Forging a Stronger Education Pipeline: a Conversation with Nichole S. Prescott


STONY BROOK, NY -- Stony Brook alumna Dr. Nichole S. Prescott, History ’15, joined the University of Texas System in December 2016 as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, P16 Initiatives. She takes a lead role in framing and implementing the Texas Prospect Initiative, the Chancellor’s Quantum Leap designed to strengthen the preK-16 pipeline and enhance college readiness for Texas students. To this end, Prescott will work to expand and deepen collaboration among the UT System, UT institutions, public preK-12 partners, and other entities. Current initiatives include Dual Credit Study and Policy Research, P16 Statewide Summit, Student Success, Curricular Alignment, and Educator Preparation.

In the following interview she discuss her work, her own experiences as a student from an under-resourced high school, and how her work as a historian informs her work as an educator and administrator. To learn more about her new position, visit http://bit.ly/2niL7ZA.

Stony Brook University (SBU) Grad School: You’ve spent much of your career focused on helping at-risk high school students succeed. What are some of the key lessons and insights you bring with you to your work with college students?

Dr. Prescott: As a first-generation college student coming from an under-resourced and underperforming high school on the Texas-Mexico border, I really struggled as an undergraduate in college, but hit my stride in graduate school. I am very sensitive to the needs of struggling learners and understand the pressures and challenges faced by the teachers of those learners. So, part of the work I’ve been doing for the last several years, and will continue to do, is to try to build and align systems at the campus level, at the district level and then bridge with higher education, to better support our students and teachers in order to improve student outcomes.

Here’s what I know: Every student has unlimited potential that needs to be unlocked and enacted, regardless of demography and regardless of geography. That should be the goal of education. Every student I’ve worked with wants to succeed. Every administrator and teacher wants students to succeed. So the will is there, there is just a disconnect on the how.

Most education systems work in isolation and so are not aligned well, causing leaks in the education pipeline and therefore in students’ college readiness.  The education pipeline – sometimes referred to as P16 – is a term used to describe the levels of education from preschool through college. Ideally, when working properly, a pipeline will address students’ diverse individual needs through each segment of the pipeline. The end result would be a student who is academically and socially prepared to successfully enter and master the next segment of the pipeline and eventually graduate from college and enter the workforce as a productive citizen of the community. In this ideal scenario, that pipeline is undergirded and guided by K-12 teachers and administrators, higher education and the community.

I do not mean to take responsibility away from students—their education is largely their responsibility. But I do think it is important to understand that a poorly constructed or aligned system throws up barriers and obstacles in the path of students who may be struggling with self-efficacy and a shaky college-going identity due to a variety of factors including poverty, being a first generation college goer, English not their first language, learning challenges, etc. Education should not be what weeds out those people who will not be successful and fully participatory citizens from those who will be. It should be what allows for them to find their path to success, whatever it may be.

Education is all of our responsibility. When we expect much from schools and give little to support achieving those lofty goals (and they should be lofty goals), we set schools up for failure and as such, set up students for failure. That is unacceptable in my mind. Students’ futures are at stake and they are our country’s greatest natural resource.

SBU Grad School: As an educator you’ve worked with students at all grade levels, including college students. How do you see the tools and resources students are equipped with early on bear fruit as they enter college? What can be done to help those who have not been equipped with a strong foundation?

Dr. Prescott: Students need to be prepared to enter an unscripted and unknowable future. Life and jobs evolve at an unprecedented rate. So, education needs to be focused on skills that are transferable, no matter the context or content. Critical thinking skills. Problem solving skills. Students need to hone their ability to weigh opposing arguments and to engage with some of life’s toughest challenges through an intellectual lens, in addition to their emotional lens. Education should help build self-efficacy in students as well as build content knowledge. These skills should begin to be taught in pre-k and then build throughout a child’s education.

