally, and then the outreach locally, the way we try to get science to the community; the underserved communities in particular.

AD:  I’m a pharmacologist, so my knowledge of all of the notable African American chemists is admittedly limited.

VM:  Percy Julian actually designed the chemistry building here on the Howard campus.  He designed this building, designed the labs, and then laid out everything and then, because of a personal dispute with the provost and the president at the time, actually left before the building was commissioned.

AD:  You know, Vernon, as you were talking just now, I was just reflecting on how important it is to know these things.  A couple of years ago a mentor who himself isn’t a scientist, but who saw that I was trying to develop my own writing and mentoring voice, gave me a copy of Forgotten Genius, the documentary about Percy Julian.  When I was I watching it, I couldn’t help but feel that Dr. Julian’s story would have been so valuable to know when I was going through my own doctoral studies.  I didn’t deal with the racism that he endured, but just the scientific process; so many experiments have to be done before you finally get to the ones that actually work and generate quality data.  That documentary conveyed the essence of science, and it took me a while to figure that all out while I was working on my own thesis.  It would have been so valuable to know beforehand.

VM:  We actually screened that film here.  We used to show it on a regular basis to our chemistry majors because it’s very eye opening and shows the commitment that you have to have, in addition to some of the resilience you have to have for things to work out.  That guy was brilliant.

AD:  Yes, and there is a whole culture to what we do as scientists, and the story conveyed that as well.

This interview will continue in part two of A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris.  A special thank you is extended to Dr. Morris and Howard’s NCAS for providing the pictures in this post.  If you enjoyed this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.  If you’d like to receive my most up to date content as it gets published, please subscribe.

A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian

I originally published this piece on Percy Julian in February of 2015 when still writing for the Examiner.  He is someone I would also consider a “Hidden Figure” at least in my life.  Attaining a Ph.D. in the sciences myself, I didn’t learn about Julian until well into my science career.  When I watched the documentary Forgotten Genius, I was amazed not only about what Julian had to overcome, but also everything he accomplished scientifically, and how the very same scientific process I experienced as graduate student was similar to his.  Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), later shared with me that watching Forgotten Genius is in fact required for Howard’s Chemistry students, and rightfully so.

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My last black history month reflection for 2015 will focus on the legendary Chemist Percy Julian.  Though honored with his own postal stamp in 1993, the name Percy Julian didn’t register in my mind until the annual conference for the National Organization for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) in 2012.  Someone won an award named after him that night, but not being a Chemist myself, I didn’t have a feel for why he was held in such honor in that particular circle.  It turned out that there was an entire pantheon of well-accomplished African American Chemists.

Later on, a mentor gave me a copy of Percy Julian; Forgotten Genius.  The DVD chronicled Julian’s life from his youth in the Jim Crow south, to his collegiate studies at Depauw University, to his doctoral studies abroad in Austria, and then through to his vast research career in the chemical industry which almost didn’t happen due to racism.  What stood out to me from Percy Julian’s story was his perseverance in spite of the racism he encountered, as well as the fact that his original scientific interest was in plants which he later returned to after receiving his chemistry training.

Why is Percy Julian important and what did he do in the field of chemistry?  A better question would be what didn’t he do in chemistry?  Among his many accomplishments were:

