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MARCH 2008

Augusta Kappner, President, Bank Street College

Career: I grew up in an era when girls’ career options, particularly Black girls, were limited, and the two major professional choices were teaching or social work. So there is some irony in now serving as President of Bank Street College of Education, a teacher preparation institution.

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. I had many committed teachers in my school, P.S. 23 in the South Bronx.  One particularly memorable teacher was Mrs. Sherman, our sixth grade teacher, who spent her lunch hours and afternoons coaching several of us for the Hunter admissions test. Teachers were the most visible professional role models in my community and I did, in fact, aspire to become a teacher, specifically a mathematics teacher. That dream quickly faded when I took an experimental advanced physics course in high school and decided that mastering mathematics at that level was not for me.

The schools I attended were certainly instrumental in my choice of a career, and my ability to succeed in my chosen field. 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 public 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, discovered largely by accident rather than through good counseling, 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” – be a successful professional, a wife and a mother. Those of us who weren’t from middle class backgrounds knew it wasn’t quite as easy as it was made to seem, but bought into the vision all the same and became “Barnard Women.”

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 move me toward choosing social work as a profession, and after Barnard I returned to Hunter – this time for a masters in social work with a focus on helping groups and communities.

Turning point: A pivotal point in my career after some years working with various local groups, was 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 set by my working for three academic institutions:  Hunter College Department of Urban Affairs, as a community affairs specialist, Columbia University School of Social Work overseeing an Urban Leadership unit of experienced community organizers, and then LaGuardia Community College.  LaGuardia was then a brand new community college serving the growing and increasingly diverse population of Queens. Going to LaGuardia to head up the Human Services academic area (what would be called social work and child development at the graduate level), I was excited about this new education model. At the time, community colleges were a relatively recent phenomenon. If higher education was the key to future opportunity, than community colleges, not just for LaGuardia, were a chance to unlock that the door for so many, both specific individuals and communities as a whole.

This 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. I was ultimately to spend twenty years doing that within the City University system.

There are many achievements of which I am proud. 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 and men toward achieving their aspirations.  Matching the right talent to the right position is always for me a great source of joy and something I know I will continue to do for many years to come.

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 have contributed to helping 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 to still cherish friends of 40 years and more with whom I can share both good times and bad.  I am proud of being married to the same guy for 43 years and having two wonderful human beings for daughters, not to mention a fabulous granddaughter. These things count a lot more as we grow into, through and eventually out of our careers.

I, like everyone else, have encountered obstacles to things I have wanted to accomplish. Starting out 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 different styles of leadership from which society can benefit.

I was fortunate that there were many mentors along the way, some living, some now gone.  They helped me persevere and to see my own strengths and move forward with my goals. Key mentors included the faculty members, 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.  They were women and men, black and white, young and not so young. 

You know you are getting old when you are asked what advice you would give young people!  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 all the opportunities around you. Take on assignments that will broaden your perspective that will allow you to demonstrate your talents.  Don’t be afraid, you often know more than you think you know.  And finally, be ready to take risks for what you believe in, and work for something bigger than yourself.  Have fun.  Work should be fun, if it’s not it’s not worth doing.

My thirteen years at Bank Street have been wonderful years for me.  Bank Street is a very special, one-of-a-kind place.  I know my successor will come to love it as I do and lead it to new heights of success.  I look forward to hearing all about it from the next phase of my life and work.



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