SXSWedu Takeaways From An Education Newbie

SXSWedu Takeaways From An Education Newbie

Last year, I made a career switch to education, joining Noble Impact, because education has had a profound impact on me as a first-generation college student.

With my new role, I’ve taken on an immense amount of learning opportunities including attending dozens of educators summit and professional development events; hosting student programming with the team; and conducting research both at a sector level and within Noble Impact’s own initiatives.

Being a newbie in education, this year was my first time to attend SXSWedu, one of the most well-reputed and fastest-growing education conferences in the nation. Though I had attended its predecessor, SXSW, a series of Music, Film, and Interactive festivals, edu was a whole new beast for me. I have to say, I’m quite pleased with the experience. As I transition to SXSW, which starts the day after SXSWedu ends, I’ll be ruminating on the key takeaways SXSW’s education-obsessed cousin event invoked in me around diversity, professional development, and technology.

Educators Have Meaningful Discourse About Diversity

SXSW Finding the Medium Panel
Education equity was such a present topic at SXSWedu that it slightly derailed, but also enhanced (in the end), this panel about teacher voice.
All over the web and in the news, I’m continually appalled by the amount of racist, sexist, classist, and generally offensive and ignorant behavior that goes on in America. In the past months alone, multiple peaceful protesters were attacked at political rallies, Asian children were mocked on the Oscars’ stage, and Navajo beliefs were written into Harry Potter plots, much to the dismay of many Native American communities.

Just today in Little Rock, a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt was pulled from the gift shop at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, a museum about African American history and culture in Arkansas, reportedly because “being a state agency, the museum must represent all Arkansans.” Interesting, because the last time I checked, the mission of the center was to “collect, preserve, interpret and celebrate Arkansas’s African American history, culture, and community from 1870 to the present, and to inform and educate the public about African American’s achievements – especially in business, politics, and the arts.” The Mosaic does an exceptional job of that… when it’s not being censored, apparently.

All over the place, I hear people insisting that these injustices, based on skin tones, sexual preferences, economic background, don’t exist. At SXSWedu, though, it was a topic that came up in nearly every session I attended, whether it was the focus or not.

I have an inkling of a hypothesis that educators — who spend time every day in classroom, where a projected 51.5% of K-12 students are non-white, a majority for the first school year in American history — might be the group of people who are talking most about diversity and inclusion within their industry. I don’t have those stats, but my experience at SXSWedu at least was that it was a topic atop many people’s minds. It’s an ongoing theme I’ve seen at other conferences and events, too, which surprised me, because it sometimes feels like most of America is oblivious to the inequity that still exists in our country.

Teacher Training Can Be Awesome

Noble Impact at SXSWedu
Noble Impact co-founder Chad Williamson and I stormed SXSWedu to learn all the best that’s going on in education.
Only 29% of teachers are satisfied with current professional development (endearingly called PD, I’ve learned). That’s a stat I picked up from a SXSWedu session focused on redesigning teacher PD.

We often talk a lot about redesigning the student experience: Flipping the classroom, personalizing curriculum, implementing project-based learning. But what about teachers? They’re humans, too! And sitting in a conference hall for 8 hours straight, listening to lectures, is certainly not anyone’s idea of fun.

SXSWedu itself proved to me that ongoing teacher PD can be fun and engaging. This is one of only a few teacher training events I’ve attended in the past year, where I’ve legitimately had fun. There were all types of sessions — panels, team-based workshops, 15-minute talks, solution-driven summits. The only thing I’d add is more students… we talk about student voice, but there was a major lack of it, which is chronic across all PD and educator’s events. If we’re serving students, let’s have them there to contribute thoughts and ideas!

This summer, I should note, Noble Impact is launching its own inaugural educator’s professional development summit, and we hope to build it around the things we believe to be important in the classroom… Stay tuned for more! And in the meantime, try to spice up any PD you go to by suggesting some SXSWedu-style engagement!