  • Becoming one of the first African Americans to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry by isolating the active ingredient in Corydalis Cava and identifying its structure. In the pre-civil rights era, Dr. Julian wasn’t admitted to any graduate programs in the United States, so he had to travel Austria, where he studied natural products chemistry under Dr. Ernst Spath at the University of Vienna.
  • After being denied professorships at universities in the United States, he was hired as the director of Chemistry for Glidden’s Chicago Chemistry labs. For African Americans, this breakthrough occurred ten years before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball.  At Glidden, Julian isolated the alpha protein from soybeans, the first plant protein to be produced in bulk in the United States.  The alpha protein led to the generation of oils that were used in both food and industrial products of all kinds.
  • Discovering how to isolate large scale quantities of stigmasterol from the calabar and soy beans and then developing an industrial process for using it to generate progesterone in large quantities. This led to numerous hormone therapies and therapeutics by allowing pharmaceutical companies to industrially synthesize other sex hormones in large quantities making them more affordable (testosterone, estrogen, etc.).
  • Creating processes to mass produce Compound S (which could be converted to Cortisone), which at that time was a novel but expensive medication for arthritis and inflammation. Julian’s discoveries made the drug affordable for the general public and greatly improved the qualities of life of many people.
  • Starting his own company (Julian Labs), which mass produced hormone intermediates for the major pharmaceutical companies but potentially more importantly, gave jobs to African American chemists who couldn’t get work anywhere else due to racism. He also made himself a millionaire in the process.

In addition to his many scientific achievements and victories in the realm of chemistry, Percy Julian became highly involved in the Civil Rights movement and with the NAACP.  In the latter stages of his life, he was celebrated with more than 18 honorary degrees and more than a dozen civic and scientific awards.  He became only the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973.

Julian’s story is important for several reasons.  First it shows what can be accomplished with great perseverance.  Second it is a testament to how much talent was and is wasted in urban communities based due racism, but needs to be salvaged.  Julian’s story is very important for African Americans pursuing advanced degrees particularly in the sciences.  When watching Forgotten Genius, much of what Julian went through during graduate school reminded me of my own experience.  Seeing his story years ago would have helped me better understand the significance of my own graduate studies.  Today his story can help inspire younger generations of potential African American scientists, and innovators in a world where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is becoming increasingly important.

Thank you for reading this post.  If you enjoyed it, please do share it, and leave comments.

A review of Hidden Figures by Amahl and Anwar Dunbar

I recently co-wrote movie reviews with my brother Amahl Dunbar for Marvel’s Dr. Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – both of the Super Hero and Science Fiction genres.  This review will switch gears slightly and focus on a film with more of a historical focus; Hidden Figures based upon the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margo Lee Shetterly.  The film starred Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner.  Unlike the previous reviews which were done in a conversational format, Amahl and I will independently give our thoughts on what stood out to us about the film.

Amahl:  In terms of Hidden Figures, I was impressed with NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer).  In the story, when IBM first delivers the computer to NASA, the engineers figured out how to assemble it, but they couldn’t operate it.  The computer was critical for expediting NASA’s space travel calculations.  Dorothy saw tremendous opportunity and acted on it.  She had the foresight to learn the programming language Fortran (Formula Translation), from a book at a local library.  When she demonstrated she could operate and program the computer, she was immediately promoted and transferred.  She also had the foresight to teach Fortran to the other female African American mathematicians thus ensuring their long term employment at NASA.  So I think her having the insight to see the opportunity in front of her and then the assertiveness to take advantage of it were huge and great teaching points.  These are two very important ingredients for success.

Hidden Figures is as culturally and historically relevant as all the seasons of the Cosby Show.  I can’t wait for it to come out on Blue-Ray.

Anwar:  As a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) advocate and professional myself, a current challenge is getting African American students interested in STEM, and then empowering them to stick with it.  Recently at the kickoff for the Toxicology Mentoring and Skills Development Training program’s inaugural weekend, I had a discussion with the chair of the program and we discussed the difficulties in getting minorities involved in Toxicology (and other STEM careers).  At the same meeting one of the speakers noted that the majority of the time when minority students get discouraged and leave the sciences, they usually change their majors to one of the Humanities or the Arts.  This is not a knock on the non-science fields but instead in part is a reflection of how the sciences are viewed by students of color – especially for those who have no STEM professionals in their families – our case as children.  For me, this is the beauty of Hidden Figures.

