Have you seen A New Light in Harlem?

Our original upload to YouTube got over 600 views in just a matter of days! We had to do a *tiny* bit of clean-up, so we uploaded a new version (click below).

The film features interviews with General Colin Powell, Dean Vince Boudreau, and faculty, students, alumni, and board members, spotlighting the amazing community we have up here on the City College campus.

Do you know a young person who wants to be a leader in public service? Get access to world-class preparatory coursework and field experience without amassing piles of debt?

Are you a scholar, educator, or community organizer looking to break down walls between the Academy and the surrounding community? Who knows that in order to find better answers to pressing questions of the 21st century, we need to hear more voices?

Watch and learn more about the mission of the Colin Powell School—”A New Light in Harlem.”



The Public University: Seeing the Whole Picture

Vince Boudreau, Dean












by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

What does it mean to be a public university? For decades, there were two distinct definitions—so bound together that when they became estranged, nobody seemed at first to notice.

On the one hand, public education referred to a finance model in which citizens and government officials pledged support for those working in its schools, and so allocated money from public coffers for that purpose. Students in public universities could expect to pay less for their tuition, and people living in states and cities anticipated supporting that education through their tax expenditures.

A second meaning evoked broader and more soaring ambitions and, for generations, the American public understood that the university system was the greatest of equalizers. Universities helped construct just and prosperous societies; they shored up the foundations of democracy; they contributed insight that helped us resolve some of our most pressing social issues. These universities existed at the intersection of our collective need to be smarter, and our egalitarian inclination to seek progress in the aggregate, to rise or fall as one people. Everyone, in this view, had a stake in the vitality of public universities.

But this collective understanding didn’t hold. In discussions about the role of public education, there was soon confusion—not with what public education was for, but with who it was for.

People began approaching public education with suspicion. Misplaced concerns about undeserved individual entitlement began to shoulder aside our original aspirations. We began to equate support for public education as essentially the transfer of resources with individual students—beneficiaries of largess—and began speculating on who among them, as individuals or categories, deserved that support. This is an impoverished and narrowly calculating formula that no longer allows for a deeper sense of social purpose. In essence, places like City College were forced to revisit our most important founding discussion, first broached in 1847: Was a university education for the elite only, or for everyone?

We founded the Colin Powell School after a decade of building out scholarship and fellowship programs that recognized the great potential and outstanding achievements of some of our very best students. As we did so, we hoped both to provide for them in extraordinary ways what others receive as a matter of course, and to suggest the potential of so many outside of these programs. It was good work. But we moved from programming that centered on a collection of leadership programs to a school serving over 2,600 students because those opportunities should not have been extraordinary—but rather the routine provision of a public education institution that functioned as it was originally intended. Building out this capacity is the current and great task of our school.

We must reframe discussions on the costs of the public university. A crucial starting point is that any conception of public that separates beneficiaries from the social whole is inadequate. Cutting financial support for public institutions results in higher social costs of living in a place where opportunities are hoarded and prospects for advancement seem dim and distant. We measure those costs in violence, in hopelessness, in sickness and insecurity. We measure them in the widening spaces between those who are privileged and those who are not—in de facto economic re-segregation, in under-employment, in achievement gaps and school-to-prison pipelines. We measure them, as well, in the horrible certainty that vast stores of talent, generation upon generation, lie wasted.

We are, in fact, in the middle of a great crisis in our ability to think of ourselves as a whole people, and to plan for the prosperity of that whole. Over the past decades, the decay of the middle class has not happened in isolation—it has taken place in direct relationship to the decay of visionary institutions set up to create and nurture the middle class.

As state budgets around the nation are cut, often the first thing that is affected are our schools. The way forward cannot be assembled from so-called merit-based programs, designed to reward individuals over ostensibly less talented or deserving peers. Opportunity should not be a prize or an award, but a basic provision of our systems and institutions.

In blog posts to come, I’ll be exploring the way this mission plays out at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, building on this discussion of why we should care about public education in the first place. We’ll look at what happens within the walls of our school, how and when students begin to make sense of the college setting, and the myriad ways in which they sometimes don’t. We’ll also explore some of the other, broader purposes of the public university, including its capacity to speak in particularly necessary ways on some of the most important questions that confound our nation. We’ll also look at the legacy of public education on our social fabric and the ways that things may have shifted. In the end, I’ll discuss what we’re working to achieve at the Colin Powell School–to maintain the truest vision of public education in an environment grown increasingly hostile to our founding purposes.

