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

Find Noble Impact at SXSWedu and SXSW Interactive!

Find Noble Impact at SXSWedu and SXSW Interactive!

Are you going to be at SXSWedu or SXSW Interactive, two of the biggest and most influential education and technology conferences, this year? If so, we hope to cross paths — Noble Impact co-founder Chad Williamson and VP of Product Erica Swallow will be out and about, seeking out the best new ways to transform education and build Noble Impact’s culture, curriculum, and digital portfolio tool. Here’s where you’ll be able to find us!

Speaking about Education Innovation

For all of the would-be technology entrepreneurs or innovators out there, please join Noble Impact product lead Erica Swallow at SXSW Interactive, where she’ll be speaking on a panel called “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP” — this marks Erica’s fourth year speaking at SXSW Interactive. This year, she’ll share the story of how Noble Impact tested a concept for a student digital portfolio platform without writing a line of code.

A quick panel overview: Non-technical entrepreneurs often hold themselves back once they’ve got an idea, because they feel like recruiting a CTO to build the proof of concept is essential. This session, though, will debunk the myth that tech startups must start with a technical product. Erica will tell the story of Noble Impact’s own “non-technical MVP” and will be joined by Finnish entrepreneur Fernando Leon, venture capitalist Stephanie Weiner, storyteller John Hazard, all of whom will contribute to a conversation centered around three key questions:

  1. What are the benefits and drawbacks of building a non-technical MVP to validate or invalidate my business idea?
  2. What tools, resources, and approaches can I use to build and test my non-technical MVP as quickly as possible?
  3. Is it possible to raise capital with a non-technical MVP? If so, what are some examples of startups that have raised VC rounds without a tech product?

Join us to get inspired about starting your own venture, regardless of industry, business type (private, public, non-profit), or where your product currently stands!

Geeking Out at Panels

SXSWedu Student Privacy Panel
One of the first SXSWedu panels we attended was on student privacy. Great content and resources!
At SXSWedu (March 7-10), a four-day education summit focused on innovation in learning, our Noble duo will be focused on culture building, entrepreneurship education, student privacy, and student voice. Some of the panels and events we’ll be attending include:

At SXSW Interactive (March 11-15), a five-day conference focused around cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity, we are focused on following education technology trends and furthering our mission to build a digital portfolio platform that enables students to write and tell their personal narratives. Some sessions that have us particularly intrigued include:

Are We Missing Anything?

Let us know in the comments below or reach out on Twitter to let us know about important #SXSWedu and #SXSW sessions and events that we might be overlooking.

We look forward to seeing you at SXSW to collaborate on the future of education!