Without giving away the plot beyond what my brother described above, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monea) who all greatly impacted the Space Race of the early 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Each of the three leads played key roles in the United States’ mission to put a man in space – optimization of the space craft (Jackson), implementation of the IMB computer to expedite NASA’s calculations (Vaughn), and performing the initial critical calculations for the astronauts’ space travel (Johnson).  Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Katherine Goble Johnson seemed to be the main story line as she was central to working out the calculations for John Glenn’s orbit and re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

Hidden Figures is a valuable film in that it shows African American women portrayed in ways that we’re normally not used to seeing them in media.  While she’s most known these days for playing “Cookie” on Fox’s Empire for example, Taraji P. Henson’s role as Katherine Goble Johnson is arguably a more important as it depicts an African American woman performing complex mathematical calculations impacting NASA’s space missions.  Most importantly, the film highlights the contributions of African Americans to one of the United States’ most celebrated breakthroughs; manned space travel.  Unfortunately prior to the movie it wasn’t widely recognized who all contributed to John Glen’s mission – something that occurs often in US History when it comes to people of color.

Hidden Figures is a very important film to see particularly for young children who haven’t decided on a career path.  If they have an inkling of an aptitude for STEM, films like Hidden Figures can definitely help encourage them to pursue a STEM career.  A film like Hidden Figures would have been very valuable in my own youth though I was fortunate to have the pieces in place to allow me to pursue my own careers in Pharmacology and Toxicology – environment and mentors.  It’s not that way for every child/student.

Thank you for taking the time to read our review.  Our Twitter handles are @amahldunbar and @BWArePowerful.  If you liked this review, please do click the like button, leave comments, and share it.  Thank you and we’re signing off.

 

 

 

 

The 34th annual WIAC-UNCF MLK breakfast celebration

On Monday Jan. 16, the Washington Inter-Alumni Council of the United Negro College Fund (WIAC-UNCF) hosted its 34th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Breakfast celebration in Greenbelt, Md.  The annual breakfast which attracts anywhere from 600 to 800 people, was started in 1980 and was originally the idea of then WIAC President and Paine alumnus Fred Thompson.  In addition to keeping with UNCF’s mission of raising scholarship funds for students, the event recognized two individuals for their community service contributions, and featured a notable keynote speaker.

The mistress of ceremony for the breakfast was Nikki Strong of WHUR who led a full program which opened with the singing of, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, by all in attendance.  The historic Negro Anthem was followed by a series of speakers and musical selections such as that performed by guest gospel performer Capria McClearn.   The morning culminated with the recognition of this year’s award recipients and keynote speaker.  This year’s “Person of the Year” award recipient was Phil Freelon, founder and president of the Freelon Group which designed and constructed the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.  This year’s Grace Walker Phillips Youth Leadership Award recipient was Eunique Jones Gibson, a DC native and founder of the “Because of them, We Can” campaign. 

“Anytime history seizes you, it has to be a calling.  It has to be something that has chosen you.  The bible calls that a, ‘Cross to bear,’” said Reverend Dr. Grainger Browning as he discussed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s realization and acceptance of his mission.  “No one picks up a cross to bear. You don’t choose a cross – a cross chooses you.”

This year’s Keynote Speaker was the Reverend Dr. Grainger Browning, Jr. of the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Md.  The theme of his talk was, “Hidden Figures who held onto the Dream,” where he outlined prominent African American historical figures who did great things and persevered leading up to and beyond Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous dream.

 We provide over $100 million annually in scholarship assistance to students who attend UNCF member institutions, other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and over 1100 other colleges and universities,” said Charles Thompson III, UNCF’s Area Development Director for Maryland, Washington, DC and Northern Virginia.  “There are two areas we consider, how well the student meets the criteria set by the donor for each scholarship but also demonstrated financial need.  Many of the students we help come from families whose income is below $25,000.”    

The MLK breakfast was sponsored by: the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce, Prince George’s Community College, Southern Management Corporation, Wegmans, and Morgan Stanley.  Visit www.uncf.org/dmv to learn more about the organization and to make a donation.