Three Crucial Questions for Every Student

Kamilah Briscoe









by Kamilah Briscoe, Director, Office of Student Success

In its name and mission, the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership pledges to “enable our students to energetically address the challenges of the 21stcentury” by “promoting the values of service, engagement, and leadership.” We believe a fundamental lesson of leadership is the idea of agency. The Office of Student Success begins teaching this lesson by asking our students three questions.

When do you graduate? We want this question to be a constant reminder of every student’s most basic goal, and we want our faculty and staff resources focused on helping students to make timely progress towards graduation. Our very first priority in every conversation should be to work with students to remove all obstacles toward graduation. How does this teach leadership? It reminds students that graduation doesn’t happen through an arbitrary process that they achieve through luck, happenstance, and the accumulation of enough waking hours in calculus class; it’s within in their control. If they aren’t finding a way to reach graduation on time, then they need to create one. And we’re there to help them do that.

What will you do once you graduate? This is a question we want to start asking the minute students arrive on campus. The answers may change over time (and as students develop a more sophisticated sense of their skills, aptitudes, and preferences, we hope that it does), but our ultimate goal is success to and through graduation. And that planning, dreaming, and building begins freshman year. More important than the answer to this question is the response to the natural follow-up: What are you doing now that will help you get there? Do you need a tutor for that statistics class? Do you know about Psychology Club? Have you taken that Child Psychology course that other students have found rewarding? Have you had an internship at Peer Health Exchange? Presented a paper at the Eastern Sociology Society conference? Students need to know—at every step—that there’s an activity, an opportunity, or an experience designed to help them take concrete, measurable steps toward their goal. Our job, as educators, is to make sure those experiences exist, and that they work well. If we do that, we create a community in which student agency is rewarded.

Who is helping you get there? Networks don’t build themselves. Seeking help, getting and staying connected—these are skills that some students have and others need to learn. As educators, our job here is two-fold: to ensure that students are talking to others about their goals and to make sure that students are talking to the right others. When students need help with a midterm, there must be a peer tutor that can guide them. When they need help writing a personal statement for graduate school, they need the attention of a faculty member. If they apply for a job in a government agency, they will ideally connect to alumni working there. When we help students leverage networks, we exponentially increase their ability to get where they want to go.

These are the core questions that drive leadership in every field and every capacity. We hope that as students move through their academic experience, they’ll be placed in opportunities that require them to ask more sophisticated versions of these same questions. We hope they participate in a student organization that requires them to ask: What are our goals as a student organization? How are those goals relevant to the broader CCNY student body? What are we doing now to achieve those goals? Who should we be working with? How do we work with others ethically and productively? At internships, we hope they ask: What is my team’s goal? How does it help the organization achieve its mission? How do we, as a team, work together to contribute productively? What does it take to be a good team player?  

We know from experience that these questions are empowering. We’ve watched students in our programs act, build, and grow from them. We know the potential these simple conversations have to create active, engaged learners who have a vision for themselves, understand the steps to enact that vision, and know how to work with others to reach common goals.

Of course, these and other questions about leadership begin in the classroom. There, students begin to build an understanding of how complex, modern societies are constructed, how power is generated and deployed, how wealth is accumulated and distributed, how our individual psyches help us construct worldviews; they explore the historical and theoretical underpinnings of social meaning-making, and they learn the writing, research, and quantitative skills needed to address society’s most pressing concerns. The fact that our curriculum has already embedded the core elements for understanding our social world makes it an ideal place to purposefully teach students about how to lead in such a world.

Our curriculum encourages students to evaluate their values and their commitments to ideas like trust, community, transparency, integrity, voice, rights, obligations, and responsibilities to others. We want them to understand the full complexity of these rather simple questions, to consider the full range of answers, to come to conclusions about where they stand, and to fight, responsibly and doggedly, toward their goals. By asking simple questions in the beginning, we prepare our students to answer the more difficult questions that lie ahead.

The Powell School: Building Mission and Meaning








by Vince Boudreau, Director, Colin Powell Center

In the weeks leading up to the inauguration of the Powell School this past May 2nd, I spent time asking certain questions of myself and virtually anyone else who would listen: What does it mean to become a school? What should it mean to teach and study at the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, and to reside near it in the adjacent neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights? How should campus life change in response to this new institution in our midst?

