As Virginia Senator Tim Kaine accepted the National Education Service Award at this year’s National Legislative Summit, he described education as “the great lifter and the great leveler.”  These words speak to the heart of the open door mission of America’s community colleges, serving the 12 million Americans who fill our classrooms each year.  The theme of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” becomes an apt metaphor for the work we do, the people we serve and the values we hold.  We are indeed Opportunity’s College; even more than that, we are Democracy’s Colleges.International students gather in the quad on campus.

A seismic demographic shift has occurred in America over the past 50 years, a shift none of us can afford to ignore.  To meet the needs of this diverse population, for we are mission bound to do so, none of us can deny that the community college of the 21st century must become a vastly different institution from those of our founding years.  Regrettably, we engage in this conversation against the backdrop of a divided nation, amid a decidedly “uncivil” level of “civil” discourse. While our country is undergoing a sense of collective confusion over who we are and what we value as a nation, we in the community college world are experiencing no such identity crisis. Our open door mission mandates that we stand tall against the rhetoric of hate and fear as oases of calmness, safety and opportunity for those who come to us hoping to achieve a better life for themselves and their families.

Our colleges naturally embrace diversity in all its manifestations: gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, able-bodiedness, sexual orientation and, as importantly, opinion.  Our campuses are microcosms of the communities we serve, living emblems of “equity, diversity, and inclusion.”  In our business, diversity must be everybody’s business, not just the job of the Multicultural Affairs Office.

AACC data shows our campuses to be melting pots of color, size, and shape. All are welcome whether wearing a baseball cap, hoodie, hijab or leisure suit.  Truly, we are Emma Lazarus’s “Give me your tired, your poor,” writ large!

Celebrating our differences actually strengthens our sense of community rather than dilutes it.  It means serving the students we have, not the ones we wish we had.  It means making our college work for every student, not just the ones who look like us.  It means recognizing that the only reason any of us has a job is because we have students to serve.  The equation is simple; their success is our success.

Guaranteeing universal access is no small task, but we have thousands of thoughtful, talented, and spirited community college professionals, led by equally committed presidents, who believe in doing just that.  Blind to the differences, focused on the possible, they have created Accelerated Learning programs to mainstream underprepared students; infused culturally responsive teaching principles into classroom experiences; designed safe zones for the worried and the fearful.  Who better than we, the “practical cats of higher education,” can do this important work? As our colleague Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise campaign always says, “We have promises to keep.” And, I would add, not just to those who look, talk or act like us!

**This opinion piece originally appeared in the April/May 2019 edition of “Community College Journal.”