Technology Is A Means, Not An End

SXSWedu YouTube's Top Teachers
Even a panel about teachers on YouTube wasn’t about technology in the end!
Lastly, but not least, I was pleasantly surprised that though SXSW-organized events are focused on innovation, most of the conversation at SXSWedu was not explicitly about technology. The two — innovation and technology — are often lumped together. But not at SXSWedu.

Even at panels in which I expected the focus to be around the wonders of technology and the Internet, such as the one about top educators on YouTube, the session content was focused on solving educational problems.

In the technology and media sectors, where I hail from, we often get caught up with the latest technologies for technology’s sake: “Oh my gosh, I can get notifications on my wrist with this watch! Holy moly, I can send a message and it disappears after reading? YAS. Wait, I can put on these goggles and feel like I’m across the world? Neat!” Ok, they’re all fun ideas, but are we utilizing them to solve problems? Or just dilly-dally our lives away?

I didn’t see a sense of technology ogling much at SXSWedu, except maybe among some of the technology providers. Educators, though, get straight to the point: How am I going to use this in my classroom? How does it enhance my students’ experiences? What are the key educational outcomes? Now, that’s some pragmatism I can get behind.

Were You At SXSWedu?

What about you? Did you attend SXSWedu 2016? If so, tweet us your thoughts on what you found interesting: @ericaswallow and @nobleimpact. Until next year!

Header image courtesy of official SXSW photographer Jessy Ann Huff. All other photos by Noble Impact.

The First-Generation Struggle: A Letter From My 22-Year-Old Self

The First-Generation Struggle: A Letter From My 22-Year-Old Self

In 2008, I wrote a letter about my financial aid experience in college, at the request of my college’s content department. I re-discovered it today and am reminded we still have a long way to go until everyone, regardless of their personal backgrounds, has equitable access to education. But I am hopeful, and I hope this letter spreads that optimism.

As a first-generation college student (first in my family to attend college) and Pell Grant recipient (which is awarded to students from low-income families), I had always dreamed that education would change my path, but reflecting upon my life so far, it is almost surreal how much education has made a difference in my life.

The below email was sent on September 18, 2008 to Dana Rasso, who was a content writer for NYU at the time and in charge of the newsletter to parents of prospective students (among other publications) in which my story eventually appeared. I was 22 years old and had made it through the toughest times in college, including a semester when I nearly dropped out due to financial constraints. I am forever grateful for programs like the Pell Grant and the many scholarships and loans that got me through college. I hope the following words can provide hope for students — like 22-year-old me — who scrape by every day, encouraged by a vision of a better life.

Hey Dana,

I’d love to help out with [sharing my financial aid story], since financial aid was my biggest concern in coming to NYU. I only applied to NYU, because I felt in some way that it was the place for me… but my mother makes less that $14,000 a year, and I didn’t think we’d be able to afford it. I only had a few hundred dollars saved for college, since I worked in a pizza shop, but had to pay for my car insurance and gasoline to get to school. It was hard, but I managed. I’m going to be very blunt, though, it’s difficult. Here’s my commentary (it’s a little long, but I just got really passionate about it! If you want to cut it down, feel free.):

NYU was my dream school, but there was only one problem in my way after I decided to only apply to NYU: Financial aid. My mother is a single parent, earning an annual wage well under the poverty line. Most recently, she has undergone multiple surgeries, making it impossible for her to work. She now has no income and has lost a lot of our belongings as a result. In fact, I just found out a few weeks ago that all of my personal belongings were sold in an auction for $15, due to a foreclosure on our storage unit. Life at NYU has been heartbreaking, as I’ve watched my family fall apart from a distance. Financial aid is crucial for my enrollment at NYU.

