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Visiting the Valley of the Sun in Arizona—i.e., Metro Phoenix—in the middle of August is always a toasty experience. Beyond the usual 100-degree-plus temperatures, my visit this week had a host of other warm moments, most of which related to watching new students getting ready for their first-foray into a fall semester. I was in town for meetings and presentations with Arizona State University (ASU) and Scottsdale Community College (SCC), staying at the Tempe Mission Palms in the shadow of Sun Devil Stadium. My hotel was chock full of families in town for new student orientation, which means a cornucopia of folks soaking in the sun and weathering all sorts of stress. But even in the heat of the moment, you could see the excitement and optimism of moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and wide-eyed, brand-new students. Good stuff. Soaking up the ASU student and family serendipity was followed by a convocation event at SCC where the student speaker blew the audience away with her positivity and perspectives on the role of community colleges in changing lives. We followed that up with my talk on an Optimist’s Education Agenda, a message that unpacks the quantifiable progress we’re making in the world and in education, the news media and click-bait-crises notwithstanding. From reducing extreme poverty to helping more striving students succeed in higher education, there is a clear though line. An important part of the message, however, is that progress is far from guaranteed. It takes a rowdy combination of optimism, information, innovation, intention, and a lot of work. But progress can be made. The universe cooperated in the conversation by providing a clear example. On my first day in town, I was setting out for one of my urban hikes. As a pretty serious traveler, I like to keep active by using a combination of Google Maps and the Field Trip app to chart a course for hikes through downtowns or other interesting locations. Today I was combining this activity with picking up dinner from a restaurant a few miles away. I set out in the heat worrying mostly about navigating downtown and staying hydrated. As a proud alumnus of both the Maricopa Community Colleges and ASU, I know the drill in Arizona summers. About 15 minutes in, all was on course. I was being reintroduced to the intensity of the summer sun in AZ, but I was feeling pretty good. Then alarms started sounding on my iPhone. My weather apps started exploding with alerts. They were warning me that a dust storm and monsoon were quickly coming my way. I did the math in my head about the time it was going to take to make it to the restaurant and back to the hotel, I then made the choice to quickly head back to the hotel and get my car. While I wanted the walk, changing course at this point was a must. These storms are no joke. As I got back to the hotel, I saw a couple about to head out for a walk into downtown Tempe. I could see the bellhop showing them his phone and trying to convince them they should rethink their plan. The guests scoffed at him, saying “We’re from Texas, we know real storms.” I caught eyes with the bellhop and we both knew–bad choice. I rushed to my car and headed out with no delay to pick up my dinner. The storm descended quickly. The swirling dust wave was all around as I pulled into the parking lot and jumped out of the car. As I entered the restaurant, people were scrambling off the patio. I picked up the food, raced back to the car, and set out for the hotel. The thick monsoon rain had joined the dust devils and swirling debris to make for a pretty dark and chaotic storm experience. And then I saw them—the courageous couple from before. In a scene I haven’t seen since Gilligan’s Island reruns in my youth, the once-proud pair was hugging a palm tree with all they had as the lightning strikes lit up the sky and the wind, dust, and rain pummeled them. Then they let go, ran down the street, and dove into a local Vape shop, which I’m pretty sure was not their desired destination. The next day, as we processed the storm saga with the SCC audience, we talked about how this experience was an interesting example and metaphor for making progress in both our world and with our student success work. Indeed, it was innovation in radar that led to my mobile device alerting me to the fact that I was on a dangerous course. Interestingly, it was a pair of rebel students who discovered the hook echo pattern in storms that started some of the most impactful, large-scale work in weather prediction and public safety. The combination of this new information, innovation in Doppler radar technology, combined with new consumer mobile technology, and solid design about how to get the right information to the right people has arguably resulted in saving millions of lives over the last few decades. It’s about mass signal processing at scale and adding this insight to experience and context on the ground with professionals and policymakers to make a measurable difference. That’s what we’re going for in education transformation. From our work at Civitas Learning to help power the innovators, to the pioneering work of Achieving the Dream, the Frontier Set, the University Innovation Alliance, the Pathways Project, and so many more, what we see are a rowdy mix of optimism, information, innovation, intention, and persistence to help more students get on a positive pathway and then read the signals that tell them they’re on or off course so they can successfully navigate the journey. Moreover, the goal is to get students and those that support them the signals quickly so students can avoid the wrong kind of lightning strikes in learning journeys. As the student success pioneers are learning, the dangers students face are a combination of academic, life and logistic, and psychosocial challenges, which means our radar must continue to improve—particularly with core issues around housing insecurity, food insecurity, transportation, and child care. And the urgency of the dangers means that innovating with big levers like policy and programs matters, as do small moves at scale with nudging and mobile outreach. The latter is why we’ve been so excited about bringing a student mobile app into the Civitas Learning fold. It’s the kind of persona-driven app that can learn from and better engage our diverse and striving students with the outreach best suited to their unique challenges or opportunities. The new students about to join our campus communities bring with them so much hope and potential. Knowing that many of them will face serious struggles or not succeed on the journey is not something optimistic educators simply accept. We can help these striving students avoid danger, navigate toward learning and support strategies that help them thrive, and connect them to pathways to possibilities that lead into careers and lives that make a difference. But the technology and techniques to make this happen will not just happen. As Steven Pinker points out in the great read Enlightenment Now, the second law of thermodynamics means that success is not the norm. Progress is not guaranteed. It’s going to take work. Thankfully there are so many partners in common cause around student success. And as we continue this good work, we need to combine our efforts with the kind of determined optimism our new students deserve. It’s a model that will serve our new students well as they take their first steps, as they too will need to bring optimism and hard work together if they want to weather the storms, learn well, and finish strong.
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