Dr. Jonathan Mathis discusses Honor Your Future Now campaign

Late in 2015, I was approached with an opportunity to conduct an interview with Hill Harper regarding his collaboration with the National Honor Society and its “Honor Your Future Now” campaign.  I was subsequently given the opportunity to interview the director of the National Honor Society Dr. Jonathan Mathis.  The following is my follow up interview with Dr. Mathis.

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An interview was recently granted with Hill Harper to discuss the National Honor Society’s Honor Your Future Now Campaign, an effort to get young people, particularly those planning to go off to college, to think about their next steps.  A second interview was granted this time with the director of the National Honor Society, Dr. Jonathan Mathis.  In this interview Dr. Mathis, who has had a love for education his entire life, as well as helping students actualize their dreams, discusses the importance of families proactively planning for their student’s college education; particularly the all-important financial aspect.  He also discusses resources that the National Honor Society has made available to plan for college, not just for its members, but to all students.

Anwar Dunbar:  Hello Jonathan.  First, thank you for this opportunity to interview you and ask you some more questions about Honor Your Future Now.  As you know, I recently spoke with Hill Harper about the campaign. As the Director of the National Honor Society, what can you tell the audience about your organization and the campaign?

Jonathan Mathis:  I can start by giving a few words about Honor Your Future Now.  The National Honor Society and the National Association of Secondary School Principals are really excited about this particular campaign because the narrative is to encourage all students to envision their future selves, and to look at how we can help prepare middle and high school students to start thinking about college, their careers and a lifetime of success.  So for me this campaign is really important and special because we offer expert advice, programs and resources not only to our Honor Society members, but to a general, wider public audience that will focus on helping students to get to, and through college, including how they will pay for college.

AD: Just for a little bit of context here, I want to go back and ask you a basic question.  First I’m going to front it though, by saying that when I was in high school I wasn’t the most focused student academically, and I do remember having a National Honor Society Chapter at my high school (Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY).  For the readers, can you just briefly tell what the National Honor Society is as an organization?  Do you all have chapters at every high school?  What was it set up to do?

JM:  Sure.  For nearly 100 years the National Honor Society and the National Junior Honor Society have empowered students to excel at four key pillars: scholarship, service, leadership and character, with a fifth pillar at the middle school level – citizenship.  The National Honor Societies thus recognize and foster one million students each year to be engaged in their schools, to be empowered to lead change, and to be active in their communities, so when we look at Honor Your Future Now we’re not only talking to our Honor Society members, but to the broader public.  Let’s continue to plan for our future success now.  Let’s cultivate ourselves with experiences and resources that will celebrate who we envision ourselves to be.  There are 25,000 chapters active at the Honor Society and the Junior Honor Society level, at both the high school and middle school levels.

AD:  And just for the lay person, what are the requirements for joining?  Do you have to have a 4.0 grade point average (gpa), for example?

JM:  The national guideline is for students to have at least a 3.0 minimum gpa, and again to celebrate students within their school who have demonstrated scholarship, leadership, service and character.  At the middle level citizenship is important too.  We expect to see students inducted into the National Honor Society who are seen as leaders in their school community, and also in their external community.

AD:  Okay let’s circle back and focus on Honor Your Future Now.  What was the impetus for this campaign?  Why did the National Honor Society feel the need to start this?  It sounds like there’s a component to help students navigate college and it sounds like there’s a financial component as well.  Is there a need to help students navigate college?  Are there skills or values that have been lost?

JM:  You know, you bring up a great question.  There’s been some new research that we commissioned here at the National Honor Society that led us to find that 50% of college-seeking students worry that they’ll be unable to pay for their college education, so when you hear that statistic alone we start to wonder; How can we dismantle the myths?  How do we provide additional resources?  We also found that 40% of the students said that they still need help trying to figure out how to apply for scholarships and 33% of students said that they would need more information just about the process.  Based on that research we developed the additional programming and resources that begin to share this pertinent information, especially at this time of year when most college-seeking students are finding out whether or not they’ve been accepted to their school of choice, and how they may be able to finance their education.