Luckily, I am within the small percentage of students who get a large amount of scholarships. Above and beyond that, I have multiple loans, including subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans, Federal Perkins loans, and an NYU Weiss Memorial Loan. I also use my credit cards to pay for my remaining bill balances on most semester bills. Lastly, I receive Federal Work Study, which enables me to work 20 hours a week at an NYU job, earning money, which usually goes to food, my credit card bills, or the occasional splurge. It’s difficult going to a school where everyone seems to have a bank accounting that’s exploding at the seams, especially when my bank account is usually on the verge of hitting $0 most of the time. (Example: This week my bank account is at $4. It has been one big spaghetti marathon!) But every now and then, I treat myself to a night out, a fancy dinner, or some great shoes. I figure that everyone has to live a little bit.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you — if your family is in the situation that my family is in, it’s going to be tough throughout the next four years. Each year, after applying for the FAFSA you will be tearing out your hair wondering what the damage to your credit will be this time. The Financial Aid Office has a great staff, though, that will try their best to work with you. The biggest piece of advice that I have for you — perseverance. Keep calling, keep asking, keep applying. There are a ton of scholarships out there. Within a few years, you’re going to be tired of applying for scholarships, but keep doing it. Education is the most important asset a person can have. Do not miss the opportunity to have a great education at NYU, just because your family is not financially stable. Education is an investment in the future. I had a dream and I was not going to let it go. Hopefully when I graduate and get my first job, I will be making enough money to get my loans and credit card bills paid off within the first few years. Then, I hope to give back to NYU and the institutions that made my education possible. I hope that you, your student, and your family will have the spirit to challenge the system and dream your wildest dreams. This is a very sensitive subject for me, but I am more than happy to share my insight with anyone who is worried about financial aid at NYU. Please feel free to contact me with any further questions at [email].

Sincerely,
Erica Swallow
NYU Stern Class of 2009

This is just one snapshot in my college experience, but it hit a nerve for me. Reading it, I can see myself back in my dorm room, typing away at my desk, loving the mind-expanding experience of rigorous, thought-provoking, life-changing academic discourse — an experience I had rarely had growing up in Arkansas. While meanwhile, I’m getting calls from home that my family is in utter disarray. That things are going wrong left and right. That people I love very dearly are falling into the tragic situations that statistics said they would, and that I should. Unemployment, addiction, homelessness, violence, abandonment, illness.

This week has been a time of reflection, and I just happened upon this letter, because I had forgotten what I knew about the Pell Grant back in my days at NYU. I knew I had received it, but that was about it. This week, I attended SXSWedu, an Austin-based education conference, for the first time. Education equity was a topic that came up many times, even in talks in which it was not the focus. It is, of course, a highly important topic. Not everyone in America receives the same education and has the same access to opportunity. College graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients was a topic that hit my radar randomly as I was scanning the conference schedule. There is, on average, a 5.7% graduation rate gap within institutions between Pell recipients and all students, and a 14% gap nationally, I learned. The increased national average is due to larger gaps at institutions where graduation rates are low overall for all students (regardless of Pell status) — these are the institutions, sadly, where Pell Grant recipients are more likely to attend. At NYU, the gap is smaller than average, but still present, at a 4.5 percentage point difference. That is, 83.3% of all student graduate after 6 years, and 78.8% of Pell grant recipients graduate in the same time frame.

It’s been nearly 7 years since I graduated from NYU, but it wasn’t until today that I realized how important it is for students like me — graduated or not — to bond together. I wish I knew more Pell Grant recipients, more people who shared a difficult financial path through school. It turns out that nearly 20% of undergraduate students at NYU in 2013 were Pell Grant recipients. I wish I had known that when I was in college. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone.

I felt that same isolation in graduate school, which I completed last year. I finally had the courage, though, to share my story in a public, student-led storytelling forum. I spoke about how those labels — low-income and at-risk — can weigh on a person, and how they had for me since I was a child.

