James Lyons

James LyonsJames Lyons
Secretary of Higher Education — Maryland

Who are you?

I consider myself a career educator. I started teaching in a junior high school 41 years ago and have taught, or worked in higher education administration, ever since. My role as Secretary of Higher Education for the State of Maryland, in many ways, brings all of those prior experiences together and allows me to look at education from a completely different perspective the state level. It may surprise you to know that at this point in my life I could be just as happy working in an elementary school setting as I have been working at the highest level of education. The thing that perhaps gives me the most satisfaction is graduation day. Whether it is an elementary school "culmination ceremony" or completion of the MD or Ph.D., the excitement of the graduate and the family members makes all that leads up to that day worth the effort, worth the sacrifice.

How did you get to where you are today?

My mother's passion about the importance of her three children graduating from high school inspired me. Though she did not finish high school, she knew that in order for us to have a better life than she had, a high school diploma was essential. All three of us graduated from high school. The biggest hurdles I had to overcome to get to where I am today included not having anyone in the family who had experienced the career path I wished to pursue, and growing up in an environment where people were so focused on daily survival that they had little time to be futuristic or visionary. I, therefore, had to seek support outside of my community.

Closely linked to my desire to make my mother proud was a socioeconomic factor I did not understand at the time. My elementary school was 99.5% African-American, and most of the students lived in the same housing project that I lived in. My first personal experience with how the "other half" lived was when I went to junior high school. Unlike my neighborhood school, my junior high school served the region and was predominately African-American and Jewish. When I visited the homes of my Jewish friends, it was an incredible contrast. In fact, when one of my Jewish friends visited the projects, he said, "Jim, I don't know how you can live in this place." As a 7th grader, the only thing that I could understand was that everyone in my friend's immediate family had a college degree, and nobody in my neighborhood had one.

My mother worked as a domestic for 25 years. The money she made cleaning houses was not enough to send me to college. I applied to several colleges and was admitted to all but one of them, but the lack of money took me to an Air Force recruiter and I started the process to enlist. The day before freshmen were supposed to arrive at the University of Connecticut, Mrs. Gandleman, the woman for whom my mother worked, asked my mother how I was getting to the campus. My mother told her I was enlisting in the Air Force. She said, "Do you think that what you have paid me is enough for me to send James Earl to college?" Mrs. Gandleman said if my mother promised not to tell Mr. Gandleman, she would give me the money for my first year of college.

Where do you see education in the future?

Over the next decade I believe that there will be continued conflict between the idea of education for workforce needs and global competitiveness, and that of education for personal fulfillment. I also believe that there will be far more pressure for students to be workforce-ready when they graduate from high school or college than has been the case over the past two decades. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is encourage new strategies to ensure that low-income and first—generation college students are exposed to those factors which contribute to success—as early as possible.

The thing that keeps me up at night is when I come face-to-face with the disparity that exists in our community between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Two years ago, an elementary school child's mother who knew my university had won a national soccer championship told me that her young son was already an outstanding soccer player. She asked me how much she would have to pay me in order for her son to come to my college and play soccer. Her lack of understanding about what college is still haunts me to this day. Compare this to the many young people who have already read the Great Books, traveled abroad, engaged in community service, and decided where they will attend undergraduate and graduate school.

I am made hopeful by the many testimonies from individuals who clearly would have been lost without the intervention of a teacher, counselor, mentor, friend, or life-altering experience. There are a lot of people out there who care, and want to make a difference, like a Mrs.Gandleman in my life. When the chips were down, she knew that without her stepping up to help, I would not have gone to college.

Q: What inspires you?
A: When I go to church and worship with fellow parishioners, and hear a good sermon, I receive the inspiration that I need to "fight another day." I find tremendous inspiration in the scriptures of the Bible.

Q: When did college become a reality for you?
A: By the time I was in the 8th grade I had concluded that the way to a better life was to get a college education. A few years later this was reinforced by my girlfriend's father, who would become my father-in-law, when he continually asked me where I intended to go to college. I realized that if I was going to keep seeing his daughter I had better begin thinking seriously about college. In retrospect I realize that it must have been a real challenge for an upper middle-class African-American physician to see a young boy from the projects occupying so much of his daughter's time. His questioning motivated me to go on and apply to college.

Q: How do you think stereotypes can impact a student's self-perception?
A: We must eliminate, in a positive manner, the stereotype that a "dumb" rich child has the same possibility for success as a brilliant "poor" child.

Q: What worries you?
A: I think about how many poor children, regardless of race, decide, or have it decided for them, that college is out of the question because of cost. I often ask myself how many patents and cures have not come to fruition because the individual with the "gift" was poor and never saw college as an option.


The 2013 Catalog of Effective Practices
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The 2012 Catalog of Effective Practices
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The 2011 Catalog of Effective Practices
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The 2010 Catalog of Effective Practices
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The CollegeKeys Compact: An Open Letter to the Leaders of American Education
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A Review of Barriers, Research and Strategies
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Getting Into College: A Cross-Cohort Examination of College Preparations by Lower-Income Students
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Getting Into College: Postsecondary Academic Undermatch
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