From A Philly Community College Student To White House Social Secretary
By Deesha Dyer. Dyer is the former White House Social Secretary and acting Chief of Staff at the Ford Foundation, is a guest contributor for the College Promise Campaign
I don’t have the typical background for a member of the White House senior staff. I don’t hold Ivy League credentials or come from some well-connected networks. I dropped out of my university and enrolled in community college at the age of 30. And seven years later, with my community college degree, I was a Special Assistant to the President of the United States and the White House Social Secretary.
Back in 1995, community college was never on my radar. In fact, I had never really heard of it. Community college was never presented to me as an option and I didn’t know anyone who had gone.
In high school, everyone I knew went to a four-year university after graduating. So I followed suit and enrolled in the University of Cincinnati. Less than a year later, I dropped out. I quickly realized that college was different than high school. Students need to figure out how to pay for classes, file financial aid papers, manage their class schedule, and truly apply themselves. The pace was too fast and I just wasn’t ready for it. Also, despite having scholarships, the university life was unaffordable.
So, at the age of 18, I returned back home to Philadelphia. In my mind, I believed that college just wasn’t for me. No one in my family attended college. However, without the required education, I wasn’t able to pursue the advocacy and community work I wanted to do. It wasn’t until the age of 30 that I enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP).
My time at CCP quickly became more challenging than I anticipated. I didn’t pass the basic exams to enroll in community college math classes and had to take high school classes to relearn information. Being in these classes at the age of 30 was hard. I had to swallow my pride and push through because I knew that my education was essential for my future. For the first time in my life, I became studious. I became the student who sat in the front, paid my tuition and fees on time, and got all my textbooks.
In the spring of 2009, I came across an application to intern at the White House. At first, I thought I wasn’t qualified because I was still in my first year at community college. But, to my surprise, the White House Office of Scheduling and Advance chose me. This opportunity turned my life around and got me started on a career.
After the internship ended, I went back to Philadelphia to continue my education at CCP. Soon after, I was contacted about an open position in the White House’s Office of Scheduling & Advance. Because I was still enrolled in college, I once again believed that my lack of a degree would be a disqualifying factor. But, the head of the department was completely supportive of me taking the job and continuing with my community college classes on the weekends or online.
Working at the White House was an incredible experience. However, it was difficult managing finances because I didn’t want to take out any loans. I had to pay for community college on a payment plan, and I was only able to afford two classes a semester. There were a lot of long nights filled with tears. But as Mrs. Michelle Obama would later say to me, “I’m not worried about you doing the work. I want you to be confident. You can accomplish this job.”
After three years at CCP, I graduated in May of 2012—earning an Associate degree in Women’s Studies.
Community college represents another chance for people willing to work hard. It was the catalyst of my career, snowballing from an internship to my roles the White House Deputy Social Secretary and Special Assistant to the President and Social Secretary.
Education in itself is an incredible opportunity and a gateway to a good quality job. I was fortunate that someone saw potential in me even without a degree. However, I don’t know if that’s going to happen anymore. Increasingly, employers are looking for skilled and educated workers. Today, higher education is more important than ever.
In the next few years, more than 6 out of 10 jobs will require at least two years of education beyond high school. If you want to start in today’s economy, you need some sort of college degree or technical certificate. And that’s where community college comes in. With an Associate degree, you can build a path for your career and lay the foundation for your future just like I did.
But for many, the cost of community college is out of reach. That’s why I support the College Promise movement. It encourages communities and states to cover tuition and fees so students can complete a community college education without taking on unmanageable debt.
My story is just one example of how earning an Associate degree can open doors for people who may have never even considered attending college. Going to community college opened up a new chapter in my life. And I’ll always be grateful for those opportunities.
That’s why I was honored and humbled to go back to CCP in 2016 to deliver the commencement address to the graduating class. Back when I graduated, I didn’t have the opportunity to walk across the stage—I was working on President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. So I was beaming with pride when I was finally awarded my degree.
I believe all students should have that same chance. So join me and support the movement for free community college by signing the pledge.