Nationally, I wasn’t alone either. About 1/3 of students are first-generation college students and just over 1/3 of students receive Pell Grants. But who wants to fly the “hey, everyone! I’m poor!” flag when they’re trying to make friends and fit in? There is a social stigma that keeps people from sharing these parts of their lives.

Today, more than just sharing my story, I feel it’s necessary that I wear my past proudly, that I embrace that part of my journey. Hopefully my story will resonate with students who may be feeling like college is a struggle that wasn’t meant for them. Today, 7 years later, I haven’t paid off my loans yet, as 22-year-old me thought might have happened by now. Instead, I have taken jobs that appeal to my passions and contribute positively to the world, and I have been able to give back along the way. I still hope, though, that one day my work will scale well beyond my reach and my life.

The education I’ve received, that so many have sacrificed their time and resources for, is the most pivotal achievement I will ever provide to my family and the world. Without it, nothing I have achieved would be possible. I am completely changed because I had the opportunity to learn. I hope that one day we will live in a world in which everyone who wishes to study will have the opportunity to do so. Through education, we can change the world.

Header image courtesy of New York University, circa 2008

Dream Big: Notes From Visiting A Junior Achievement Competition

Dream Big: Notes From Visiting A Junior Achievement Competition

When I get the chance to speak with Arkansan high school students, my first goal is to impart a sense of “I can do anything!” through the sharing of my personal story of growing up in poverty in Arkansas to finding my calling in life and being able to support myself and others around me. If I can leave a room and have empowered at least one student to reframe his or her story and understanding of what the future could hold, I won’t be able to contain my smile for the rest of the day.

Erica Swallow speaks at Junior Achievement Youth Business Competition
Noble Impact VP of Product Erica Swallow speaks at the competition.
I was honored, then, to give the keynote presentation at the AT&T Youth Business Challenge, hosted by Junior Achievement of Arkansas, a non-profit organization that has brought financial literacy, career readiness, and entrepreneurship curriculum to students in Arkansas since 1987 — where I got to experience just that… A handful of students thanking me in person afterwards for sharing my story. [Thank you to Junior Achievement of Arkansas board member Mitch Bettis for the invitation to speak — one of my passions is working with driven, young leaders.]

Speaking with students is just as meaningful and educational for me as it is for the students, though. I arrived early, so that I could see the business competition in action. It consists of a multi-quarter business simulation, in which students work in teams to analyze market trends and set business budgets accordingly, for each quarter. At the front of the room, a couple of Junior Achievement staffers run the simulation, while students buzz away energetically at their team stations. Like in the “real world,” students aren’t notified of how many quarters their businesses will “run” — it’s simply an ongoing cycle that they must plan as they go, feeding on market performance.

Though the simulation software was old-school, 64-bit design, the learnings behind what the students were doing were only lessons I learned in college. Students were asked to look at past market performance — including units of their product sold, profits achieved, and total market share achieved — to adjust marketing dollars, number of units produced, and pricing, among other details.

As I’ve been from time to time since moving back to Arkansas six months ago (after a decade on the East Coast working and attaining two degrees in business management), I was impressed with the education and performance of some of Arkansas’s students. Had someone thrown me into a simulation like the one presented at Junior Achievement when I was in high school, I’m not confident I would have grasped the concept immediately. It is thanks to the resources that have been presented to or available to these students that they have the opportunity to attempt and excel at such exercises — exercises that help build an analytical mindset.

What I also enjoyed seeing was that attendees included high school teams from all backgrounds, including Benton High School, eStem High School, McClellan High School, Maumelle High School, Conway High School, Little Rock Christian, the Boys & Girls Club of Whetstone, Hall High School, Bauxite High School, and Second Baptist Church, among others. While many of the schools boast funding and special interest in economics and business education, some of the representative schools don’t have as many resources, though they likely have educators who are determined to give their students just as much access to opportunity.

