Dr Mark Sanchez of Southwestern College: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational…

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Dr Mark Sanchez of Southwestern College: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

One, college preparedness. Our systems need to be redesigned to make sure that young people are prepared for their post-K-12 lives. Too often, students come to college without the essential skills they need to succeed in their classes, like literacy or mathematics, or are unsure of what direction they want to take their education. In our local area, we have percentages as high as 35% of graduating high school seniors who do not attend any postsecondary institutions immediately following graduation. This is a disconnect between educational-career preparation and the educational-skill requirements for the career opportunities in this region.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Mark Sanchez.

Dr. Mark Sanchez, superintendent/president of Southwestern College, has more than 20 years of experience in community college leadership, teaching, instruction and workforce development. As a California community college leader, he demonstrates a passion for social justice. Over his career, he has been successful in the developmention and implementation of comprehensive race conscious-equity focused instruction, student services and online programs designed to increase student access and success, student outreach and student personal development. Dr. Sanchez has also taught graduate and undergraduate courses to the next generation of education leaders.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

It started young for me. My mom was an elementary school librarian for 35 years. She helped inspire not only a love of reading but a lot of thoughtfulness around my future education. I knew from an early age that I wanted to inspire that love of learning in others. And so I knew, early on in my educational career, that I wanted to be a educator.

In fact, one of my earliest jobs was teaching U.S. history in Salinas, California, a predominately agricultural community. Many of my students were from migrant families who worked in the fields. I knew I wanted to help students not only learn but help them grow into their futures: whether that was university, career trade, entrepreneur or other pathway.

Though I later transitioned into college administration, where I’ve been for the past 23 years, my desire to help students has never changed. My mission has evolved past helping one classroom succeed: now, as an administrator, my goal is to help the entire campus community by removing barriers that prevent everyone from accessing opportunities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career I taught United States History at Alisal High School in Salinas, CA. The students in my class would work in the fields before class began at 8:00 a.m. then after class return back to the fields. They did this to assist their families in being able to meet the costs of living in California. I was teaching the students about history and at the same time they were teaching me about life. They taught me firsthand about selflessness, dedication, work ethic, integrity, family, love, care and excellence. I will forever be grateful for what I learned from the students and families in that community. Their commitment to wanting a better life was awe inspiring.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Southwestern College worked with California Assemblyman David Alvarez to sponsor legislation to allow students living in Baja California to attend California community colleges at the in-state tuition rate. That’s a difference of students paying $46 per unit instead of the $291 per unit for non-resident students. The legislation is currently working its way through the legislative process. While we have renewed relationships with our Baja California universities, including a new MOU with Universidad Autónoma de Baja California’s (UABC), our binational economy demands new ideas to educate students and build our workforce.

Additionally, we’ve boosted our efforts to bring baccalaureate degree-granting institutions to our region. We already have partnerships with San Diego State University, National University and Point Loma Nazarene University to provide bachelor’s degree programs on our Chula Vista campus. We’re building a new University Center on our campus that will allow other universities to provide programs here. That building will be finished in 2024. Many of our students are place-bound. Our local universities are impacted. We are committed to helping our students earn a bachelor’s degree in their own community. To set the pathway for these degree programs we are also working strategically to boost our dual enrollment programs for high school students. Increasing opportunities for early college preparation, especially for students who historically have lacked access to these programs.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I bring more than 23 years of experience in university and college leadership as well as my own experiences as a student and teacher. My experience has spanned K-12 and higher-education, where my mission has always been to support student success by dismantling the barriers that prevent all students from having equal access to educational opportunities.

Being in Southern California, our higher education institutions see students and families from all walks of life. Southwestern College serves a primarily Latinx student body. Many of our students are recent immigrants. Some have family along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Along with race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability or any number of traits that shape our students’ stories, my goal has always been to ask: how can we celebrate the unique experiences our students bring to the table while also recognizing the barriers that society has put in our students’ way?

