Champions Network: Inspiration for Higher Education

Drawing on diverse personal backgrounds, views, and work experiences, Higher Learning Advocates’ Champions Network members are united in advancing solutions to better serve today’s students. They bring to bear cutting-edge policy ideas and hands-on solutions to the discourse around national higher education policy and improving student outcomes. This month, Insights & Outlooks is highlighting the inspiration behind the work of Champions Network members.

Tony Carvajal

Tony Carvajal credits his parents, Florida’s education system, and mentors and supporters who showed him what it meant to work hard, to believe in yourself, and most importantly, to have a network that could introduce you to opportunity. Inspired by his mother, Tony cast a vision for his own future. He took his passion for connecting business with education and training, and launched his own successful consulting firm, spending 20 years working with trade and professional associations across the country.

Dr. José Luis Cruz

Carrying the dual responsibilities of student and father, Dr. José Luis Cruz worked to make ends meet and continue his educational journey with the support of financial aid programs, teaching assistantships, academic fellowships, other public assistance programs. He knows first-hand how a college diploma can transform the lives of graduates, their families and their communities. Though he faced challenges as a working dad attending college, Dr. Cruz credits his professors for keeping him focused on success. Their devotion to him and his classmates ignited his passion for higher education.

Dr. Barbara Damron

Dr. Barbara Damron was not only the first in her family to go to college, she was the first to go to high school. Driven by a passion for public policy-making and a calling for helping others, Dr. Damron’s health care career spanned more than 25 years, including work as an advanced practice nurse, educator, scientist and executive. Her surprising progression from these roles to higher education policy executive began with her early career as a nurse educator and health system administrator.

Joey Hatch

It was faculty mentors who believed in Joey Hatch and worked with him to help him envision a future for himself. Dr. Wallace Wilson, then the department head of the architecture, construction and engineering program at Nashville State, had a profound impact, helping Joey to develop a belief that he could succeed in college and gain his passion for construction and architecture, where he spent his entire adult life working.

Mike Krause

While in the United States Army, Mike Kause started taking night classes one at a time. Then, at age 24, he returned to education as a full-time student seven days after leaving the military, taking a 21 credit-hour per semester course-load to finish his degree. Known today as a passionate advocate for helping all students including adult learners achieve their academic potential, Mike credits his military experience as helping him beat the odds as a non-traditional student.

Scot McLemore

Scot McLemore was the first in his immediate family to attend college and, when met with the challenge of finding his own pathway, he gravitated toward technology and engineering. His education led to a career at Honda, the automaker that produces one in 10 cars in the U.S. and employs almost 15,000 workers in the Buckeye State today. While working at Honda, Scot recognized an opportunity to transform traditional pathways for potential employees that started with a radical idea: identify career options that don’t necessarily require a 4-year degree beginning with engaging middle and high school students and then educating them on available nontraditional pathways, such as certifications and 2-year degrees.

Elaina Mulé

Through her experience in discovering the impact of policies and programs internationally, Elaina Mulé witnessed firsthand how innovative programs can lead to massive community benefits for the poorest of the poor. Today, working on the Community Development team at Charles Schwab Bank in Las Vegas, Elaina is helping to guide efforts to give back to the community by helping build systems and improving career readiness through financial capability. Her work with higher education partners focuses on using data and evidence to better understand challenges that students encounter along their way to academic, personal and career development.

Michele Siqueiros

As the daughter of a hard-working immigrant mother from Mexico who only had a sixth-grade education, Michele Siqueiros was the first in her family to graduate from college. Following her graduation from Pitzer College and then UCLA, Siqueiros got a job at a non-profit organization and was immediately making more income than her parents had ever made in a single year, which fueled her passion even more to fight for higher education for all of today’s students.

Jason Smith, Ph.D.

For Dr. Jason Smith, advancing student success is a continuation of his interest in supporting healthy communities. As a former community health liaison for a nonprofit healthcare system, Dr. Smith saw the opportunity to extend continuous improvement best practices from healthcare into education and nonprofit sectors. Today, Dr. Smith pursues that passion as the Associate Vice Provost of Community Engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Michael Sorrell, Ed.D.

President Michael Sorrell grew up in a household that valued education and expected great things. His mother and grandmother, both educated at historically black colleges, instilled in President Sorrell the significant value an education would have on his life and the difference he would make because of it. Today, President Sorrell is working to “repay the debt” from his college-educated parents and grandparents as an advocate for his students. As Paul Quinn College’s longest-serving president, Sorrell has taken steps to transform the school by introducing a new financial structure, redesigning the school’s model as an urban work college, and focusing on academic rigor, experiential learning, and entrepreneurship.

Dr. Aaron Thompson

Knowing he wanted to attend college, Dr. Aaron Thompson actively sought out mentors from successful students and teachers while in high school. Upon arriving at Eastern Kentucky University, Dr. Thompson aggressively pursued advising and guidance to help him navigate an environment almost exclusively foreign to him. Likening the pursuit of education to building the plane while flying it, Dr. Thompson drew motivation from financially assisting  his own family back home. He later found new inspiration from a sense of responsibility in supporting the next generation.

Dr. Tonjua Williams

Her own origins as a first-generation college graduate from a poor family shaped her beliefs as an advocate for student success. The proud daughter of a single mother, Dr. Tonjua Williams forged a path that would propel her to president of St. Petersburg College. Dr. Williams saw the struggles her mother went through to provide opportunities for her family, and her mother encouraged her to push herself beyond her circumstances to achieve greater opportunities. As high school graduation approached, Dr. Williams’ mother gave her two choices: go to college or go to work and help pay the household bills. Dr. Williams decided to go to college and was accepted at Clearwater Christian College, making her the first in her family to attend college. 

Jan Yoshiwara

The daughter of first-generation college students who had hard-working immigrant parents from Japan, Jan Yoshiwara grew up going to middle-class college prep schools knowing she would attend college. Growing up, she heard stories of the injustices her grandparents, aunts, uncles and extended family had to endure coming from Japan and wanted to be part of the change for others. It was this soul-searching as a young student at the University of California-Davis that propelled Jan to become engaged as an advocate and a student representative on the educational opportunity program (EOP) committee, which helped set admissions criteria. This experience helped Jan realized higher education policy was something she wanted to pursue as a career.