2004 FBLA State Conference
The 2004 FBLA State Conference made my scrapbook.
These are the types of early opportunities that made me who I am today. Though I hadn’t heard of Junior Achievement while in high school, a very similar experience — participating in the Future Business Leaders of America state competition — was a perspective-altering experience for me. A few things happened. I:

  • Traveled to our state’s capital for the first time ever
  • Was given an opportunity to showcase my talent in impromptu speaking
  • Witnessed other driven students excel at their work
  • Was coached and given feedback by our FBLA advisor, and
  • Bonded with my classmates who cared about their futures, too.

Perusing through the handful of scrapbooks I made while in high school, it’s easy to see that the moments that made a huge impact on me all shared the above traits. Other meaningful entries in my scrapbook include competing in the first national electric vehicle competition with my high school team in Atlanta, Georgia; marching in a parade with my high school band at Disney World in Orlando, FL; and attending Universal Dance Association dance camp with my high school dance team in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

The Junior Achievement business competition I attended this month brought back those memories for me. For some students, I learned, it was the first time they had visited their state capital. For others, it was the first time they had worn business attire — in one case, a club advisor had helped the school’s team shop for proper attire.

These are the events and moments in Arkansas that mean a lot to me. I hope we can do more of this moving forward.

And on dreaming big… I took one sticky note with me to the podium to remind myself of the key points I wanted to hit in my keynote speech, as well as in the questions and answers session. I’ll share those four points with you, as well as a few sentences about each:

  1. Dream big. As a senior in high school, my high school counselor advised me not to attend my dream school, New York University, because my “family couldn’t afford it.” Little did she know, I would be supporting myself, and I wasn’t letting anything get in the way of me and my dreams.
  2. Take initiative. When I got to NYU, I needed to earn money to pay for school. I immediately noticed these flyers that said I could be a part of consumer behavior studies; after the first one, I was so intrigued that I contacted the professor who was running the experiment to learn more about the study. He was so impressed with my curiosity that he offered me an internship. I was the first freshman to ever work for him; his other interns were graduate students. Initiative pays off.
  3. Know your worth. Coming from Arkansas, where I had worked at Mazzio’s Pizza for three years prior to college, I had understood that my “worth” was about $5.15 per hour, the then minimum hourly wage I was earning. New York was a whole different ball field, though. I nearly tripled my wage with that move. And had I not had a mentor who explained salary negotiation to me right out of college, I would have cheated myself out of about 50% of my “worth” at my first full-time job. Research and knowledge are key. Don’t fall in the trap I did for a year out of school! That’s a lot of potential earnings I could have put towards my student loans!
  4. Never settle. Lastly, we are all capable of anything we put our minds to — it’s not always a lone endeavor, remember! Early in my career, I accepted a few roles that were definitely not a fit for me, all for the wrong reasons. I settled, because I thought it’d lead to something I’d like more. I settled, because I thought I’d be able to morph the role to better suit me once I got there. I settled, because the team really wanted me. Settling only leads to feeling unsettled. When you feel like you’re about to settle, keep moving forward and ask yourself, “What is it that I really want?” Find the answer, and do that!

In a nutshell, the above is what I hoped to convey to the Junior Achievement competition teams when I took the stage. One indication that I made an impact was a particularly thoughtful question from a student in the audience named Afraz, “What gave you the drive to become an entrepreneur?” For one, I answered, it was being a first-generation college student, knowing that by going to college, I would change the history of my family. Secondly, though — and I’m only just now reflecting on this — it was the opportunities that were provided to me that enabled me to see that I could be more than what was expected of me, and that I could attain any future I imagined for myself.

I hope that my talk was inspiring for students — that they, too, realize they can achieve their biggest dreams in this lifetime. I’m certainly still reaching for mine!

If you’d like to get a better look at what the day at Junior Achievement was like, check out Junior Achievement of Arkansas’s “AT&T Youth Business Challenge” Facebook photo album.

