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No Limits No Excuses: How did WTAMU get involved with No Limits, No Excuses?

West Texas A&M University: My understanding is that James Hallmark – who was the Provost at the time – had been involved with Amarillo Area Foundation and Panhandle 2020 and he was the first to hook in to what is now No Limits, No Excuses. I think they called it PPS at the time. So, he was the Provost and I was the Associate Provost, and he knew that I had been involved in  P16 initiatives for a while as a faculty member and so he asked me to start attending the meetings, and shortly after that, he left the university to go to College Station and I became the Provost.

But by that time, I think I knew enough about it that we had to be involved and  it’s something I feel strongly and passionate about, so rather than delegate it to someone else, I tried to maintain my role there. We’ve had several other people who have been involved in it as well.


NLNE:  What’s kept WT’s involvement during the five-plus years since No Limits, No Excuses has started?

WT: Well, I think you have to step back and look at the big picture. First of all, we’re an educational institution and so, educational attainment and providing people with high quality higher education, that’s the core mission of what we are. No Limits, No Excuses, even though it moves in lots of different directions, it looks at poverty, it looks at job training and all these other things, at its core it’s still about increasing the educational attainment of the region that we’re located in.


We can only thrive, we can only grow if the area that we’re located in is thriving and growing as well, and so in a sense, that’s maybe self-serving because a strong Panhandle means a strong WT. But more importantly, it’s what we’re put here to do. It’s our goal. It’s our mission. It’s to reach as many people in the area as we can and provide them with educational opportunities, and I think to partner with Amarillo College, to partner with AISD, to partner with business and to integrate ourselves into the community even more strongly than we already are.


NLNE: How has the partnership increased your relationship with other institutions?

WT: I guess I’ll answer that in two parts. Personally, I have gained such a broader understanding of how Amarillo College operates, the leadership there, their mission and certainly, the same is true of AISD. For a lot of people at the university, we don’t have to think very much or very hard about the independent school districts that are in the region.

I always joke about college professors who think that their students drop from the heavens on the first day of class, and don’t have any prior experience or knowledge. So, to learn about the issues facing them, to learn for instance, about the level of poverty, the number of children who are on free and reduced lunches, to learn about the breadth of programming that Amarillo College has.

All that is knowledge that I carry to meetings that I have on campus when we talk about, what’s our goal, what’s our vision, how do we connect with these people? It just provides me with the breadth of knowledge I didn’t have, and then connections, quite honestly, to important people like Russell Lowery-Hart and Dana West. I would probably not move in those circles otherwise if I didn’t have this connection.

As an institution, I think that the answer is also very similar. I try to share that information as I said, in meetings when I’m with the deans, when I’m with the President, when I’m with other people, to either clarify things or to point out chances for us to partner, or chances for us to work on a common initiative. Dr. Wendler is very open and very interested in those sorts of things, so I think that will pick up some steam now that he’s assumed his leadership role here on campus.

NLNE: What changes in culture related to universal achievement have you seen personally or professionally, or within the institution?

: Well, as a result of this and some other things as well, I think we have a lot more emphasis on our campus among faculty and staff on access to college and success in college to completion. Quite honestly, I think in years past going way back, all we really cared about was that we get a certain number of students to show up, and then we sort of let the chips fall where they may.  If they didn’t make it, well, it was their fault, they weren’t good enough or they didn’t study hard enough, or whatever.

The research that we’ve done and the reports that No Limits, No Excuses have released have told us all that it’s really not about academic preparation most of the time, that it’s about food insecurity, that it’s about having to take care of parents, that it’s about a lack of job opportunities in the area. There are all these reasons why students are not persisting at our university and going on to earn a degree, that people like me really weren’t aware of before. I lived in this little bubble world where, if a student didn’t make it, it was because they weren’t smart enough, and it turns out, that’s number 327 of why students don’t persist in school.

And I never really considered the other socioeconomic aspects as part of the reason why we need to change the programming that we offer, we need to change the attitude that we have, we need to change our recruiting strategies so that we’re more aware of who our students are, to help them be successful.

So, all of that is a roundabout way of saying, we’re treating the students more holistically now and that, I think, is increasing the achievement that we have.  We’re also more positive in the way that we interact with our students, instead of just saying “look to your left, look to your right, one of you is not going to be here at the end of this class,” and there was almost a sort of arrogance or pride in that.