Even before moving into the details of merging the Colin Powell Center and Division of Social Sciences, I had some ideas about what it meant to become a school. A school would have a presence and identity more powerful and unified than separate departments and programs. A school would be an institution with specific and publicly discernible commitments and capacities. A school would have a mission—both on campus, and in the life of our city and nation. Children in the neighborhoods around City College and across the globe will be able to point to our campus and say, “The Powell School is there. That’s where I’m going to go.”

Those ideas were a good start, and we’ve spent the months since putting some flesh on those aspirational bones. Moreover, a few of our intentions have crystalized into courses of action.


The first is that the school will represent five core disciplines. We will graduate students with majors in Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology, Economics, and Political Science—but we will use our full range of intellectual resources to focus on problems that matter to our students and community. These include integrating immigrant communities into our society; making resources like education, housing and healthcare more equitable; and identifying the ways of contributing to the construction of a more just society.

To help us down this road, we established an entirely new set of institutions designed to integrate the work of many individuals and departments across the Powell School in ways we’ve never done before. In our curriculum planning, public events roster, and engaged scholarship and service-learning programs, we have begun to plan school-wide strategies and programs, and a close observer can already see some results.

Two new public events series represent the school’s initial efforts to develop thematically coherent events planning — a series of breakfast talks by scholars and public policy leaders, and an annual colloquium. The breakfast series began with a well-received discussion about the implications of the military coup in Egypt for the civil political arena, and subsequent breakfasts will cycle through topics that highlight the work of all the Powell School departments.  Our colloquium series this year is organized around the theme of forgiveness, with each department in turn examining a subject—debt forgiveness in economics, for instance, or the psychology of forgiveness—in advance of a closing program in the spring characterizing the interconnected elements of our thematic approach.

Another major area of cross-school collaboration is student success and advisement. Across the country, issues of how we can broaden access to higher education has given rise to a new concern: How do we ensure that as many students as possible prosper in college, and make the transition from the classroom to rewarding and productive careers?  In some ways, the student leadership and scholarship programming developed over the last decade at the Colin Powell Center centered on this very puzzle. We’re now in the process of taking the scholarship, leadership training, professional skills development, and service programs that we pioneered when we were a Center, and mainstreaming them across the Powell School. We hope to not just provide effective and exceptional support to our students, but to also become a major center for the development of best practices in higher education—and in particular, examining ways to overcome the social, economic, political and cognitive barriers to success in higher education.

And, this, in a nutshell, is what we’re doing across the length and breadth of the Powell School, We are taking the excellent resources and programs of the departments and programs of the social sciences and augmenting them with school-wide versions of some of the most successful activities we developed at the Powell Center.

We are in the midst of a transition—and it’s a time of great optimism and tremendous excitement. Being part of a school and building a school, after all, is the opportunity of a lifetime. I served as director of the Colin Powell Center for the past 12 years, and soon, when we’ve completed the process of integrating our activities into the Powell School, the last traces of the Center as a free-standing entity will disappear. And so I’ll admit to periodically thinking over that trajectory with some nostalgia. But not with regret.  We are—all of us—ready for this new challenge, and for the great project of becoming the Colin Powell School.

Tending Our Gardens

BMGF NYC School visits











by Terri N. Watson, Ph.D., School of Education, City College of New York

The final line of Tupac Shakur’s elegy “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” reads, “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else cared.” In this poem the fallen rapper marvels at how a rose flourished despite its perilous environment. This feat rings true not only for Shakur’s rose but also for thousands of children who bloom in New York City’s schools. They grow despite their dismal realities influenced, in part, by Mayor Bloomberg’s school-reform efforts.

The latter findings were recently enumerated in a 194-page report issued by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, a philanthropic think tank that seeks to “ensure fairness, opportunity and access to high quality public schools for all children.” The study, aptly titled A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, delineated how the current climate of education reform promotes practices that lead to school closure in low-income communities of color. School closure is the go-to remedy in the Mayor’s efforts to improve New York City’s schools. Ironically, many of the schools now slated for closure were opened under Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure and are now being closed for the same reason the Mayor closed their predecessors—poor student performance. While New York City’s schools are in the need of reform, how to do so is a conundrum. School closure is an effective way to create public outcry, but an unquestionably ineffective way to bolster student achievement.

School Reform / School Closure

Mayor Bloomberg has radically changed New York City’s education landscape. As the chief executive officer of NYC’s Department of Education (DOE) he is charged with educating 1.1 million children. Since 2002 he has phased out nearly 175 schools, including many large high schools. About 600 smaller schools of choice and charter schools were instated in their place with aims to increase student performance as well as offer additional options to parents and children. Additionally, the Mayor implemented a high school admissions process that assigns 90 percent of incoming ninth-graders to high schools based on their preferences. According to the DOE’s website, this new system is centered on “equity and choice.” However, parents have found these efforts to saddle “select” schools with student populations more likely to struggle in performance testing— students with disabilities, English-language learners, and other low-scoring students—essentially dooming the school to failure.