2015: Looking Back On A Year Of Noble Impact

2015: Looking Back On A Year Of Noble Impact

This has been a year of growth for Noble Impact. Going into our third year, we’re laser-focused on striving toward our mission of providing every student with a relevant and purpose-driven education.

Some of the highlights from this year include expanding our curriculum into the middle school setting, launching high school apprenticeships, testing the usefulness of digital portfolios in the classroom, introducing our new website and blog, and launching our first Civic Innovation Challenge, modeled on previous problem-solving events we’ve hosted.

We want to thank our community for teaming up to make our work possible. Without the countless community partners and our students — all of whom are driven toward making a difference — our work would not be possible. As we reflect on the past year of work, we are simultaneously gearing up for a new year and refreshed goals. We invite you to be a part of that change. Find us on social media or come see us in Little Rock at the Arkansas Venture Center. You can contact us at: hello@nobleimpact.org.

In the meantime, here’s a look at what 2015 has brought for Noble Impact and its scholars.

Expanding Into Middle School

Noble Impact Middle School

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
— Benjamin Franklin
 

We have learned a lot since launching Noble Impact’s entrepreneurship course at eStem High School in the 2013-2014 school year. Most importantly, we learned that we can’t wait until high school. We have to start earlier and invest in the long-term creation of every student’s entrepreneurial skillset and public service mindset.

This year, we worked with eStem to expand Noble into middle school, a long-term investment in student growth starting in 5th grade. Stay tuned as we continue to expand throughout the K-12 education experience. Early exposure to problem-solving and project-based learning environments sets our students up best for success.

Launching Apprenticeships

Noble Impact Apprenticeship Partners

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
 

While we were piloting Noble Impact’s course in Middle School, we also launched an apprenticeship program at eStem High School with more than a dozen partnering organizations, including Few, Apptegy, Strengthen, the Museum of Discovery, John David Pittman Photography, Freiderica Pharmacy And Compounding, CHI St. Vincent Infirmary, River Market Boot Camp, and the Venture Center.

Here’s the important part — We did not hold the students’ hands in this process. From researching the companies to initiating communications, the students were in the driver’s seat the entire time. Our long-term goal for apprenticeships is for organizations to not view them just as volunteerism, but opportunities for Noble scholars to provide real value.

Testing Student Digital Portfolios

Bradley Poindexter Portfolio

“Education is all a matter of building bridges.”
— Ralph Ellison
 

Noble Impact’s curriculum is designed on a bridge of engagement between the classroom and community. This year, we discovered that students needed a more effective tool to communicate between those two worlds. Enter the digital portfolio.

In the first semester, more than 500 Noble Impact scholars in 5th to 12th grades created personal digital portfolios, using website building tool Weebly to test whether portfolios engage students and power community connections. Read one student’s account of how her digital portfolio helped her connect with her favorite filmmaker in NYC.

You’re going to be hearing more from us on this topic. Until then, check out VP of Product Erica Swallow’s op-ed in the Huffington Post: “The New High School Essentials: LinkedIn, a Resumé, and a Digital Portfolio.”

Introducing Our New Website & Blog

Noble Impact Home Page

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
— Ira Glass
 

A few months ago in a staff meeting, Noble Impact’s co-founder Chad Williamson said something that resonated with everyone: “We are a factory for student stories.”

Those stories reside on our new website, launched in July. If you haven’t visited nobleimpact.org lately, take a few minutes to peruse. There is a ton of great content.

In addition to doing a better job of telling our story, we wanted to provide a platform for innovative ideas and diverse perspectives. That’s why we launched the Community Blogging Program.

In the last four months, 13 guest bloggers, including teachers, parents, students and entrepreneurs, have published 47 posts about topics ranging from reimagining youth talent development to how students are using LinkedIn. If you’re interested in joining our network of talented writers and thought leaders, send us a note.

