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Verelyn Gibbs Watson Headshot

Is the American Dream a Dream Deferred?

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So, last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Arizona State University + Global Silicon Valley Summit (ASU+GSV 2014) in Arizona. It's known as the "Davos in the Desert" and is an amazing opportunity for those with a commitment to education and creating success for students.

There was a lot of talk at the summit about the American dream and creating opportunity for all. In fact it was the theme of the conference. I heard a lot about fears that the American dream is dying.

As I heard about these themes throughout the event and thinking about what we can do to make a difference, I began to notice interesting things. First, glancing around the rooms revealed to me what seemed like a lack of significant diversity among attendees.

Perhaps by working in the higher ed/ nonprofit space I have become used to attending events that reflect a higher percentage of women as attendees. It was curious to me that there was never a long wait for the ladies' restroom at breaks. In addition, I was literally one of a handful of individuals of color participating in this amazing opportunity. Why?

So I began to examine my own road to ASU+GSV. First, were it not for the fact that ASU+GSV offers a special nonprofit rate, (which is less than a third of the regular registration price) and also the ability to secure lodging at a more reasonably priced hotel than the conference venue, my nonprofit employer probably could not have afforded to be represented here.

I started to wonder if there's a missed opportunity to make this event even more accessible to the masses committed to success for students. Or maybe there needs to be a shift in priorities for said individuals to realize the importance in investing in opportunities like this?

The sessions were engaging and valuable. During one, Michael Crow, ASU's president, championed the need for "culture change" in families, in societies and in education in order for us to see any real improvements in learning outcomes. Sentiments I am in agreement with.

I also listened to Governor Jeb Bush as he passionately spoke about his "tri-lingual" granddaughter who is of Mexican, Iraqi and, of course, "Texan" descent. He spoke about understanding the importance of access and the opportunities afforded by immigration and that education is the key to true social mobility.

I recalled that Columba, Bush's wife, is a distinguished member of The National Society of Collegiate Scholars and our founder Steve Loflin always reflects fondly that she actually came to her NSCS induction ceremony and served as a positive example to the undergraduate members.

Something jelled for me listening to the governor as I realized the reason he is able to speak so passionately about these issues around immigration, access and diversity because he lives it. He relates to it.

I think it's difficult for most people to embrace the importance of these issues if they haven't lived it or don't have a point of reference. That's why I thought that having an increased representation of diverse groups at the conference could have had an amazing and substantial impact. Especially with the abundance of opportunities to network and connect.

As an immigrant who became a citizen as a teenager, I have no choice but to understand and embrace these issues. However, real change and real difference will not happen until those who can't relate or don't understand decide (or are forced to) embrace the core issues plaguing our education system.

As to the questions and fears that the dream is dying, in my book I think we can create the opportunities to bring back the dream but it will require equity in addition to equality; it will require equal opportunity for outcomes and not just access. In order for that to really take place we need everyone to be part of the conversation.