John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

I Have Seen the Future and the Future is Us

I have visited over 500 campuses in my career and after visiting a place I always leave with some kind of dominant impressions implanted in my brain. Last week I had such an occasion.

I visited McAllen, Texas, and South Texas College. McAllen is a border city with Mexico, in a region just inland from the coast and known as “The Valley,” south of Houston. While Texas has had community colleges for decades and some really big and prosperous ones in Houston and Dallas for example, this community did not get a community college until 1993 when South Texas College was founded with a founding President, Shirley Reid.

The assumption had been amongst Texans with the power of the purse, that this region didn’t really need a community college. Why after all, these locals, large numbers of them from recently across the border, were just going to be laborers at best anyway. So why bother? Thank goodness that has changed.

Before the college was founded, unemployment ran as high as the mid 40’s. Now, while admittedly the community has been negatively impacted by the Great Recession and the fears of cross border drug related crime, nevertheless, graduates from the College are finding employment in highly remunerative fields which are providing entre into the great American middle class.

But what amazed me the most was this: from zero students in 1993, the enrollment is now in excess of 30,000 students, with over 2000 employees at six different locations. The College held all campuses convocation to hear an annual address from their firebrand leader and there was no room large enough on any campus to accommodate all the employees.

While in town I took a late afternoon jog in the mid 90’s late September heat. I do this to stay ahead of all the young people who want to take my place. Actually, it wasn’t so bad. There was a lovely tropical breeze blowing off the not too distant water. I ran on the shady side of the main street, maybe 20 blocks up and back and passed many other pedestrians like myself. The city was bustling and I heard much conversation, but not a word in English. And I was the outsider. I was the “minority.” I rarely am that, but know what to do as I lived in Canada for five years when I was a kid and truly learned what it meant to be a “minority.”

So what did I see and learn on this visit and run? I learned that McAllen and South Texas College are the future. The future is here and it is us. We are creating a whole new kind of country.

And I loved observing the indigenous. All the working people I interacted with in the hotel and restaurants and then on the campus—well, they had hustle. They were finding dignity in their opportunities, their work, their roles. They showed initiative, respect, manners. They were gracious. It made me want to come back. It made me optimistic about our future. I’m glad I went.

-John Gardner

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