So, for example, we know that Jan. 1 is the opening of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and we encourage students to complete that application and submit their FAFSA as soon as possible because the professionals in the field know that those federal dollars are packaged on a first come first serve basis.  So if we want to help students to address these gaps in information and their concerns about financing their education, we really want to engage families and students as early as possible.  Therefore, providing that expert advice and information can help alleviate many of those concerns.

AD:  Is the Honor Your Future Now Campaign focused for the most part on the financial component or were there other points that you all wanted to address?

JM:  Well, just one other piece about the financial component. On our Honor Your Future Now website, we talk about what students need to think about in terms of being a leader in their school and a successful student. But as we think about this time of year, the conversation in schools across the country is how do you prepare to enroll in college, so we provide timelines for the various academic years and, as we think about college, we offer information in three ways.  We ask students and families to think about their own resources first.  Second, we’re encouraging them to get financial aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and things of that nature.  Third, we ask students to consider ways to decrease costs.

So when we say consider your own resources, we help provide information around savings accounts and 529 college savings plans and, for our National Junior Honor Society members, the National Honor Society has introduced an outstanding achievement award that could provide students with a savings account.  When we talk about financial aid we’re really getting students to understand the: need-based aid and the merit-based aid, and how to go about completing the FAFSA and to secure the grants, the loans and the federal work study, and the merit based aid.

When we’re talking about reducing college costs, we’re really talking about that pillar of scholarship, to say consider taking the advanced placement and the dual enrollment paths to limit the amount of time and money needed to complete the degree.  Right now we’re highlighting those things because of the time of year, but the Honor Your Future Now Campaign is really talking about a lifetime of success.  How can I become a leader in my community?  In what ways can I give back?  In what ways can I serve?  And given the timeliness of the conversation, we’re really excited about the opportunities and  the resources that we’re providing about getting to and through college.

AD:  You know, I just read something about that in a book called Smart is the New Rich by Christina Romans.  She recommended going through an accelerated program so students could finish early, thereby cutting the costs.  Is that what you were referring to?

JM: Right. Schools may offer a dual enrollment program.  So typically, you’re completing your high school diploma concurrent to your entry level college courses.  You may hear of it described as dual enrollment, early enrollment and concurrent enrollment, or early college-high school where you could potentially earn an associate’s degree before you graduate from high school.

AD:  Okay.  Does that sum up the message you wanted get out to the masses?

JM:  Yes, and it goes to your previous question about what other resources this campaign offers.  We really just encourage students and parents to plan early, think about the potential of a lifetime of success and what we can do now to really bring to light our future selves.  So when you visit the website, of course you’re going to find great information about how to charter a chapter if the school doesn’t have one; we also want to be sure that we’re equipping students to dream big and giving them the resources to make those dreams a reality.

AD:  Jonathan, I’m going to ask you one more question.  I asked Hill this, but as someone who has been as involved with education as you have been, and now overseeing the National Honor Society, in terms of getting today’s students to be successful, i.e. the Millennials, do you think they face any unique academic challenges?  Are there things that are different from when we were coming up in the 80s and the 90s?

JM: You know, I think there is a mix of challenge and opportunity.  When we think about the access to technology and the access to resources such as this website, that might not have existed for us.  I remember when I was looking for scholarships, I was sitting at the public library on snow days or professional development days for teachers.  If I had that day off, I would go look for scholarships.  Now for example, for our National Honor Society members, we just developed a search tool where they can have access to thousands of scholarships that they can apply to based on the pillars.  Those things didn’t exist for us.  So there’s a great deal of accessibility, but the question becomes now, how do we ensure that students who have access to a great amount of information are able to really decipher it in terms of what they need to do to execute those plans, and to achieve those goals, and how do they put it into action?  And when we look at the wide numbers of students to counselors in schools, we want to begin to help students make sense of the information they have access to.

AD:  Do you have any closing words?