‘I’m going to get rid of a third of you. I’m going to crush your dreams before you make it out of my class.’ And you rarely – if ever – hear that anymore, and what you find out instead is, “what resources can we connect you to, to help you with the issue that you’re having now, so you can be successful? Is that tutoring? Is that counselling? Is that financial assistance?” And I think No Limits, No Excuses has been a big part of changing that culture on our campus.


NLNE: What role does WT serve as a partner?

WT: This is something that has caused me a lot of thought and even if I’m being honest, some vexation over time. I don’t want to make it sound… I don’t want to say it wrong, but in a sense, we are the end, right? Well, that’s not really true. We’re the end of the educational… formal education, right? And that doesn’t mean we sit at the top or the summit or anything, it just means we’re the logical end of that progression. Yes, there’s graduate school, but we haven’t really been concerned too much about that through No Limits, No Excuses.

And early on, the group made the decision that one of our foci was going to be addressing poverty, and addressing poverty at its root, not the time the student shows up in my class as a freshman. And so, to me, that meant that we were way, way, way down the road, right?

The fundamental issues were, how do we reduce childhood poverty, how do we break that cycle of poverty, so that those children who are being born now have the opportunity to go to school in 15, 18, 20 years down the road, and that’s tough when that’s a long-delayed gratification to see, right? AISD is going to see it hopefully… start seeing it in four or five years, but Amarillo College and WT, it’s going to be a long time before we see that. Amarillo College through GED and other programs can start having that impact there, sure.

So, being at the end, it’s been frustrating at times because I’m waiting for the students to get to us, to do what we do, to get into my area and strength. On the other hand, it’s a really good reminder of how connected all of this is, and how those students don’t just drop from the skies into our classrooms. We understand now that our students are the products of homes in Amarillo, and their surrounding area, that often have unemployment, under-employment, health issues, financial stability issues, and food security issues. And if we can address those now, we get a student who is holistically better prepared to be successful when they come into our doors.


NLNE: What does the future of education – post-secondary education – and the workforce look like for our area, in your mind?

WT: So, obviously, I’m a big proponent of higher education and I believe that is one of the best ways, for a region, for a community to grow and to prosper. Not only do people with college training and college education typically earn more, they are also more likely to own their house, they’re more likely to have health insurance, they’re more likely to vote, they’re more likely to participate in the political process, they’re more likely to be civically engaged.

If you look around the United States, the most dynamic, most prosperous areas are also the areas that have the highest educational attainment rate. The tax base goes up, the crime rate goes down, the voter participation rate goes up, the amount of money that’s spent on indigent care goes down. All of these things have this multiplier effect on the wellbeing of a community, And then, when those people who have had the opportunity to get a college education sit on planning committees, sit on boards, they have a vision for where the city is going to go, that’s maybe different than the vision that’s out there now. Not that there’s anything wrong with the vision that’s out there now, but I think we would all want to be in a place that’s more dynamic, and more vibrant, no matter where you are. You would always wish that it would be more dynamic and vibrant than it is.


NLNE: What impact has NLNE had on WT either physically or culturally? You kind of hit on some of that, but if you have anything else you want to add.

WT: No. Again, I think this idea that we have to view students for who they are, and not as people in our seats who are taking tests, look at physically, we now have social workers in our Student Success Center which would have never happened before, and it wouldn’t have happened without No Limits, No Excuses.

Having a food pantry on campus – that would have never happened before without the influence of No Limits, No Excuses. Other ways NLNE has influenced is the work that Denise Skinner is doing in tracking our graduates. Part of that is our own desire and need to have that information, but part of that is also a chance to partner and to be able to provide more compelling data, more accurate data to the community about where our students are going when they graduate.

And that’s going to shape the way that we offer programs and the kind of programs that we offer, right? If we find out that 50 percent of our basket weaving graduates are on unemployment ten years from now, we need to stop offering our basket weaving degree and put resources into something that’s in demand in the community.

Well, it’s hard to do that when you wave goodbye to them after graduation and never talk to them, or see them, or track them after that. So, I think that’s another change that No Limits, No Excuses has helped influence. You have to take the big picture of this. You have to understand that the student who walks into your class started life in this environment, and you have to understand that, when they leave the university, what’s their impact? What’s their footprint on their larger community? Not just from a job perspective, but from other perspectives as well.