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

Overall, I feel the U.S. education system, like so many institutions in our country, has fallen short of truly providing students with equitable opportunities. Historical racism has excluded generations of students from not only getting an adequate education but in achieving their dreams.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Among many, many other things, we’re finally seeing more faculty that represent the diversity of our students. Black, Latinx, Asian, immigrant, LGBTQIA+. There is still so much that can be done to improve representation in our educational system, especially at a leadership level.

More and more colleges are also being intentional about opening up dialogues about how the campus community can not only address historical racism but, ultimately, begin to heal from it. A good example of this would be colleges, from Harvard to UC Berkeley, renaming campus facilities that were previously named after people who intentionally harmed people of color decades and centuries ago.

I’m also encouraged by the number of universities and community colleges that are beginning to partner not only together but with high schools to help students more easily obtain the credits they need to transfer to a 4-year institution.

We’re having more conversations about college affordability, which has seen many institutions either lower the price of tuition or offer alternatives to student loans, such as income sharing agreements or earn-as-you-learn programs with employers.

Finally, we can’t forget the students. Every year, I’m reminded of how much of a gift it is to get to know our students. We have so many passionate people, of all ages, who are committed to changing their lives and futures, who pass through our campuses each day. At Southwestern College, and at so many other colleges across the country, we see thousands of intelligent, dedicated people who want to build brighter futures for themselves and their families. Our future workforce is here and their talent is incredible.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

One, college preparedness. Our systems need to be redesigned to make sure that young people are prepared for their post-K-12 lives. Too often, students come to college without the essential skills they need to succeed in their classes, like literacy or mathematics, or are unsure of what direction they want to take their education. In our local area, we have percentages as high as 35% of graduating high school seniors who do not attend any postsecondary institutions immediately following graduation. This is a disconnect between educational-career preparation and the educational-skill requirements for the career opportunities in this region.

Secondly, higher education needs support on a state and federal level. Too many universities and colleges have been forced to raise rates far above what students can afford because, simply, our communities don’t provide institutions with the funding they need to thrive.

Third, we need to redesign our systems to encourage and educate students from a diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism perspective. Simply put, our culture and educational system expects that people simply pull themselves up by the bootstraps. But the reality is, not everyone’s been afforded the same opportunities throughout their lives. We need to be doing more to ensure that all students, no matter who they are or where they come from, have equal opportunities to succeed. And that starts by dismantling the historical systems that have put some groups of students above others inside and outside of the classroom.

Fourth, supporting students goes beyond simply offering classes or making statements. We also need to make sure students have resources on campus that can help them overcome barriers to getting an education. Too often, students are forced to choose between paying their rent or attending class. That’s a choice students should never be forced to make. Ever. Which is why offering resources like housing, food pantries and transportation vouchers needs to be part of how we help students succeed.

And finally, enrollment is down at so many institutions, especially at the community college level. We’re fortunate at Southwestern College to not be following this trend. But overall, across the country, many institutions are seeing declines in overall enrollment — we’re simply, as an industry, not doing enough to attract students to campuses.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

In general, while I believe we’re on the right path, there’s a lot more we could be doing.

Any conversation on how we bring more people into STEM needs to start with racial equity. For too long, our culture has denied opportunities for people of color to advance and succeed in STEM careers, whether by not adequately funding K-12 schools in communities of color or by not hiring qualified professionals of color at the same rates as white professionals.

One, young people need to see people like them in STEM. It can be a lonely and isolating experience to be the only Black, Latinx, LGBTQIA+ person in the office. Companies, colleges and federal research labs need to be prioritizing hires from all backgrounds — not just white, straight males.

We need to be funding schools. There’s no way around it. Too many communities have schools where students make due with 10-year-old textbooks or are in classes with over 20-plus students. And while they may have teachers who are gifted and passionate, one teacher can’t solve all the systemic imbalances that his or her students will face in just the K-12 setting. Part of correcting that divide is giving all schools equitable resources so that we not only have enough teachers for each student but that students have the resources they need to learn and thrive.

