Clark College president, student leaders give inspiring address for challenging year ahead

College officials and students persevere during the coronavirus pandemic

By Dan Trujillo

Since March 2020, Clark College students, faculty and staff members have felt stranded on an iceberg above the treacherous waters caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

While that iceberg continues to melt, the Penguins shared their resolve and goals for the future during Thursday’s online State of the College Address.

More than 140 viewers tuned in on YouTube and watched Dr. Karin Edwards, president of Clark College, speak for 30 minutes. Although there was no timetable for a return to in-person learning, Edwards spoke about how Clark responded to COVID-19, budget challenges and advancing racial equality. Associated Students of Clark College President Josiah Joner and 2021 Transforming Lives Award nominee Tosha Big Eagle shared their stories about life on and off campus in this changed reality.

Dr. Karin Edwards
Dr. Karin Edwards

“When I accepted the role as president last February, I knew that the first year transitioning into my role would be challenging, but I couldn’t have predicted just how challenging,” Edwards explained.

“I am grateful to each person in every position who has reached deep within themselves to make changes in how we work to keep Clark open and keep students in class,” she added. “The advances made in the past year will serve us well in the future.”

Through research over the past year, Edwards and her colleagues learned white students are more likely to complete their introductory courses than students of color. Edwards believes this occurs because of systemic racism, economical differences, and lack of food, supplies and stability at home. A pandemic only amplifies these differences.

Clark College tackled these challenges by starting a new professional development program called BUILD (Broadening Understanding Intercultural Development). The Penguin Pantry provided 576 food boxes for students. Information Technology Services loaned close to 900 laptops and WiFi hotspots to students. And thanks to the Clark College Foundation, community organizations and the Federal Cares Act, 12,000 students received funding grants to help them continue their educational journeys.

“It’s been exhausting work done from employees’ kitchens and bedrooms turned home offices,” Edwards said. “I want to take a moment to praise our facility and staff members and tell them it was all worth it. Your innovation and dedication have truly made a difference in keeping our students on a promising pathway during this crisis.”

Tosha Big Eagle has dealt with crises for most of her adult life. At 19, she got addicted to meth and dropped out of college.

“It took a hold of my life,” Big Eagle explained.

Tosha Big Eagle
Tosha Big Eagle

She was incarcerated for the first time when she was 21. Upon her release, Big Eagle said she was reinvigorated with hope and determination. She completed treatment and restarted college.

Big Eagle was blindsided by the death of her father in 2008. He moved in and they were working on repairing their relationship, but he couldn’t break his cycle of addiction. He overdosed on prescription methadone while she was studying for a college final.

“Heartbroken, I felt responsible. Like I could have stopped it,” Big Eagle said. “Sadly, I turned my pain into a heroin addiction.”

In 2010, she was back in jail. During her seven-year sentence, she took every class and counseling session available. She learned “to be a fair and caring person who leads with respect and love.”

After prison, it was difficult for Big Eagle to find employment. Once she gave birth to a son, she decided to invest in her education and enrolled at Clark College. She is pursuing a Bachelor’s in Human Development at Washington State University Vancouver and completing a certificate to become an addiction education counselor at Clark College.

“While addiction, trauma and incarceration have touched my life, they don’t define who I am,” Big Eagle said.

“Our future is with our children,” she added. “I believe if we educate them at a young age, we can reduce the risk of addiction, violence and poverty.”

Clark College has been like a second home to Josiah Joner. His parents, siblings, grandmother, aunt and cousins have all attended the school.

“Truly, we are a Clark College family and we would not be where we are today without Clark,” Joner said.

Josiah Joner
Josiah Joner

Although thankful for the opportunities Clark College provides, Joner is not about to sugarcoat the stresses of online learning and say everybody at Clark is doing just fine.

“Because we aren’t. It has been a tumultuous and strenuous year on all fronts,” he said.

“Though it is true we are all in this together, we are not in the same boat,” Joner added. “I believe the best thing we can do for the students right now is to be there for them.”

Therefore, members of Clark College student government created a resources and operations webpage to accompany the school’s online learning system. Joner said hundreds of students are accessing the page.

“We hope to see the page continue to build and grow over the next few months to become a central hub for student resources,” Joner added.

Edwards says there’s “a new and different normal” ahead for Clark College students and employees. She harks to a 2006 book by John Kotter, titled “Our Iceberg is Melting.”

Edwards said it’s a story of penguins who learn how to work together under stress of uncertainty and rapid change.

Sounds like the new normal for 2021 and beyond.

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