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New York City
March 2002

Augusta Kappner, President, Bank Street College of Education

Factors in Career Choice: Growing up in a Jamaican household, a high value was always placed on education, although no one in the family before me had gone to college. In my South Bronx neighborhood, I had many committed teachers in my school. One particularly memorable teacher was Mrs. Sherman who spent her lunch hours and afternoons coaching several of us for the Hunter admissions test. With Mrs. Sherman’s guidance, I passed the admissions test and continued my studies at the Hunter College Junior and High Schools, then an all–girls school, which provided me an outstanding high school education. Just as important, Hunter took me outside my South Bronx neighborhood and brought me into contact with all the diversity and lifestyles of New York City. From there I attended Barnard College, which gave me the financial support to make college possible and allowed me to remain in New York where I could care for my mother. Barnard also instilled the philosophy that every woman could “do it all.” A major in sociology proved stimulating, but frustrating in the distance between theory and practice. One professor, Dr. Gladys Meyer, bridged the gap for many of us by helping us to understand that we could study and learn the workings of society and still work toward changing that society. The ability to test this idea out in internships during college helped to choose social work as a profession.

Pivotal Point: When I discovered that colleges and universities as institutions could be used for the social good and that teaching other adults could be as satisfying and meaningful
as direct social action. This new career direction was most clearly set by my joining LaGuardia Community College to head up the Human Services academic area. At the time, community colleges were a relatively recent phenomenon. What attracted many of us to this movement was the potential, not just for LaGuardia, but for all community colleges to provide opportunities otherwise closed to many, and their potential for serving the greater needs of a community. The central aspect of the decision to go to LaGuardia was that it set me on the path of working in and from academic institutions to create greater opportunity for previously excluded populations. By creating partnerships between those institutions and others, we could expand that net of opportunity, equity and hopefulness even further.

Achievements: I am proud of having been the first African–American female President in the City University of New York, but as I have always said, the goal is not to be the first, but rather to insure that you are not also the last. So I am prouder of having counseled and mentored many good women, toward achieving their aspirations. I am proud of having expanded the horizons and opportunities for thousands of New Yorkers by my work in CUNY. I am also proud of having helped to create opportunities for thousands of young Americans to develop career pathways through the School–to–Work Opportunities Act. And, I am proud to be helping to change the face of teacher education and improve the lives of thousands of children across the United States through our work at Bank Street. On a more personal note, I am proud of being married to the same guy for 35 years and having two wonderful human beings for daughters, not to mention a granddaughter.

Obstacles: Starting out in poverty was certainly an obstacle, as was having a dependent mother to care for. The decision about college came down to the line – could I go or would I have to go to work immediately. What a different path my life might have taken had I gone directly to full time work.

Over the course of my career, race and gender were obstacles to overcome in reaching for leadership positions. A reluctance to accept women as leaders in higher education was pervasive. Committees were always questioning whether female candidates were “tough enough” to do the job. This meant that one was always dragging up examples of some “tough” action one had engaged in. There was also, and still is, a reluctance to accept the varying styles of leadership that exist. This was to change with the years, but still exists today.

Mentors: There were many mentors along the way, some living, some now gone, both men and women. The mentors from history provided the insights upon which to build the present, and the inspiration of knowing that whatever you attempted today, it would be infinitely less daunting than the circumstances faced by your forebears. The historical mentors also provided the conscience, and the responsibility not to squander the hard won gains of those who came before us. The mentors from the present were the Deans and College Presidents who permitted me to see their work up close, to learn that I too could do this work and who trusted me to take on ever increasing responsibilities and to do it right.

Advice: I have what some may view as rather old–fashioned advice for young women. First, not only complete your education, but use it to the fullest to explore areas that you may not be familiar with. Travel if you can, learn at least one second language, learn not just the United States but learn the world. Whatever job you have learn it well and do it well – and learn about the work of those above you. Ask for assignments that will broaden your perspective, and that will allow you to demonstrate your talents.

7. What are your future goals?

Right now, all of my energies are focused
on Bank Street College and its potential to improve the education of children and the model it offers for preparing excellent teachers.#


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