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How Students Can Dream, Plan, and Learn to See Setbacks as Set-Ups for Opportunity

Blog title: How Students Can Dream, Plan, and Learn to See Setbacks as Set-Ups for Opportunity. By Tina Gridiron, vice President, ACT's Center for Equity in Learning. Featuring advice from Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education.

Florence Cooper dropped out of school at age 10. She worked in the cotton fields of South Carolina as a young girl. The only “textbook” available to her was the Bible.

She moved “up North” as a teenager—where she found limited job options and unhealthy living conditions. Very dissatisfied with life in the North, she returned to the South, and spent her life working as a housekeeper. Florence wanted more but didn’t have the education or support needed to pursue the career of her dreams. Determined to provide her children with a better life, she made a commitment that all of her children and grandchildren would be highly educated. Florence and her husband, John, sent all four of their kids to college—no small feat in the segregated South, during the 1960s.

Florence set the stage for future generations of the Cooper family to aspire to and succeed in college.

Michelle Asha Cooper, the acting assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education, is Florence Cooper’s granddaughter.

I spoke to Michelle, a long-time professional colleague and friend, about her upbringing and why she believes in the power of education. Her advice appears below.

Michelle Asha Cooper, the acting assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education,

How is your grandmother’s story an inspiration to you?

My grandmother mandated excellence from her children and grandchildren. She had this really big dream, but she didn’t have a plan. She didn’t really know how to make it happen. So, even though educational excellence was a priority, going to college wasn’t easy or automatic for any of us.

Because of the courage and determination of my grandmother and my mother (who also sacrificed her own opportunities to take care of her family), I am committed to making college possible for others. I want to help students achieve success in education and in life. I want students, like my grandmother and mother, to have the opportunity to have a postsecondary path that is crystal clear, so they can realize their dreams.

When you see someone in an influential position, you don’t think about the journey they must have taken to get there. My life is a living testimony that all the steps along the way—each setback and heartache, every struggle, and even moments of self-doubt—have paved my path. I have been given this phenomenal opportunity, but it didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen by chance.

You’ve had an incredible career journey. What advice would you give to students just starting out?

I truly believe that sometimes our setbacks are actually a set-up for the next opportunity. It’s a hard and humbling lesson to learn, but one that students will find invaluable as they pursue their education and career journey. No one has a straight and smooth path. No one.

That’s why it’s important to be excellent at being you. When you look at others around you, it’s easy to make comparisons. But that’s not helpful. You don’t know what they’re dealing with or what success looks like to them. Instead of making comparisons, I encourage students (and colleagues, friends, and coworkers) to be the best version of YOU. With that, you will go far.

What should students remember when the road gets bumpy?

What has been given to you is yours alone, and you must execute with excellence.

It’s important to remember that, as you strive for excellence, you are not alone. Your family and friends make up your village. They can be an amazing source of strength—your secret weapon. I didn’t truly understand this until my daughter was born and my mother started living with me. She helped in so many ways—she helped my daughter, but also helped me on both a personal and professional level. During this chapter of life, I began to understand that as we mature and grow into our professional careers, we must remember that we have a network of sisters, friends, and family to help. Through their support, we are stronger and able to commit to a life of purpose. As adults and educators, we stand as models for our children and the community of people who have affirmed us along the way.

I strive to be accessible to my community because the people within it have given me so much. I never did it on my own. My family—my grandmother, my mother—and my community helped set the stage for where I am today. Because of their support and their example (along with countless others), I am able to serve in this role.

Any parting words for students, especially those celebrating college or workforce signing events?

Students: Your time is now! Discover your dream, make a plan, and learn to love the bumpy path that leads you to where you are meant to be. Turn to your village and know that you are not alone.