I just returned from a meeting of the Board of Trustees of Western Governors University (WGU). The meeting was held in conjunction with their February graduation ceremony. WGU is an interesting story in the world of education. Just five years ago, this online, competency-based, non-profit university, formed by forward-thinking education governors, received its multi-regional accreditation and started its work with some 500 students. I joined the board four years ago when they were just passing the 1,700 student mark. Today, thanks to the great work of President Bob Mendenhall and a dynamic team of leaders, mentors, and support staff, WGU has more than 10,000 full-time students spread across its business, education, information technology, and health colleges. About 650 students from 48 different states were a part of this graduating ceremony. Appropriately, some were live with us in Salt Lake City and others joined the ceremonies online.
While at some point I probably need to spend a good amount of time talking about the successes of WGU over the last five years, I want to take a little bit of time here to talk about shoes. Yes, that’s right, shoes.
Whenever I attend a graduation and have the great pleasure of sitting on the dais, I’m struck by the shoes. As the students cross the stage, if you take a minute to look below the hemlines on the black gowns, you see it all. These celebrating students are sporting sporty shoes, practical shoes, dress shoes, work shoes, boots, pumps, stilettos, and even sandals. Some shoes are new, symbolizing how special this moment is for the graduate. Some are worn, almost telling the trying story of where that student has been on their educational journey. Some look comfortable, especially on those students who seem full of confidence. Others clearly need to be broken in, for those who are about to go on to a very different life.
Of course, the shoe sights are more interesting when it’s an institution that has a diverse student population. And WGU not only has ethnic diversity, but age diversity as well. In this graduation, we had students as young as 20 and as seasoned as 60. Moreover, the stories of their journeys were as unique as their footwear. Several students spoke during the ceremony about overcoming significant challenges to achieve their degrees. Some spoke about inspiring educators and mentors who guided them. Others told of grade-school teachers who tried to kill their aspirations—telling them they were “not college material.” Some praised the support of family and friends. Others told of finding new strengths in themselves. Their stories made you laugh and they made you cry. Most of all, they made you proud—proud of these determined students who now are on such an exciting pathway.
But these stories also made you proud to be a part of the education system we have in the United States. Yes we have challenges in policy and practice, funding and finance; but still, the opportunity in the US is unparalleled. Because of the diversity of our educational opportunities— from public and private K-12 schools to local community colleges to state colleges and universities to small independent colleges to Harvard to Western Governors University—students from all walks of life, from disparate and diverse backgrounds, at all ages and stages, can walk on the pathway to possibility that is education . . . in whatever shoes they like.