Reflecting on My Year at Coker

Wofford College Professor John Miles Writes about his Time as a Visiting ACE Fellow at Coker College

I did not grow up in a privileged place. I never went hungry or had to work to support my family, but my parents never owned the home we lived in until they bought a double wide trailer in Cherryville, North Carolina. I say these things because it is those things we don’t see in people that are often most important about them.

"I always imagined that we would reach a time when access to a great education was available to all who wanted it."

I never imagined the poverty I would see in my teaching career, graduate school, and travels. But I always imagined that we would reach a time when access to a great education was available to all who wanted it—regardless of their past or present situation. Many of the students I taught in high school never had a chance to attend college, were not positioned to be successful in college and did not see a future in education.

When I came to Wofford, many of these kinds of problems disappeared. Although they existed in pockets on campus, they are the kinds of things students most often hide from their professors. So, I have been teaching about the structures that perpetuate inequalities in what might be misnamed “college preparedness.” All the while knowing that many of the students I taught had never witnessed, first hand, what those inequalities looked like. So, we read, talked and watched, and I finally came to the realization that the only way I was going to affect change was to see it happening first hand.

"I came to Coker to learn from the leaders on campus about issues of access and diversity in a small college context."

I came to Coker to learn from the leaders on campus about issues of access and diversity in a small college context. I came because of the student profile, the different modes of curriculum delivery, and the geographic context. I have learned much more than I imagined about the complexities of the changing demographic in Higher Ed, and I feel that Coker is positioned as well as any place I have visited to be a leader in the future.

You might ask, why someone who teaches at a selective, primarily white institution, would want to explore those topics. The answer to that is complex. First, as aware as I am of my privilege as a white, college-educated, male, the hidden parts of me are what drive my passion as a person and an educator.

I believe Higher Education is at a crossroads. We have a growing population of underrepresented minorities becoming college age, and we do not have enough campuses ready to provide the kind of education they need. In fact, we have a lot of campuses actively refusing to do so under the guise of selectivity or rigor. We have to change our mindset about what teaching and learning are and how they function in a drastically changing democratic society. If we don’t, we will watch colleges close and campuses who serve the ones who need it most will likely be some of the first.

"I believe Coker College and other colleges around the country are positioned be leaders in access for a diverse population."

So, when I was given the opportunity to choose any campus to study, I chose Coker because of what I saw in the teaching and learning that was going on in Hartsville, online, and the surrounding areas. I believe Coker College and other colleges around the country are positioned be leaders in access for a diverse population. The work being done by so many people on this campus to study issues of inequity and teach their subjects to the students who need it the most is pervasive. Embracing this mission might sound some alarms in some corners or become a sign that a college is changing. I would argue, though, from what I have seen over this year, Coker can take on this mission.

I was talking to a President from a small, private college in Tennessee earlier this year, and I was so struck by the way he talked about mission and vision. It is the frame I have viewed every campus I have been on since. It has become the way I view Coker. It has changed me from someone interested in teaching and equity and inclusion to someone dedicated to making the career choices necessary to affect change in those areas. I could not have come to that conclusion without the wonderful people at Coker College who opened up their doors, their minds, and their hearts to show me how much they care about the work being done and the work left to do.

I imagine I will be reading in the future about Coker College as a leader in access and completion for diverse students. And I will be thankful that I was there to see the groundwork being prepared for such a future.

 

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