By Philip Walzer

At the fourth annual National Social Mobility Symposium on Wednesday, Old Dominion University President John R. Broderick cited his own experiences as a first-generation college student to show how colleges can help guide more students to graduation.

One year, he feared he'd have to drop out when his father, an electrician, was out of work. "Somehow I had the courage to mention it to an education professor who I really liked and who listened to me," President Broderick said. That professor connected him with the financial aid director, and "all of a sudden I had a chance to stay in school as opposed to having to go home."

"We need to empower and help our students to speak for themselves and recognize the significance of helping them find a solution," he said. "... None of us should lose sight of the fact that higher education is one of the most important pathways to fulfilling the American dream."

Jane Dané, associate vice president for enrollment management and director of Old Dominion's Center for Social Mobility, defined social mobility as "the movement of individuals from one socioeconomic status to another. ... It is critical that a college degree be accessible to students across the economic spectrum."

The half-day webinar drew leaders in higher education from across the country. For the first time, Old Dominion co-sponsored the symposium with California State University San Marcos, whose president, Ellen J. Neufeldt, previously served as vice president of student engagement and enrollment services at ODU and helped launched the symposiums and the center in 2018.

Calling her a "steadfast partner," President Broderick said, "Ellen worked tirelessly and enthusiastically to make social mobility a permanent part of our mindset and agenda at ODU."

In turn, President Neufeldt cited President Broderick for "designing the University around student success and social mobility before we were even talking about it."

Roughly half of Old Dominion's incoming freshmen are the first in their families to attend college. ODU has been named a "top performer" in social mobility by U.S. News & World Report and was recently rated fourth in the nation in reducing inequalities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Tia Brown-McNair, author of "Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success," praised Old Dominion "as a leader when it comes to educating Black students." But she encouraged all institutions to work harder to ensure more students participate in formative experiences like internships.

"Social mobility is not just focusing on content," said McNair, vice president for diversity, equity and student success for the Association of American Colleges & Universities. "It's about educating the whole student and preparing them for success," such as countering racism and sexism.

"Our mission has never been more essential," Joseph I. Castro, chancellor of the California State University System, said, citing challenges such as racism, the pandemic and economic hardship. "There is an even greater need for us to root out longstanding and systemic inequities.

"Equity gaps remain," Castro said, "but we will take them on, and we will eliminate them."

During a presidential panel discussion, Ellen Junn, president of California State University Stanislaus, said, "There's a whole host of positive factors associated with going to college," beyond increased earnings. College graduates, for instance, experience better mental and physical health and are more likely to be civically engaged, she said.

Castro noted that 85% of people whose parents received degrees go on to college themselves. But the benefits extend beyond those families, President Broderick said. "By unleashing the potential of more citizens, our country is the big winner, filling more positions in critical job areas."

During the panel discussion, President Broderick and Javaune Adams-Gaston, president of Norfolk State University, both cited the importance of funding to advance social mobility.

"You can't have that success if you don't have that funding to help students with success," President Adams-Gaston said.

Partnerships are a crucial component, too, President Broderick said. "Universities can find tremendous resources if they fully partner with community agencies and organizations. No less important are the partnerships within a university, when the walls between departments and disciplines are breached."

During a student panel discussion, ODU senior Abreionah Brown and junior Devontae Allen said time management was initially one of their largest challenges.

Allen, a political science major who is Old Dominion's student representative to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said he received significant help from Brother2Brother, a peer mentoring group for Black and Latinx male students. "It was most critical to my college success, and it still is," he said.

Brown, who plans to go to medical school, cited the support of the Alpha Alpha Alpha (Tri-Alpha) Honors Society for first-generation students and the University's Pre-Health Club.

President Neufeldt said the social-mobility perspective "is not how higher ed was built, but with the help of all of you today, that's how it's being built for tomorrow.

"We need to break the barriers. That really leads to a better society for everyone."

The symposium also included breakout sessions. One featured a panel of Old Dominion students and leaders describing an Innovate Monarchs project this year in which students and faculty members, using the "design thinking" approach and McNair's "student-ready" model, identified barriers to student success and how to surmount them. The project was made possible by a $105,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation to the University to increase the enrollment and graduation of underrepresented minorities.

From noon to 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Old Dominion will host a more detailed Design Thinking for University Transformation Workshop, led by Karen Sanzo, professor of educational leadership. Registration is at this link.

To view more about the symposium, go to

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