JM:  I just want to encourage families and students to take advantage of the Honor Your Future Now campaign and to truly begin to plan for their future success now, and to take advantage of the resources. So continue to ask the questions and seek help to make it all possible.

AD:  Well thank you, Jonathan, for this wonderful opportunity to get this extremely important message out.

JM:  Thank you, Anwar.  I really appreciate your time this afternoon.

AD:  I have one last question concerning your background.  Being director the National Honor Society is a very impressive accomplishment with a far reaching impact.  Were you an educator who slowly worked your way up?  Or did you just happen to drop into this capacity by chance?

JM:   You know, to make a long story short, I always used to play school as kid so I’ve always loved what school looked like.  Professionally, I began my career working in college admissions, and then I served in a post-secondary institution, and then in a secondary school.  I served as the director of college counseling for a charter school, and I also served as an admissions counselor and a multicultural recruiter.  I spent a lot of time doing induction programs for new students.  I completed a Ph.D. in Urban Education Policy with a focus on this conversation we’re having around access and success for students, so my career has been and will continue to be around getting students to and through college.  It’s what I’m most passionate about, and you know, playing school as a kid and growing up on colleges campuses, I know few other places as well as I know colleges and high schools, so it’s truly a pleasure to serve in this capacity.  But it’s been my career and it will continue to be; helping students actualize their dreams.

To learn more about the resources for college planning discussed by Dr. Jonathan Mathis in this interview Honor Your Future Now.  Also see the National Honor Society’s infographic which describes the three components of paying for college.

To learn more about the resources for college planning discussed by Dr. Jonathan Mathis in this interview, visit Honor Your Future Now, and the infographic for the steps to applying to college.

If you enjoyed this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.  If you’d like to receive my most up to date content as it gets published, please subscribe.

 

Hill Harper discusses Honor Your Future Now campaign part two

This article is the continuation of my interview with Hill Harper discussing the National Honor Society’s Honor Your Future Now campaign.

Anwar Dunbar- Tell me about the Honor Your Future Now Campaign, and why you decided to get involved?

Hill Harper- I eagerly came together with the National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society to help with this campaign.  It’s really a call to action for students titled Honor Your Future Now.  They’re providing resources, they’re providing advice to prepare for college and careers, and hopefully lifetime success.  I got involved because I was a member of the National Honor Society when I was in school, and they reached out to see if it was something I would help them talk about.

There are five pillars of the National Honor Society:

  • Scholarship- Performing well in school, doing your best and preparing for college;
  • Character- This one is huge for me and actually goes back to what we just talked about: making choices in your life which are character based choices, demonstrating high standards of honesty and integrity, courtesy and being a high character person;
  • Leadership- Stepping up and embracing the fact that as a young person, saying I can make a difference in my school, in my family’s life and in my own life;
  • Citizenship- Being a good steward and a good citizen, understanding what your rights are in this country, understanding that you are just as in control of your community as anyone else and;
  • Service- Volunteering in community service projects and getting involved.

So if you think about it, these all create a well-rounded person, and I love touting those pillars and those ideals, and they really underlie a lot of what I believe.

Right now we want to talk about how to pay for college.  If you go online to Honor Your Future Now, there are lots of resources.  There are a lot of misnomers that students walk around with.  I talk with students all over the country and they’ll tell me, “Yeah, I want to go to college, but I can’t afford it.”  The simple fact is they can’t afford not to go school, and there are different ways to pay for college.  The National Honor Society has a college funding graphic on the site.  It’s like an infographic and there’s also a link for the Free Application for Federal Student Loans which is a link to the government student loans.

Often these students are coming from schools where their college counselors aren’t up to speed on all of this information about how to pay for school.  You have: scholarships, grants, work study programs, and loans, so many different ways to pay for school.  Students have to understand that you may have to combine these things, and it’s not just going to be one thing fixes all.  It’s not necessarily going to be a full ride scholarship, and it’s not that you’ll necessarily have to take out loans for the whole thing.   You’re going to go and learn about all of the things that are offered and then cobble together how to pay for your education.  You’ll get a little scholarship money here.  You’ll get a grant here, and some work study there.  You’ll get a federal loan as well, and doing all of this, you’ll be able to cobble together the money to pay for school.

