October 7, 2009

“Always Think it’s Bigger Than Me”: Dr. Joe Leonard's Visit to Miami Dade College, North Campus

Miami Dade College has had a long history of attracting dignitaries who have a keen interest in tertiary education. We have had visits by Bill Clinton, Arne Duncan, Dr.Jill Biden, and Barack Obama to name a few. As the chairperson of College Prep. at the North Campus, I have had the opportunity to meet with some of the three thousand students in my department and to learn from the professors whom I supervise. Occasionally, I get the chance to encounter someone like Dr. Joe Leonard Jr., Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, United States Department of Agriculture, who met with the students, professors, and administration of the North Campus. It was experience we’ll never forget.

First of all, Dr. Leonard spoke with an understanding of the circumstances that many of our students face. He’s lived and survived the challenges. After a brief introduction by Dr. Jose Vicente, who described the metamorphosis that was taking place on our campus, Dr. Leonard began his heart-to-heart discussion with students in Professor Joann Brown’s class—an inspired choice by Dean Hoffman.

Professor Joann Brown, a versatile and accomplished educator, has served the college for the past twenty-four years and possesses a vast knowledge of student needs. She is also fearless. Professor Brown was one of the first to volunteer for one of our learning innovations in College Prep.—a paired reading and writing class that allows students, if they are successful, to complete the curriculum in half the time and to begin freshman composition.

So far, our experiment with Professor Brown’s assistance has worked, and we have seen an increase in pass rates from three to fifteen percent. And lest anyone think that this was due to grade inflation, the students in the upper levels of developmental education at Miami Dade College must pass an exam that is mandated by the Florida Department of Education. Besides, Professor Brown’s pass rates are usually above department averages because of the mixture of compassion and erudition that she brings to her vocation.

Dr. Leonard could sense her passion for education, and he assured the students that teachers such as Professor Brown, who didn’t want “anything from them,” but only wanted “excellence for them,” would always be there to assist in any way that they could. “Just don’t block your own blessings,” and “always listen to that little voice” he reminded them. Dr. Leonard then warned the students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and that using these narcotics—“they don’t call them spirits for nothing”—could lead to a dulling of their ability to hear that “little voice,” which could lead to dire consequences.

The students tuned in and hung on his every word as Dr. Leonard spoke about his life journey and some of the obstacles to success that he overcame. The climax of his speech was the revelation of his struggles with dyslexia and the methods that he used to navigate his educational career.

“You know, it’s like when you have a knee injury, you learn to compensate.” Dr. Leonard’s techniques for compensating involved rewriting his essays “nine or ten times,” and reading aloud so he could fully comprehend what he was reading. With these strategies he graduated high school and college, but he knew something was wrong.

It wasn’t until he was working as a teacher in Louisiana and he took a workshop about how to teach children with dyslexia that he realized his condition. It changed his life. Surprisingly, that was when he decided to purse his doctorate.

“Always think it’s bigger than me” he told the students, and gave personal examples to prove his point about locating themselves in history. Dr. Leonard traced his family lineage back six generations to Jose Leonard, an escaped slave form Cuba, who ended up in slavery in Texas, but managed to become a free man by the end of his life.

“Your actions have consequences,” he said and showed the students how the actions of his forebears, not only affected him, but that his actions and their actions would affect future generations: “I can’t afford to fail,” he said emphatically. “I won’t fail. Too many before me have paid the price, and too many in the future are counting on me to succeed.”

The import of his message sunk in. But Dr. Leonard didn’t leave it there. He left the students with hope. He extended an open invitation to the students to work for him at the USDA once they had graduated. “I’d love for all of you to come and work for me one day.” He hoped that we would be able to open doors the way that others such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. created opportunities for him and an entire generation, either directly or indirectly or by their words and deeds.

Dr. Leonard’s interaction with the students was remarkable and he promised the students that he would return in December to see how they were doing. I know that Professor Brown, her students, the administration, and I are looking forward to seeing him again and to hear more of his inspirational story.


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