The Citywide Council on High Schools (CCHS), a parent advocacy group, outlined similar concerns in their 2005-2006 annual report. The CCHS found the Mayor’s reform initiatives “overly ambitious” and to negatively impact traditional schools as they were flooded with low-performing students who were neither accepted into the new small schools of choice nor charter schools. Second, the CCHS found the Panel on Education Policy (the governing arm of the DOE) to be “unresponsive” to concerns from parents who witnessed a ripple effect of the Mayor’s policies on their own children’s schools, including overcrowding, lack of discipline, and increased gang violence.

Lessons Learned
There is no cure-all for poor student performance as children are faced with varying challenges that may inhibit their achievement. In addition, while some schools should be reorganized—or, going further, reimagined—closure should never be seen as a viable option. In short, in order to improve student achievement, collective action that focuses on restoration and rehabilitation is needed.

The Mayor, parents, school leadership teams, teachers, students, community members, service providers, and school reformers must be active participants in student success. As we have learned from Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, applying a marketplace model to public school governance sets up a competitive system that requires some schools to fail, and will not systemically improve teaching methods or learning comprehension. Our next mayor, as well as the broader community, must consider new education policies and practices to improve student achievement. No longer can we be left to ponder Who is tending our garden? We must do so, and we must press for this issue to be central in New York City’s mayoral race this fall.

Dr. Terri N. Watson teaches at City College of New York in the School of Education. She is the event organizer for our upcoming event, What’s Next for New York City’s Children? A Mayoral Debate Watch Party and Teach-in sponsored by the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and the Office of the President at the City College of New York. The event takes place September 3, 2013. Register today.

Social Justice for the Classroom: Part 2 of a Two-Part Series

technology in the classroom is a tool. Photo by Dell; used under a Creative Commons license.










By Kanene Holder, Center Alumna

“The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” —Alvin Toffler

“I think the first duty of society is justice.” —Alexander Hamilton

In my previous post, I suggested we must capitalize on the momentum of social justice movements aided and propelled by social media. How, I asked, can we educate our youth and emphasize to them the possibilities for “doing good” through the technology they use every day?

For those taking up this question—activists, educators, artists, and others—this is an exciting time. Never before have we had access to so much information and ways to share ideas and our stories. As an educator and activist, I am empowered by these tools in conjunction with the new Common Core Education Standards’ emphasis on teaching nonfiction: It’s a perfect opportunity to re-emphasize current events and civics education.  And so I created the American Justice Missing in Action Project (#ajmia), (www.ajmia.tumblr.com) a new initiative dedicated to engaging students  in conversations about race, class and gender—what I call the intersections of injustice.

Starting the Conversation
One way I began to do this in the classroom was by instituting a weekly ritual where I required students to summarize an article from a reputable news source. I asked them, “Where is justice in America? In housing? In health care? In education? We are all searching! Let’s start a journey from awareness to advocacy!” My students would then present their summaries and a form of response—a poem, political cartoon, skit, dance, and so on—to the class. Then they led a discussion with their peers about how the issue touched their own lives and debated possible solutions.

I instituted civics education, teaching fifth and sixth graders about the U.S. Constitution and how our government works. Students were excited to learn about zoning laws and how these regulations affected the rents their parents were paying. Eventually some of my students had their poems on patriotism published and their collages on affordable housing exhibited at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Mining Memes
Another great way of engaging youth—as I shared during my workshop for theNew York Coalition of Radical Educators Conference—is by using memes and political cartoons. Since students are growing up in an increasingly visual culture, they are quick to decode ironies and subtleties. Students can then compare and contrast the political agenda and the visual commentary through conversation, blogging, and by creating video. Students can also try to develop their own visual concepts and commentary—an opportunity to lend agency to an often voiceless demographic. For example, I recently showed a group of high school students a cartoon with the Statue of Liberty and Lady Justice being frisked by an NYPD officer against a wall of red and white stripes. The students immediately began to discuss their own encounters with the NYPD, and several wanted to repost the picture on Instagram or tweet about it.