Launching the Civic Innovation Challenge

“Every citizen has the duty to be informed, to be thoughtfully concerned, and to participate in the search for solutions.”
— Winthrop Rockefeller
 

In July, we launched our first Civic Innovation Challenge on the opportunity gap in education. Noble Impact scholars were joined by civil rights activist and “Little Rock Nine” member Minnijean Brown Trickey. [Watch the video above for an inside look into the event.]

The Civic Innovation Challenge combines the very best of real-world learning, critical thinking, team collaboration, and community engagement. We leave the theoretical behind and introduce students to some of the most pressing challenges facing our society.

Looking at 2016

“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
 

In the coming year, we’re focused on offering more Noble Impact courses to students earlier on in their education and will be doubling down on digital portfolios. We also look forward to continuing to build our network of community partnerships with the Noble Apprenticeship program.

If you’d like to join along in our 2016 adventures, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, where we maintain a dialogue about the future of education and how we’re playing our part — from the latest articles on innovation in education to what’s happening in our classrooms.

Building Culture By Getting Out Of The Building

Building Culture By Getting Out Of The Building

Education-PioneersThis post originally appeared on the blog of Education Pioneers, where Noble Impact’s VP of Product Erica Swallow served as a Fellow this summer. This blog post is a reflection of her summer experience, in particular regarding culture-building.

Culture isn’t a decree from on high. It can’t be implemented with the simple swoosh of the CEO’s hand.

Instead, it has to be built by and for the entire team it represents. Rather than having executives write handbooks, we should empower teams and individuals to interpret and define the essence of an organization’s culture. And often, some of the best culture-building happens when we literally get out of the building.

There’s a ton of literature on building culture – heck, I’ve even written some of it! But it wasn’t until this summer that I realized how crucial time outside of the daily grind is to creating a healthy organizational culture.

Both with Education Pioneers and my partner organization, Noble Impact, I took part in and facilitated a number of culture-critical experiences. Above all, I learned that real cultural strength happens when leaders hand over the reins and intentionally make room for culture-building.

Handing Over the Reins

The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.
― Sir Ken Robinson, educator and speaker

Addressing the Opportunity Gap EPU Event
The Noble Impact team and I were empowered to host a capstone event with 50+ students and “Little Rock Nine” member Minnijean Brown Trickey through EPU programming.

At Education Pioneers, we build culture in many ways; my favorite is Fellow-organized events, which we call EPUs (Education Pioneers Unplugged). A zip-line excursion, a panel on entrepreneurship, a tour of Nashville’s foodie spots: These were all “Unplugged” experiences created and organized by Tennessee cohort Fellows this summer.

Little Rock Central High School EPU
Tennessee EP Fellows visit Little Rock Central High School.

I organized a Little Rock, Arkansas EPU (my Fellowship was unique in that I worked in Little Rock, but my EP experience and cohort were based in Memphis and Nashville), to share my city and its history with the Tennessee cohort, introduce my EP colleagues to the work I was doing, and bring us together through a day of meaningful activities, which included:

The events were powerful from a programming experience – Little Rock has a deep history in education, both from the painful memories that happened at Central High School during the era of desegregation, all the way up to the innovation that’s happening at the Clinton School with its focus on public service.

While growing up in Arkansas, I took for granted and even underestimated the national spotlight that my state has and continues to hold within the education sector – in both positive and negative lights. Education Pioneers and the EPU experience empowered me to explore and share those stories with my cohort.

Plus, I expanded the work that Noble Impact does in the classroom – it’s an education nonprofit that aims to provide a relevant and purpose-driven education to all students through entrepreneurship and public service learning. More than 50 high school students in the Noble Impact program joined our EPU to help them build culture in the classroom, even though the work the students participated took place on the weekend, outside of the classroom.

