A Day in the Life of a #RealCollege President

Dr. Keith Curry is President/CEO of Compton College and CEO of Compton Community College District

Every morning, I listen to the song “Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi. Throughout my workday, I continue to recite the following lyrics from this song:

“I’m on the pursuit of happiness, and I know
Everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold
Hey, I’ll be fine once I get it
I’ll be good”

Since I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz (Oakes College, just saying), I have been on a pursuit of happiness in support of students’ success, particularly for students who have been historically underserved because of systemic racism in this country. My pursuit of happiness has lead me to my current role as the president/CEO of Compton College. I am also known as an #EquityAvenger, #thePeoplesCommunityCollegePresident, and most recently as a #RealCollegePresident.

A couple of years ago, I was traveling to a conference to hear Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab. However, I missed the presentation, but one of my colleagues was able to purchase Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s book “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream” and received her autograph. I read “Paying the Price” and it altered my pursuit of happiness. It focused educational leaders’ attention on student’s basic needs. Over the years, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University has been a bright and supportive light to college presidents but particularly to #RealCollegePresidents of color like myself.

As the #RealCollegePresident at Compton College, it is my job to ensure that students are prepared for a bright future. While making sure the college meets designated achievement goals pertaining to student enrollment, success, retention, and completion, we work equally hard to develop plans and programs that enhance academic and student service offerings.

This is essential work and the heart of Compton College’s mission, which is to offer a welcoming environment where our students are supported to pursue and to attain academic and professional excellence. In fact, this is the traditional role of a college president. But in this new era of #RealCollegePresident, before students even apply and enroll in their first class, they need to be ready to learn. One significant barrier is that students cannot adequately focus on college since their basic needs such as food and housing are not met.

A rising challenge for students nationwide is access to basic needs. Food and housing insecurity, as well as limited access to technology, transportation, dependent care, and other foundational services — these are barriers students must overcome before they can be successful at our institutions. At Compton College, many of our students already struggled with basic needs before difficulties such as unemployment and illness brought by the COVID-19 pandemic added to their stress. In 2019, more than 55% of Compton College students faced food insecurity, and 63% reported housing insecurity. These statistics are well above state and national numbers and present challenges and significant barriers to our students’ education — and their successful future. So, as we venture into our new reality, today’s college presidents must have a sharp focus not just on student success but on how we are helping students succeed.

Some students at Compton College find it challenging to obtain the reliable technology needed to participate in online learning. If they experience homelessness, finding adequate charging stations and a quiet place to study compounds the problem. Others struggle with food insecurity. We have provided students with free laptop loans, Wi-Fi hotspots, food vouchers, and free meals to address these needs. We also have implemented partnerships to identify housing resources and supplemental food items. As one example, in November and December 2020, we partnered with Sunrise Produce. We were able to distribute 256,200 pounds (over 128 tons!) of fresh produce, dairy, and protein to our students, employees, and community members. Through our partnership with Edquity, an emergency aid platform for colleges, grants also are available to eligible students, including dual enrollment high school students. Through the Compton College CARES Act funding, we have provided financial assistance to our students while also encouraging them to apply for other financial aid and the CalFresh food assistance program.

Connecting with students to learn the best ways to help them has always been a priority at Compton College. If that means mailing computer equipment or delivering healthy meals to their homes, we will do that. We have done that. We absolutely miss the personal touch of being on campus. Fortunately, Compton College students participate in academic opportunities and support programs in a virtual format, so they continue to have access to quality education that prepares them for the workforce and provides clear pathways to transfer completion and lifelong learning.

As I continue my pursuit of happiness, it is my privilege as a #RealCollegePresident to help all students achieve their goals. By focusing on the student experience beyond the classroom to ensure we meet their basic needs, we can destroy barriers and create a clear path to success. I hope that other #RealCollegePresidents share their stories about how they address their students’ basic needs.

#RealCollege students, presidents, educators, and more will lend their voices here with support from The Hope Center and Believe in Students.