“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” -Aristotle (quoted by Freeman Hrabowski III)
When I received an invitation to attend the investiture of the sixth president of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona I was excited to attend. The investiture ceremony is a centuries old ritual steeped in tradition at which honors or ranks are conferred. This ceremony was to formally install into the Office of the President Dr. Soraya Coley, the first woman and first African-American to hold the position.
Freeman Hrabowski III, the dynamic keynote speaker, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World, captured my attention from the moment he stood at the podium and quoted from memory a passage from Zora Neale Hurston, one of my favorite literary figures. Known as one of America’s most important educators, he reminded us that our work as educators is one of continuous learning, “Don’t ask what did you learn today. Ask did you ask a good question today?”
Education is not about intelligence, he said, it’s instead about three things:
2. Continuous Learning
3. And Grit
Grit…Mary McLeod Bethune, another historic college president had it, Hrabowski explained, as he described Ms. Bethune’s unwavering determination and commitment to her vision. After moving to Florida in 1904, Ms. Bethune was determined to start a school for girls. She made benches and desks from discarded crates, acquired other items through charity, and used $1.50 to start the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. Bethune, the parents of students, and church members raised money by making and selling sweet potato pies, ice cream, and fried fish. The students made ink for pens from elderberry juice, and pencils from burned wood splinters; they asked local businesses for furniture.
Bethune wrote later, “I considered cash money as the smallest part of my resources. I had faith in a loving God, faith in myself, and a desire to serve.” The school received donations of money, equipment, and labor from local churches. Within a year, Bethune was teaching more than 30 girls at the school. Later, that school became Bethune-Cookman University and she served as its first president. Over 100 years later the school continues to educate and graduate eager young people.
Ms. Bethune’s story is a lesson in grit and so is Dr. Soraya Coley’s, a woman who was born in rural pre- civil rights North Carolina, where the messages she received in the segregated south were counter to the messages of hope and success she heard from her family and close-knit community.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Lincoln University and master’s from Bryn Mawr College’s School of Social Work and Social Research, Dr. Coley worked as a research assistant for the Child Welfare League of America and served as the national director of the Child Abuse Prevention Project at the National Urban League. She later held positions at Lincoln University and Bryn Mawr before working at Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, New Jersey. While commuting from New York and working, she also earned a doctorate in social planning and policy from Bryn Mawr’s School of Social Work and Social Research before joining the California State University system where she worked her way through the administrative ranks to president.
“The Impossible Made Possible,” Dr. Coley’s chosen investiture theme, spoke to the nature of her journey from the rural segregated south to the leadership of one of the few polytechnic institutions in the country. “My journey compels me to keep the doors open for all who aspire to enter, regardless of background and circumstances, she said during her address, “Far too many live in the state of impossibility.”
Long after the ceremony was over, the concept of “grit” lingered in my thoughts, especially the fortitude it takes to maintain a high level of determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experience with failure and adversity. A true lesson to learn during the month we have chosen to honor the history, legacy, and contributions of Black Americans like Dr. Soraya Coley.
Click here to watch the full Investiture.