Meet Liz, Vince, and Marvalene

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Last week the Educational Policy Institute hosted RETENTION 2009, the fourth annual International Conference on Student Retention. I know you know about it. If you subscribe to EPI, you couldn’t help but notice it.

The conference was a qualified success—our initial reports were that the sessions were very good and the location—New Orleans and the Ritz Carlton—were fabulous. The qualified piece is that we would have enjoyed more participants. Like other organizations, we have felt the downside of the economic collapse. Still, for the 200 attendees who did venture to the Big Easy, there were plenty of opportunities to learn from and share with colleagues from around the world. Perhaps our best feedback was for three of our keynote speakers—Liz McCartney, Vince Papale, and Marvalene Hughes—each of whom provides a unique insight into the challenges facing the people and community of New Orleans and the personal struggles and sacrifices required to “make it” in this world.

LIZ MCCARTNEY, as many of you now know, was voted CNN Hero of the Year in 2008 for her work establishing the St. Bernard Project in New Orleans. To date, Liz and her co-workers, with a little help from over 10,000 volunteers, have rebuilt 215 houses in the ninth ward of the city, the hardest hit area of New Orleans. Liz spoke to us last Wednesday at our opening session. After showing video of the CNN special featuring the St. Bernard Project and her acceptance speech, Liz shared her thoughts with the audience.

The take away point for me, and I believe for others in the room, was when Liz talked about the ability to build houses and change lives in New Orleans. “The frustrating thing about all of this is that this is doable. We know how to fix this. It isn’t rocket science.” And that is the difficulty of rebuilding after Katrina, when everyone has gone home and it has been largely forgotten around the US and beyond. I find it similar to our plight in education reform in America. In most regards, we know what to do to help our schools. But we can’t seem to move forward in any real manner. As Liz and her staff continue to face down the ninth ward and bring it back to life, we have our own challenge in bringing true reform to our schools in the US, Canada, and beyond. How do we make them better? How do we move the politicians? And where do we get the funds?

After Liz’ presentation, she and her colleague, Gretchen Wieland, were kind enough to meet and greet at the reception, where we were able to raise over $4,000 for the St. Bernard Project. With EPI’s matching grant, this will provide over $8,000 to the SBP. We’re still trying to hit the $12k mark–enough to rebuild a house in St. Bernard Parish. For those that wish to contribute, email me directly or visit

VINCE PAPALE is no stranger to challenges. In 1976 he was a walk-on at the Philadelphia Eagles training camp. As those who watched Disney’s Invincible a few years ago, Vince made the team. A local boy who did good (well, of course). To date, he still holds the record for being the oldest rookie ever in the NFL (30 years old) and was voted the Philadelphia Eagles top special teams player in their 75-year history. Vince worked for Sallie Mae for a decade and understands the barriers to higher education. He continues to travel the country talking with students and others about how to take hold of your life and make the most of it. It’s about “Living Your Dream,” according to Papale, and taking the opportunities that life presents to you. Vince reminded us of a quote from his former coach, NFL Hall of Fame coach Dick Vermeil, who said “No one ever drowned in sweat.” It takes hard work. Vince challenged the crowd to make an impact with the students we work with, make a second effort, be a mentor, and remember that there is nothing to lose. It’s a win-win when we help others. Vince knows—a  few years back he himself was challenged with cancer. He beat that, too. We encourage you to download his presentation from Retention 2009.

MARVALENE HUGHES is the president of Dillard University in New Orleans. After serving as president of CSU Stanislaus, she became president at Dillard in Fall 2005. Two months into her tenure, Katrina hit the Gulf. Dr. Hughes was left with rebuilding a campus and the surrounding community. The university, 10 feet under water, requiring significant renovations and significant funds, was in a potential position of losing their history. During her Friday plenary session, Dr. Hughes spoke of the devastation, not only physical, but the psychological impact of Katrina on students and staff. Today, Dillard University is still fighting back, and as Dr. Hughes maintained, its goal is to be bigger and better than ever.

At Dillard University it took dedication; it took team building; and it took a lot of things that Vince Papale spoke of the evening before. In the end, it is about making an impact and living life.

The participants of Retention 2009 had a wonderful opportunity to see, first hand, what it takes to dream and succeed. The parallels to the stories of our plenary speakers and what we do in education were obvious to attendees. This is hard work. But there are opportunities for those who take the leap, like Liz leaving Washington DC to make a difference in Louisiana; to Vince who took a chance when no one gave him a hope; and to Marvalene who could have turned around and gone back to California. They all continue to make their mark in this world, and we can learn from their leadership.

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