American Justice Missing in Action’s mission is to get students excited about the entire political process.  In life,  reaching almost any goal worth pursuing—whether it be baking bread or raising a child—requires constant maintenance and monitoring. Full participation in the electoral process is undoubtedly a worthy goal, but today fewer than 60 percent of Americans vote and far fewer participate in local elections or petition legislators to change laws to ensure justice. If we can show students how political engagement is a way of advocating for their own interests, students can begin to invest in their future—and we ours—and initiate change.

“Occupy Wall Street” and later “Occupy” became terms shared across cooperative social justice movements and efforts. In this spirit, I am promoting AJMIA’s name to be used as a marker and organizing tactic. Tagging articles, videos, and other forms of media with #ajmia will raise awareness about various issues where justice is missing in action. For example, I have been tweeting and blogging about the sequester, the recent unemployment numbers, and the latest Exxon spill, tagging them with #ajmia to remind us that justice needs to be restored.

Though we want to empower students to know and use the system to make their voices heard, unfortunately Americans can no longer assume that our elected politicians are doing all they can for freedom and justice for all. We must speak out! We as Americans are used to instituting democracies or doling out human rights violations abroad, when often, justice is missing in action within our shores.

Read more about Kanene Holder and our other contributors here.

From the Field: Simone Gordon Shares Her Experience as an Intern in the Distict of Columbia Public Schools

Working in the nation’s capital – one of the country’s most diverse and highly watched school districts – I have had the opportunity to learn and contribute to the work of managing an urban school district.  Through the Urban Educators Leadership Initiative Program (UELIP) I have spent the last three months interning in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Central Office.  It is great, as a future educator, to witness how reforms are made at the district level and then communicated and implemented at the school level.

This is an exciting time to work in DCPS – there have been a number of reforms and initiatives rolled out recently and educators all over the country anxiously await the results.  The DCPS stands in great contrast to those looking on with uncertainty; the office is vibrant, busy, and transformative.  The DCPS has a five year plan to improve public education by pursuing five academic goals:

  • Seventy percent proficiency in reading and math test scores
  • Forty percentage point increase in proficiency at the forty lowest performing schools
  • Four-year high school graduation rate of 75 percent
  • 90 Percent of students saying they like their schools
  • Increased enrollment over the next 5 years

My work on the transportation team in the Office of Special Education supports these goals by bettering access to education, resources, and assistance for special education students.  I assist in tracking and recording student eligibility for our transportation programs.  I make sure students are able to get to school on their first day.  It is my duty to work with parents, special education coordinators, and school administrators to navigate an ambiguous resource process.

Working in the DCPS has been both rewarding and eye opening.  I have explored a number of offices, projects, and programs and learned that education reform can be compared to a game of tug-of-war; there is much push and pull, from the district, to the parents, to the students and teachers.  It is challenging to navigate these demands; the district has to be innovative.

Being on the inside of this process has given me a new lens to review and challenge my own opinions on education.  This experience has changed how I define reform and what it should look like.  I will carry the knowledge I have gained and the autonomy and confidence that UELIP has given me to initiate and participate in future educational reforms.

Simone Gordon is a Colin Powell Leadership fellow (2011-2013). Read more about her and our other contributors here.

To stay up to date with Colin Powell Center events and the work of our fellows, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook!

Service-Learning in NYC Schools: Outcomes and Lessons Learned

diahann billings-burford nyc service colin powell center learning

By Diahann Billings-Burford, Chief Service Officer of NYC Service.

Last month, NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and I celebrated the accomplishments of more than 587,000 students who participated in service during the 2011-2012 school year as part of the City’s Service in Schools initiative. Thirty schools were recognized for student participation in projects that included working on a sustainable organic farm serving Crown Heights and leading workshops for elementary school students as part of City Year’s Young Heroes program in Hunts Point.

Our Service in Schools initiative, a partnership of the Department of Education and NYC Service, encourages student participation in service of any kind. But since our launch in 2009 we’ve seen that the greatest impact on academic performance and student engagement is a result of service-learning.

This finding is not a new one. A 2008 study found that over 80 percent of students who participated in service learning said they had more positive feelings about attending high school, and over 75 percent of service-learning students said that service-learning had motivated them to work hard.


We know this to be true in practice as well – 95 percent of participants inbuildOn’s afterschool program, which engages high school students in service-learning with a global focus, graduate and go on to college.  buildOn serves in schools in NYC that have overall graduation rates of 73 percent.

