What’s something that not many people know about you?
I can rap to Tupac and Dr. Dre without much prompting.
What’s an important lesson you’ve learned through your work?
One lesson I had to learn through experience is that sometimes a setback is truly a blessing in disguise. In 2009 we were pushing a legislative effort to allow a small number of community colleges to offer associate degrees for transfer. We worked so hard on it, but it ultimately was unsuccessful.
We came back together the following year, and we went even bolder. Whereas the first bill made participation for institutions voluntary, this one made it mandatory—for all community colleges in California to offer Associate Degrees for Transfer. It also required guaranteed admission to the California State University system for students who earned this degree. And in spite of the recession being in full swing, the new legislation passed. And it was actually a much better policy! This was a huge lesson for all of us, especially those who are used to compromising in politics. It emboldened us to move past reforms in the margins to think bigger about the solutions we are moving forward.
What is your personal motto?
There’s a quote by Muhammad Ali that I love, that I found myself reflecting a lot on since he passed: “Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” As a woman, as a Latina, as an outside agitator and advocate, I’ve been dismissed or not listened to, told that my solution was not possible, only to find out that that’s not usually the case. These words are a reminder that when in doubt, we should keep fighting for what we know is right.
What’s a leadership challenge that you’re facing right now?
I’ve been with the Campaign for College Opportunity for 12 years, with eight as the president. After a while, you start to wonder: am I pushing enough? Am I taking it to the next level? We’ve had some big successes with statewide and institutional change, but how do we build on that? Knowing that political capital is not everlasting, how do we continue to be as effective as possible?
Who are your heroes?
My mom is my hero. I can’t begin to imagine what her life experience was like—the challenges she has faced and the impossible choices she had to make as an immigrant, as a single mom, as someone struggling out of poverty. She’s incredibly humble, very under the radar, but also incredibly brilliant.
As I grew up, my passion for social justice was awakened by the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dolores Huerta and others. Today, I am extremely inspired by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: her grit, her intellectual command and her continued commitment to the core value of equal opportunity under the law. She’s a living example of what true leadership looks like.
What’s an achievement that you’re most proud of?
We’ve helped change the conversation around student success. Six years ago there was very little attention being paid to making sure students had the tools to succeed in college. The Campaign for College Opportunity has played a role in highlighting and elevating the conversation, from policy to budget, from the governor to the legislature. We have a lot more work ahead of us, but I feel proud of what we’re accomplished here
We’ll know our work is done when…
When almost every student who goes to college, earns a degree or certificate and when we have eliminated the gaps between students of color and their white peers in terms of college preparation, college going, and college success, especially in a state as diverse as California that has the economic workforce demands that it has.
What compels you to do this work?
I had a turning point early in my life, and that was the opportunity to go to college. This was not a given by any means. My mom raised me mostly on her own. She had a sixth grade education, and while she was always very supportive of me going to school, she wasn’t able to help me navigate the college application process as I got closer to it. Neither one of us could name the difference between a four year college and a community college, let alone the requirements to get into one. Luckily, I had a few advisors who helped get me on the path toward college.
I got to college and I was only 30 miles from home, but I might as well have been on another planet. After being at the top of my high school class, I felt unprepared for the rigor of college. Socially, I felt isolated as one of only a few Latinos there at the time. This feeling, which took me completely by surprise, was also avoidable. It’s what we hear from a lot of our students, and it means that we’re still not doing enough for kids like me who didn’t have that extra support. There are a lot of young people in California who, like me, could have ended up or do end up going down a very different path—not because they don’t have the intelligence or the drive to succeed, but because they don’t have someone able to help them.
A social movement that gives me hope is….
I’m incredibly inspired by student activists. It’s hard to name a social movement in the U.S. that hasn’t been led or largely influenced by young people. And we continue to see that today. I am in awe of the brave undocumented students who risk everything to come out of the shadows and stand proudly to help the country see them as the Americans they are. The DREAMers remind us that even when there is so much to lose, we have to stand up for what we believe in.
Michele Siqueiros is the President of the Campaign for College Opportunity.