Getting to Know Ericka Miller, College Board's new Chief of Membership, Governance, and Higher Education
Getting to Know Ericka Miller, College Board's new Chief of Membership, Governance, and Higher EducationAbby Hexter, Director, Communications
All Access got to chat with incoming Chief of Membership, Governance and Higher Education Ericka Miller about what drew her to the College Board, and how to choose the right climate for your next travel adventure.
What drew you to the College Board?
I’m drawn to the College Board for a number of reasons. Initially I was drawn to the organization because I have tremendous respect for its influence, reach, and reputation for producing high-quality work. There are many organizations that promote opportunity, access, and success for students as they consider and pursue postsecondary education, but I can’t think of another organization that has the ability to engage so many actors in this effort — students, parents, teachers, counselors, secondary school administrators, college and university administrators and faculty, policymakers — all of whom are critically important when it comes to ensuring that all students acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed in life.
I was also drawn to the mission of challenging all students to own their future, because it’s powerful and it rings true. I first encountered the College Board when I was a young person taking the PSAT/NMSQT®, and I remember how meaningful that experience was for me. I grew up with parents who expected me to go to college, but it wasn’t until I took the test that I truly began to own that decision. It wasn’t until that moment that I saw myself as a person preparing for college, and I became acutely aware that what I did from that point on to prepare myself for college mattered.
What excites you most about your new role?
I’m excited that it brings together three very important functions — membership, governance, higher education — that are related but have the potential to be more integrated. There’s creative opportunity in that challenge.
I’m also looking forward to working closely with so many of our external partners — member organizations, Trustees, council members, postsecondary institutions — in our effort to achieve greater educational equity. To be able to tap into their wisdom and experience, and then help us maximize the potential of these partnerships toward a common goal, is tremendously exciting.
What’s the most critical issue in education that needs to be addressed?
There are so many important issues that need to be addressed, but I think one of the most critical is ensuring that we instill in young people a hunger for learning at an early age and continue to stoke that fire with challenging, engaging content taught effectively, all the while holding ourselves and our students to high standards.
One discouraging experience can extinguish a student’s academic confidence in an instant. We need to be mindful of that. But conversely, in an instant, a positive experience, reinforced and nurtured over time, can lead that student to realize that he is capable of more than he imagined.
Many years ago, when I was a graduate student writing my dissertation, I decided that I needed to do something to break up the monotony of sitting behind a computer all day, every day. I needed to do something that had a practical application that would remind me why I decided to embark on this journey to an English literature Ph.D. in the first place. So I signed up to teach middle school language arts in an after-school program in East Palo Alto, California, just down the road from Stanford University, where I was a student, but in many ways half a world away.
Unlike Palo Alto, East Palo Alto was quite economically depressed, and the students I taught — all students of color — came from families with limited financial resources. One day I decided to teach a chapter from Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, the chapter in which Hurston talks about her experience going to college as a young African American woman in the early 1900s. At one point I said to the class, matter-of-factly, “So, when you go to college….” I remember so many of the students looking at me as if I had said “Mars” instead of “college.” Many of them laughed. One student asked me, “What’s college?” And when she asked me that question, I knew in that moment how different the trajectory of her life was going to be from mine unless she not only understood what college was but knew that she could aspire to it. Perhaps that experience more than any other inspired me to make my life’s work education.
How can the College Board and its membership best address this issue?
By reaching out and finding that student I just mentioned, making her aware that college is within her reach, giving her the tools to prepare for college, encouraging her to strive for higher learning and ensuring that challenging content is there to meet her, and then making colleges aware that she is prepared to succeed.
As a former English lit professor, what was your favorite book to teach and why?
One of my favorite books to teach was W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. I found it interesting to teach because it’s a text that is simultaneously and profoundly literary, lyrical, historical, and political. As a result, there are so many different points of engagement for the reader. I loved seeing students grapple with the challenging subjects such as race, class, and culture through these various lenses — and seeing which they chose as their point of entry into the text. I always found the student papers written about The Souls of Black Folk among the most interesting, original, and enjoyable to read.
Under your leadership, Ed Trust was recognized as a Great Place to Work by Washingtonian magazine. What’s your secret?
Oh gosh, no secret really.
But one of the first things I did when I got to the Ed Trust is go on a listening tour. I spoke with every single person in the organization and asked two questions: What do you think works well in the organization and what would you like to see us do better? I then analyzed the data and proposed to my colleagues a strategy for maintaining our strengths and prioritizing our areas in need of improvement. With organizational buy-in on the strategy, we then built the operational infrastructure to help us reach those goals and hired some wonderfully smart, talented, hardworking people along the way.
In addition to ensuring that we were operationally sound, we worked hard to ensure that our work — programmatically and operationally — was appropriately integrated, from long-term strategic planning to day-to-day decision making. But I want to stress that we worked on it. It didn’t happen overnight, and we never achieved perfection. But I can say with confidence that with each passing year we got better. The Great Place to Work recognition was special because it was our staff telling us they felt we were a great place to work. So it helped us know we were moving in the right direction.
We know you like to travel; tell us about your most recent trip.
My most recent trip was a five-day cycling adventure in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North and South Carolina. We did about 40 to 45 miles each day with pretty steep elevation gain, most of the time in 95-degree heat. It was fun, and the scenery was beautiful. I enjoy a physical challenge, but typically I choose my climate more wisely. Lesson learned!