Why Service-Learning Works

Service-learning works for the student because it integrates curriculum into real life outcomes. It requires students to take what they’ve learned in biology class about healthy ecosystems and put it to use by cleaning up their neighborhood park. Through hands-on processing of that classroom knowledge, and a tangible connection to the broader community, students’ learning experiences are enhanced while they simultaneously develop an appetite for civic engagement.

Service-learning works for society because it requires our youth to engage in their community and add value. We believe strongly in the power of service-learning to transform a student’s understanding of the world and of their role in it, because the focus of service-learning is the community and not the individual. That’s why the award for our Service in Schools honorees this year was not a cash prize as in years past, but rather professional development training for the school staff who plan and integrate service-learning. That’s why at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service last month, I gave a workshop with service-learning expert Cathy Berger Kaye on implementing impactful service-learning programs.

Taking It to Scale

There are nearly as many ideas about improving education as there are students. Service-learning is one worth taking to scale. Because it can be modified to any age group and any subject area, educators need only to integrate a culture of service into their teaching practices to strengthen both student performance and our communities at large. Most importantly, it is worth taking to scale for the future of our world. We would be training educated leaders and followers with a belief that they should be engaged in society. — Diahann Billings-Burford

Learn more or find volunteer opportunities at NYC Service.

As New York City’s first Chief Service Officer, Diahann Billings-Burford leads NYC Service, a city-wide initiative to promote volunteerism.Read more about her and our other contributors

Read More about Service-Learning at the Colin Powell Center:
Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part I)
Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part II)
Toward “Just Relationships”: Tania Mitchell at NYMAPS

Immigration Reform: A First Step Toward Elevating the Future

Elated students hug in response to President Obama's immigration reform announcement.

By Center Director Vince Boudreau.

Every spring, I spend several days lecturing at a retirement community.  Part of what drives Powell Center programming is a desire to more effectively connect the college’s activities to the public sphere, and by presenting lectures about international affairs geared to public audiences, I feel I am discharging that mission, if only in very modest terms.  I often talk about security policy, or international affairs in Asia.  But two years ago, on the heels of the Powell Center’s immigration conference, I chose to speak on immigration and the role of new Americans in this country.

The room, predictably, was sharply divided. Some of the people wanted to talk about their own immigrant stories, or tell how their parents or grandparents made their way in the United States.  Others wanted to talk about people they had known or admired who had come to America from elsewhere. But there were others in the room, people who thought that immigrants were hijacking something precious or distinctive in our society. They worried about jobs, but also a sense of cultural drift.  They told wildly inaccurate, improbable stories (one, about a secret highway running from Central America to Kansas City, inside our borders but outside U.S. jurisdiction, over which undocumented workers traveled to take American jobs). Some chided me because they believed that non-citizens were being handsomely rewarded to come to schools like CCNY and get a leg up on Americans of longer standing, who presumably deserved an inside track to success.

Profoundly American
Few of them, I think, believed my response—that we are prevented from awarding scholarship stipends to students with no legal status.  Many would not entertain the idea that America’s great danger is not that we will fail to find everyone work, but that we will drive critical skills and expertise away from our homeland and into other economies.  More frustratingly, few seemed capable of recognizing how profoundly American so many of our undocumented students had always been.

I have for 20 years taught students who were born to parents without U.S. citizenship or status, who came to the U.S. at an early age, and know no other home. They may speak Bengali in their kitchen, but know nothing of Bangladesh; they may be El Salvadoran without any memory of El Salvador.  Many come to City College, and to other campuses across the country, to place a down-payment on a hopeful future, knowing that their degree would not automatically open doors or secure employment—but betting everything on a more promising future in a world more open to them. Lately, it’s become fashionable to call these students “dreamers,” after the great and optimistic stock they all placed in the Dream Act, which would provide them a path to citizenship. But they were also, in that great leap of faith, in their inclination to make education a top priority, dreamers in a deeply American way: They dreamt in a tradition that reflexively expects hard work to find a reward, anticipates that things will get better over time, and trusts that our great institutions generally, if not at every moment, direct us toward justice and humanity.

The Value of Inclusion
The president’s recent announcement on immigration reform does not—as he is quick to say—replace the Dream Act in form or substance.  But in one day, it provided a chance to some of the very best students I have ever taught, and ensured that their skills, and energy—and their great American optimism—will be part of what we can claim as a people. We will be better for their inclusion, and we should not miss the chance to build from this temporary and limited measure a reform of greater scope, and power, and permanence.—Vince Boudreau

Vince Boudreau is director of the Colin Powell Center. Read more about him and our other authors here.