Equity and Access

Grit and Resilience: Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar on College Success at APAC 2019

Changing the face of American higher education is necessary but not inevitable.

Changing the face of American higher education is necessary but not inevitable.

That was the message from Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar, speaking to thousands of teachers and school administrators at the 2019 Advanced Placement Annual Conference. She argued that a growing population of low-income and first-generation students will demand big changes in how colleges find and welcome students.

“I’m telling you this because I want you to know this work is difficult,” Ambar said. “It’s not inevitable unless we get in there and do this work.”

She pointed to Oberlin’s 1835 decision to formally welcome black applicants, a first in American higher education. That decision is now a core part of the school’s identity, but it almost didn’t happen. The trustee resolution passed by just one vote.

“History is complicated,” said Ambar, the first African-American woman to serve as Oberlin’s president. “It was a dangerous question at the time, whether to admit black students…. It wasn’t inevitable; it was difficult.”

Ambar said Oberlin looks hard for students who have faced significant obstacles and emerged stronger for it, showing that they’re capable of bouncing back from a moment of failure. Recognizing the strength that comes from hardship can help colleges find talented students who might otherwise be overlooked.

“It’s the single factor I would sprinkle on every student if I could: grit, resiliency, the ability to overcome,” she said. It’s a challenging trait to measure, but it makes a world of difference when someone is facing the rigors of college. “We don’t want to miss that student.”

To find more of those determined students who don’t have the typical college background, Ambar said it’s important to showcase diverse role models. “We all need images to look to, to know what we want to achieve is possible,” she said. “Just that spark can change a student’s trajectory.”

Her own story — “I’m five generations removed from slavery, I’m one generation removed from picking cotton” — has helped open minds at Oberlin, she said. But the work is just beginning.

See Ambar's full talk here.