NLNE: So, what impact do you think NLNE has had on the community?

WTAMU: I think you can point to some specific things. You can point to the work that’s been done by Cal Farley’s, you can point to the Neighborhood Navigators, you can point to the increased GED attainment, and I think those are the things that you can grab onto and say, we did this, this is starting.

So, those are some concrete things that you can look at. The other thing I think is that, what we talked about five years ago is raising the consciousness and awareness of the people of the area about, that this is an issue that needs to be foregrounded, that this is something we need to be spending time and effort talking about, that a lot of what we want as a community can be attained if we start with working on poverty, and working on education.

So, I think there are two things. The physical things, the specific things you can point to, the people walking across with their GED, the Neighborhood Navigators, the faster completion rate of high school students, and the college application rate of high school students. And then, the other is raising awareness which is a very slow, very cumbersome process and obviously, we’ve got a ways to go now.

NLNE: How would you characterize success for NLNE?

WT: Well, I think on two levels. The immediate level is that, we maintain the partnership and continue to bring in new voices to the partnership. Even when our initial funding is gone, even when we’re tempted to say, that’s it, we’ve done what we can do, it’s been a good run. The fact that we continue to move forward with new initiatives – I think that’s one indication of success.

So many of these things, Broc you know as well as I, never make it out of the gate, or as soon as the money dries out, the interest goes away and all of a sudden, people are not interested in doing it anymore.

So, that’s one characteristic of success. If ten years from now when I’m getting ready to retire, NLNE is still a thing, that’s going to be to me a success that it’s obviously meeting the needs of the community. The larger success and the deferred gratification we were talking about earlier, is if we start seeing those graduation numbers trending up, we start seeing more students graduate from school, we see more of those students from high school going to postsecondary, we see more of those students completing postsecondary.

To me, that’s the ultimate success of No Limits, No Excuses. I would be happy with Amarillo, Canyon and Randall County having the same percentage of people with postsecondary degrees as the state of Texas, which still lags behind the country a little bit. That would be a huge success and I don’t think it could be overemphasized, the impact that could have on the community, from so many different perspectives. Think about it this way – we graduated 1,200 students in May – 1,200 students. If they just meet the average of five to six hundred thousand more in earnings over their lifetime that college students have, multiply 1,200 times $600,000, and then think about the economic impact of that on what you can buy, and what home you can afford, and lifestyle that you can live, and the taxes that you pay.

And then, their children know they’re going to college because mom and dad went to college. It takes a special child whose parents went to college to not go to college. They’ve got almost as much of a battle to fight as the kid who wants to go to college whose parents didn’t go to college So, I mean, I think at some point, that success for me is that we’re seeing those numbers creep up to where we’re no longer below the state average in terms of postsecondary attainment.

NLNE: What other thoughts do you have about NLNE?

WT: Well, first I think it’s important for me to say how much I’ve gotten out of this personally and how rewarding it’s been for me. The people I’ve met, the things that I’ve learned, the service that I can provide in whatever way it is to my community, that’s really important to me, and I know that I value it because I get upset, and I only get upset about things I care about, right?

If I come to the meeting and I’m there twiddling my thumbs, and say whatever, whatever you guys want to do is great, then you know that I’ve lost interest in it. But as long as I’m arguing, as long as I’m raising my voice, as long as I’m unhappy that we’ve pivoted left when I said we should have pivoted right, that means that I still care and value what it does. So, that’s one thing. The other thing is, I think we’ve talked about this a couple times in our meetings, we need to celebrate our successes more often, and we need to – instead of beating ourselves up that we still don’t have the numbers that we’d have or something – we need to say, look at what we have done and look at how we’ve kept together this.

I mean, I think if you went out on a tour of 20 other cities the size of Amarillo, they are similarly situated and told them about this, 19 out of 20 of them would have been astonished. “You did what, and you’ve done it for how long, and it’s still together? How can we do that? Come and serve as a consultant and teach us how we can do that.” I really think that would be the case, but it’s just astonishing. And yet, who knows about it?  How come there’s not an article in the Dallas Morning News, or an article in Inside Higher-Ed about what we’ve been able to do here over the last five or six years?

So again, we’ve kept it a secret, maybe because we don’t understand how unique it is.