For the EP cohort members who joined, I believe it brought us together like never before. Walking through the halls of Central High, seeing where Minnijean Brown Trickey’s “chili incident” took place, and then sharing lunch, hearing her life story, and witnessing how it resonated with students – that was powerful. To visit a classroom of eager students together, and then join forces with them to propose ideas for solving the opportunity gap – that was inspiring. And to stay up late over pizza and intriguing conversation – that was bonding.

It all started with an EPU – in which Education Pioneers empowered us as Fellows to define our experience, to define our culture.

Making Room For Culture

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”
― Peter Drucker, management consultant and educator

Business often focuses on efficiency, and we forget to take time out to “build culture.” Taking a team retreat or spending a day with colleagues, just shooting the breeze, can seem counter-productive. From what I’ve experienced, though, it’s important.

Erica Swallow and Chad Williamson in a Waterfall
Noble Impact teammates Erica Swallow and Chad Williamson in a waterfall.
A week or so after I started my EP Fellowship, the Noble Impact crew took a team retreat to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean Mountain. We shared an apartment, hiked in the woods, stood under a waterfall together, shared our personal stories with one another, and spent time (in between outings on the mountain) defining our mission and values.

That three-day trek set our team up for optimal efficiency. Prior to the retreat, we didn’t have a set idea of how to describe Noble Impact’s work, and given that I was new to the team, my role and summer project hadn’t been 100% defined. Furthermore, I didn’t know much about my teammate’s lives – where they came from, what they care about, why they do what they do. The retreat helped me get closer to some of these answers. By the end of the trip, we had also defined our core values and mission statement, as well as connected on a personal level, understanding each other’s backgrounds and ambitions.

Today, I’m more capable of doing every single aspect of my work because I understand my teammates and our mission together. As a Fellow it’s helpful, but it’s even more crucial now, because post-Education Pioneers, I’m working full-time at Noble Impact.

Tying It All Together

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead, anthropologist

Every day in the office, out to lunch, or on team outings, our culture is being built. It happens whether we plan it or not. But what would it look like if we built intentional culture exercises into our organizations, such as EPUs and team retreats?

I challenge you to think about ways to enhance your organization’s culture intentionally. How can you hand over the reins and empower your team to create a lasting culture that will drive your work?

Team Retreat: Sharing And Caring On A Mountain Top

Team Retreat: Sharing And Caring On A Mountain Top

To reflect on the year past and plan for the near future, Noble Impact held its first-ever team retreat this summer. Our three-day, two-night getaway was filled with an itinerary that focused on framework around the mission and vision of our next chapter, but more importantly, it was an opportunity to get to know each other on a more personal level.

The goal of day one, in particular, was simple… get to know each other better. Here’s a little about what that experience was like.

Erica Swallow Chad Williamson in a waterfall
Chad and Erica enjoying the waterfall.
We left Little Rock around nine o’clock in the morning and headed to Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain… about an hour west of Little Rock. True to the outdoors nature of our retreat, we started our journey with a hike along Cedar Falls trail, which begins just outside the rustic and welcoming Mather Lodge and ends up at a waterfall. In Erica’s words, “this got us into full-on retreat and growth mode.”

So, after the hike, we spent about three hours sharing personal stories. Going one by one, we created an environment that welcomed the process of being vulnerable. It consisted of a fine balance between listening and speaking and we challenged each other to dive deep within our own personal narrative.

Eric Wilson in a waterfall
Eric enjoying the waterfall, too.
We had to ask ourselves…If we’re really going to make a difference in education, How can we exude an unstoppable approach without listening to each other? Without accepting each other? Without understanding who we really are and why we want to do this work?

This process emphatically did not include anything about Noble Impact and allowed a space for each of us to clearly define the “who” and “why” of ourselves. In fact, Erica had already experienced this type of process as part of an MIT program and storytelling venue called The Yarn. You can watch her talk here. Sharing our narratives proved to be valuable on many fronts, especially in the context of being able to listen and empathize with each other.

If you are on a team and haven’t yet engaged in this process, we highly encourage it.