All students—struggling learners or not—will benefit from a strong foundation in these traits. Even those students who do not have a strong foundation can succeed. But, their success will require targeted interventions by educators throughout the pipeline. We need to decrease class size, increase teacher retention so students are not constantly taught by a revolving door of brand new teachers, recruit more teachers of color and teachers from a variety backgrounds to bring diverse experiences into the classroom.  Our schools need to have closer relationships with community-based organizations that can help support educational goals outside of the classroom through out-of-school opportunities and/or social services. If a child is hungry, that child is not optimized to learn. And, finally, we must have high expectations for EVERY child.

I was not prepared for college. I attended an under-resourced and underperforming school on the border. College almost got the better of me, not because I wasn’t intelligent enough but because it was extremely foreign to me. It was akin to a new language I had to learn on the spot. So, college taught me to be resourceful, to believe in myself, and to be persistent. And, it taught me how to ask for help when I needed it.  Thankfully, too, my tribe -  the Miami Nation of Oklahoma, my family and a few wonderful professors believed in me, advocated for me, and pushed me to be the best “me” I could become.

SBU Grad School: What aspect(s) of your college career had the most impact on your success(es)?

Dr. Prescott: Without a doubt, I would not have been successful in my career without a solid liberal arts education. Exposure to diversity—diverse ideas, people, language, culture and religion—helped me to see from different perspectives, even if sometimes I didn’t fundamentally agree with those perspectives. Those experiences have allowed me to effectively work with people from all over the world and all over the United States, from different political, economic, racial and religious backgrounds. I don’t have to agree with someone or even like someone to work with that person if we share common goals. No matter the differences among us, we can usually find a common objective to work towards. Since my job is dependent upon achieving strategic objectives, that is an invaluable skill.

Much of the success of my work depends on my ability to synthesize large amounts of data and research, pulling out and prioritizing the relevant portions, and creating action plans based upon data and evidence-based research in order to achieve strategic goals. This process almost parallels what I learned and practiced while engaged in coursework and then dissertation research in the history department at Stony Brook. I am currently responsible for reading highly complex material, contextualizing it, understanding the “historiography”, and then making programmatic and/or policy recommendations based upon my close reading of the material and my overall understanding of the broader conversations. Again, this parallels much of what historians do, though my content is now education rather than 17th century Spanish women.

Lastly, graduate school at SUNY made me comfortable in the role of learner even as I balance it with my role of expert in certain areas. We must always be comfortable admitting when we don’t know something and never tie that lack of knowing to our worth as individuals or to our intelligence.

SBU Grad School: What excites you about your work?

Dr. Prescott: I’m very mission-driven, so what excites me is the opportunity to implement and guide positive systems change to improve outcomes for students, including eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps in Texas, and to give back to my community and country.

SBU Grad School: How did your time at Stony Brook help refine or define your career path? Where did you find support and mentorship?

Dr. Prescott: My time at Stony Brook refined my critical thinking skills, built my cognitive skills and self-efficacy.  Through my studies there, I experienced a growing awareness of and a sense of empowerment to actively address the problems I saw in the world.

Support came from my colleagues—fellow grad students, professors, history department staff, women’s studies staff, even the President’s Office in the form of grants to support an Indigenous Peoples Symposium I co-produced with my colleague Dr. Tanfer Emin-Tunc. Support also came from the W. Burghardt Turner Fellowship, my family, and my tribe. 

Dr. Nichole S. Prescott joined The University of Texas System in December, 2016. As Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, P16 Initiatives, Dr. Prescott takes a lead role in framing and implementing the Texas Prospect Initiative, the Chancellor’s Quantum Leap designed to strengthen the preK-16 pipeline and enhance college readiness for Texas students through expanded collaboration between the UT System, UT institutions and public preK-12 partners as well as other entities. Dr. Prescott has a Ph.D. in History from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, two M.A. degrees in History and Women’s Studies from SUNY and Miami University, and a B.A. in History from U. T.  Austin.  She is a proud citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma (Myaamia) and actively participates in the culture and language revitalization efforts of her people.