When I joined the Bakersfield College administrative team, the executive leadership team tasked me to build a robust outreach program in partnership with our local high schools. Five years later, we are reaching more students than ever before with a more than 35 percent increase in the number of students enrolling at the college.
As I prepared to emcee the Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast this past weekend, I found myself reflecting on this work — work I feel called to do in service to our community. I reflected on the conditions that have facilitated our success and, more importantly, the people who have helped to create them. I thought about the individuals who have mentored me, challenged me and supported me throughout the past five years. I thought about the leadership of BC President Sonya Christian.
Anyone who works with Christian will tell you she is all about accountability. Where many leaders in education fall short, Christian soars. She brought to BC a business acumen that has resulted in the college growing its annual budget, securing millions of grant dollars to serve students and ensuring stability by growing our reserves for the inevitable rainy day our California economy is sure to bring.
Yet, what impresses us all that much more is that she does so purely in the interest of BC’s constituents: our faculty, our staff, our community and business leaders, and most importantly, our students. She knows the taxpayers make public education possible for our more than 33,000 students and is relentless in her commitment to do what is right each and every time.
Martin Luther King Jr. described in his 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail that growth and change happen in the presence of constructive tension. When a bureaucracy buster like Christian swims against the stream as we all know her to do, we often see tension develop. Yet, this tension is where growth happens. The space where tension exists is where we see change.
Changes like more black students than ever before enrolling at BC; hundreds of incarcerated students enrolling and completing degrees while inside; a 30 percent increase in the number of black students completing transfer-level math in their first year; a 340 percent increase in black students completing transfer-level English in their first year; and a 37.5 percent increase in number of black students transferring to four-year universities
These changes fundamentally alter the trajectory for thousands of historically marginalized students. These are our children, our grandchildren, our future.
Just as King believed that moral law supersedes unjust man-made law, Christian’s vision for a more equitable community — one in which we acknowledge disparities in access and opportunity and address them head-on — is what serves as her guiding moral compass. Her vision may be big, but she stands unfettered by the status quo, refusing to be constrained by boundaries that were never designed to facilitate but instead to limit.
You can see through Christian’s investments in our people and in our programs where her priorities fall. For example, BC’s growing Umoja program led by the indomitable Dr. Paula Parks launches dozens of black students each year to impressive successes in their courses, their degrees and certificates and in transfer. Our agreement with historically black colleges and universities opens doors for students to earn thousands of scholarship dollars and transfer with a guarantee from BC. The list goes on.
During this time when we come together to honor the legacy of King and recognize the leaders who have carried his message forward, it is no surprise Christian was honored with the Vernon Strong Visionary Leadership Award at the 2019 MLK Prayer Breakfast.
After over 30 years of service in higher education, I know how rare it is to find a leader who can both navigate the complexities of the role while maintaining such a heart for the work. In Christian, we have a leader who does so gracefully.
Steve Watkin is the director of Outreach and School Relations at Bakersfield College. He can be reached at email@example.com.