Finally, engagement starts young. Are we teaching STEM in a way that excites students and helps them fall in love with it? I firmly believe that a love of learning starts early. And just like how my mother instilled the love of a good book in me, we need to show students the wonders of science and math from a young age, in and out of the classroom.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

Simply put, women and girls are vastly underrepresented in who we encourage to take STEM courses, in the types of careers that a STEM education supports. And when we consider that most of our country and my region’s top most in-demand careers, like healthcare and computer science, depend on STEM-based curriculum, we simply won’t see a workforce that reflects all of us if we don’t take steps to foster inclusion in STEM as early as we can: from kindergarten to higher-education and beyond.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen vast improvements: not only are more women in higher-education more broadly but I know many of my colleagues have undertaken efforts to engage more girls and women in STEM. Yet there’s still so much that needs to happen before we can say we’re where we need to be.

For one, this engagement needs to start early. K-12 schools can and should encourage girls to take science and math classes. And this encouragement needs to follow students as they continue through middle school and high school.

Second, there’s much we can do at a college level to continue cultivating this interest. I’ve heard far too many stories of young women who were interested in science and math, only for that passion to die when they encountered sexism in the classroom. Along with hiring more women STEM professors so that more girls and women have mentors to emulate, we need to be doing more to combat harassment and sexism in the classroom so that everyone, no matter their gender, feels that they belong. At Southwestern College, we have partnered with our universities to win National Science Foundation grants that specifically recruit women and underrepresented students to do research work. We mentor them and also give them a sizable stipend. These experiences go far beyond the classroom.

Lastly, it all comes down to culture. Collectively, we need to give women and girls the same encouragement to enter STEM careers as we do men and boys. This can happen in the home but it also needs to happen in the media and in our representations of scientists, mathematicians and other STEM professionals.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

High school students have a tremendous opportunity to start their college career early. And if I had my way, every high school student would either have AP classes or a chance to dual-enroll at a local college. It’s something my own daughter did. And many, many talented high school students have followed that same path. It helps students graduate early and discover their passions. That’s why we are hiring personnel to work with our feeder high schools to boost the number of our classes we offer on their campuses. We are also working to implement a middle-college where participating students would complete their high school requirements while concurrently earning college credit.

No student should ever have to go hungry or choose between rent and school. In an ideal world, every college would have case workers and resources on campus to identify and then help students who are facing significant needs. At Southwestern College, we started the SWC Cares Program specifically to help students who were at risk of losing housing or not being able to afford other basic needs. We are also seeking funding to construct low-cost, quality student housing on our Chula Vista campus.

We also need to do more to attract and support talent from across the border. My region, right along the U.S.-Mexico border, is a region full of untapped talent. If we want to create dynamic communities, we need to think beyond borders and create educational opportunities regardless of nationality. We have a chance to do just this with a bill proposed by Assemblyman David Alvarez this session (mentioned above): AB 91, which would allow low-income students who live within 45-miles of the border to attend at in-state tuition rates.

We’re long overdue for a reckoning about racial equity. When I first came to Southwestern College, I came to a campus that was experiencing much tension between our Black and Latinx students and employees. We’ve raised dialogues on campus to help address this divide. Colleges across the country need to raise similar conversations and identify what they can do, today, to help all students feel welcome.

Finally, college affordability. We can be doing more to help students graduate unfettered by debt. We were fortunate enough to have received enough funding throughout the COVID pandemic to be able to forgive outstanding tuition and fees for more than 11,000 students. That’s something I wish I and other community colleges could do each and every year, because the difference was tremendous. Students re-enrolled after having to put off their education for months. We saw students no longer choosing to put fees on credit cards or being forced to forgo a utility bill.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is by scholar, academic and sociologist, James Baldwin. He stated “anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” To me, this quote encapsulates exactly why we must redesign our systems to lift all communities up. It’s a life quote because as leaders we have the power to make better systems to serve our communities.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I enjoy watching the work of Cecily Strong from Saturday Night Live. I find her very interesting and would love to have a conversation with her about how we use our work to influence social change.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can visit us online at https://www.swccd.edu.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Dr Mark Sanchez of Southwestern College: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.