AD- In addition to the rising costs of school leading to exorbitant amounts of student debt, what other challenges do you see today’s college students facing?  In general, are there qualities and values that you see today’s students (i.e. the millennials) missing that were more prevalent when you were in college?

HH- I think being a critical thinker, and an innovator, are some of the things that will help you get ahead.  At the same time understanding technology and really digging in, in terms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will really help.  I hear so many students say, “I’m no good at math, and I’m no good at science.”  When someone says that to me, they’re really expressing a fear more so than the truth because it’s all relative.  It’s not about being good.  You have a proficiency in something to a certain degree that other people may not have.  Proficiencies aren’t good or bad.  It’s just where you are at that particular time, and you can improve those skill sets.  If students have these blocks saying, “I’m no good at this, I’m no good at that”, they’ll block it out and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that their proficiency level won’t rise.  So the biggest thing to me is conquering the students’ fears.  There’s a lot of fear about future jobs and job growth.  There’s a lot of fear about technology, engineering and math and science, and there’s a lot of fear about where we’re headed.

Here’s the deal, an educated person who is a critical thinker, who is educated and a good communicator, and actually embodies the five pillars of the National Honor Society is someone who will be able to work in the future, be gainfully employed, and by the way, happy with their career choice.  The person who allows fear to stop them from pursuing their higher education, to stop them from even going onto the Honor Your Future Now, and the National Honor Society websites, that’s what I’m most concerned about and that’s what a lot of people do.

AD- Okay Hill, I have one last question.  Do you have any closing words or advice for students or parents who may read this interview?

HH- Absolutely.  Think boldly and creatively about your future.  Think globally and not locally.  So many students I talk to think that they have to stay within their relatively small geographic circle, and that they can in no way afford to go anywhere else.  And again, that’s misinformation.  Fear for me stands for: False Evidence Appearing Real.  So much false information is passed down amongst students, teachers, and parents.

The number one place that the students go to for advice around paying for college is their parents.  So if parents are actually reading this article, I need parents to go to the National Honor Society and Honor Your Future Now websites, and look at what’s there, because you are going to be the most instrumental person giving your student advice, and if you don’t have the right information, they’re going to get misinformation, so don’t be afraid of what’s out there.  Don’t be afraid to learn as much as possible and don’t be afraid to apply to as many different types of scholarships, grant programs, and other loan opportunities to find the best place for your student to go.  And if you’re a parent, don’t be afraid to let your student go away.  I’ve heard many parents say, “Well they aren’t ready to go out of state.  They’re not ready to go there.”  Don’t let your fears hold back the opportunities for your student.

I have a quick story of a young man who was from Mississippi who had the opportunity to go to Alaska to get some higher education and some vocational training.  His parents initially didn’t want him to go but he went, and his whole life and world have changed.  He has all of these different job offers at this point in different fields in energy and oil production.  These are opportunities that have been given to him, where he is going to become two to three times the highest earner in the history of his family, and that’s coming right out of school.  That’s because he looked for opportunities that were further away from where he was where the opportunities didn’t exist, but they figured out how to make it work.  So those types of things do exist.  It’s just a matter of the individual and the parents of the students doing the work and not being afraid to take a risk.

AD- Okay Hill, those are all of my questions.  Thank you again for this interview.  Your messages about the National Honor Society and Honor Your Future Now will really benefit a lot of students and families.

HH- Thank you, Anwar.

To learn more about the resources for college planning discussed by Hill Harper in this interview, visit the National Honor Society, and Honor Your Future Now.

If you enjoyed this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.  If you’d like to receive my most up to date content as it gets published, please subscribe.