What an Impact a Big Hairy Audacious Vision Can Have!

In the late 1850s and early 1860’s, the U.S. congress debated the radical idea of creating a higher education system available to the masses focused on teaching and research in practical areas of study including agriculture and engineering.  These universities would create the workforce and develop the intellectual capacity needed to transform the agrarian society and fuel the emerging industrial revolution.  No country had done this before and, at the time, the European system of a liberal arts focused higher education system for the wealthy, white male student was working just fine.  When the Morrill Act was signed by President Lincoln in 1862, land grant universities were subsequently established in every state.   Ultimately this vision recognized that public education is fundamental to the nation’s economic development.  It seems so obvious now, but there are so many questions that come to mind when you consider the particular time in history.   Did they foresee the impact that their vision would have on generations to come?  Could they have possibly realized how this system would become the envy of the world and help with the transformation of not only our country but of other nations?  Did they anticipate that we would have to continue to fight to support the system they struggled to establish?

Did they foresee that their vision of accessible public higher education would impact generations to come?

Another way to phrase this is “Do we as Americans realize what the impact has been from this vision of a comprehensive, network of public high education institutions.“  I sure didn’t.  After working at land grant universities for more than 20 years, I really had no real concept of what it meant to be a land grant university – other than it had engineering and agriculture which meant that my husband (a crops guy) and I (an engineering gal) could pursue an education or work at those schools.

Over my career as a researcher, educator, accreditation evaluator and collaborator, I’ve had the opportunity to visit more than 20 universities of all shapes and sizes.  During these visits, I had the chance to meet with students, talk with faculty and connect with university leadership at the department, college and university levels.  What a treat!

One in particular that holds a special place for me was located in the heartland of the U.S.  I didn’t know much about this particular university before visiting except they sometimes had a nationally ranked basketball team.  Before visiting, I thought of them as yet another public university. They didn’t stand out in the rankings, there wasn’t extensive press highlighting their accomplishments, and they were located in yet another Midwestern city.   But getting to know the place and the people changed my thinking forever about not only this university but so many others across the nation.  As a university serving many working professionals, they have unique challenges.  Many of the students work 30-40 hours per week, have families while pursuing engineering degrees.  I can still see the look on their faces as they shared how important getting an education was to them and their families.  They were unassuming, humble and simply there to get an education to make their lives better.  While the faculty knew that keeping their jobs depended on building sustainable and impressive research programs, they clearly sacrificed all of their personal time for the students.  What was most impressive about this university (like so many others) was they clearly were “the little train that could.” As resources were very tight, they would reach out to the local industry to find creative ways to expose their students to relevant experiences and seek donations to do what needed to be done.  There was a very special intangible feeling that I felt as a visitor and I am sure that students felt being there. When I left 3 days later, I felt connected to their culture, had the ultimate respect for what and how they have pursued their research and teaching mission. I realized for the first time what a remarkable asset the U.S. created with the extensive national network of diverse universities.

I had a similar experience to this at Tuskegee University.  What a rich and wonderful place!  Growing up in the U.S., we all learned about George Washington Carver in elementary school and how he invented peanut butter.  Boy, is that an understatement?  Yes he found alternative uses for peanuts so that when the farmers had bumper crops, there were alternative products that needed peanuts thus increasing the market demand and making the prices more stable.  But Dr. Carver was SO much more.  He was an accomplished scholar, acamagician (this is a magical academic scholar), and entrepreneur who was a distinguished professor at Tuskegee University.  As a symbol of their quality and accomplishment, he serves as an amazing role model for any student, professor or leader in any field.  If you ever get a chance to visit Tuskegee University, take a tour with the students and experience the unique legacy and culture.  It is a special place.

These two examples illustrate the incredible patchwork of universities that spawned off from the initial vision of public education for all.  I am proud to be part of this system and I am humbled by the talented and dedicated individuals that commit their lives to public education and research.

Could they have possibly realized how this system would become the envy of the world and help with the transformation of not only our country but of other nations?

When I became a professor and started supervising graduate students, I had an epiphany one day when I realized that the international graduate students were today’s first generation immigrants.  Like my own relatives many generations ago, they come to the U.S. to make a better life for themselves.  My relatives left Europe during tough economic times and arrived on U.S. borders with little or nothing.  In the early 1900’s, it was possible to come over and “settle” in the U.S.  For many ambitious young people around the world today, getting into a U.S. graduate school is their only opportunity to forever change their lives and those of their families back home.

While meeting with my graduate students a couple weeks ago, I asked them why they came to graduate school in the U.S. from countries including China, India and Iran.  Their answer was simple.  They do not currently have access to all the advanced technology that we have in the United States.  Additionally, they will have many opportunities to work at top companies or universities in the U.S. when they complete their graduate degrees.  They have worked extremely hard to obtain the academic achievements needed to get into a U.S. graduate school.  Additionally, their families have also sacrificed to help them make this step.  It is humbling to be a part of these first generation immigrants’ lives.  They work extremely hard, are isolated from their families, culture and homes, and they push through all the challenges that come their way.

This point was really hit home 20 years ago with one of my graduate students named Marius.  I had been corresponding with him after I made an offer for an assistantship.  I didn’t know anything about the quality of students from Romania since he was our first Romania student to join our program.  A few days before I expected to meet with him upon his arrival, he sent an email asking if he should take a taxi from the New York airport to our university.  Realizing that he had no idea that Washington State University was more than 2000 miles away, we sent a plane ticket for him to get from New York to Pullman.  Once he arrived, he showed up enthusiastically ready to start his research (and if you knew Marius, you would know that is an understatement).

Marius began working with the other graduate students immediately and continually impressed us with not only his knowledge of circuits but more significantly, his knowledge of American movies and culture.  It turns out that even though it was very difficult to get access to American movies in Romania, somehow through the black market, he had managed to not only see every American movie but memorize the lines from them.  Over and again he would quote some movie line and we would all look baffled until he revealed what movie it was and we had undoubtedly all seen it.

After about 6 months, Marius shared that he had a wife and daughter back in Romania and he was bringing them to be with him.   It was so hard for him to be here with all of the advantages that the U.S. had while they were back in Romania.  What we didn’t know at the time is that Marius had never lived outside his parent’s flat before he came to the U.S.  He and his wife lived with his parents after they were married.  His parents ruled the roost and took care of the day to day things like grocery shopping, taking care of the car, etc.  One of the big adjustments for Marius in the U.S. was all the decisions he had to make.  As a circuit designer, he had to decide what circuit would be best and this required that he perform an exhaustive analysis but in the end there was usually a clear choice.  However, going to the grocery store and buying cereal presented a whole other challenge.  In Romania there is one choice for breakfast cereal.  In the U.S. there is an entire isle dedicated to breakfast cereal.  It was a hard transition full of decisions he had never faced in Romania.

As a first generation immigrant, Marius has done remarkably well and he leads with his impeccable character.  He supported his wife as she repeated her dental training in the U.S. serving as mister mom for their daughter. He has excelled in his career and he was employee number one at a thriving startup.  This country was founded on immigrants coming to find a better life and, by creating a public education system that is the envy of the world, the U.S continues to attract the best and the brightest.

The next several blog entries continue to explore the value and impact of a vision.  In the end, the question today is “What is an effective vision?” and “How can the vision help empower individuals and groups of people to achieve transformational outcomes?”  A fundamental question for higher education is “Can visions make any difference in universities which generally operate from a bottom up social structure versus businesses that have a top down hierarchy?”

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