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USC Education Dean: How Seattle brought me up

Karen Symms Gallagher, Dean of USC's Rossier School of Education

I was 11 and living in Seattle’s Greenlake neighborhood when my dad died. My brother Jeff was 9. We had no family in Washington, and my mother turned to the community — to our neighbors, to the church, and to the schools to help her raise two young children.

She took a job in the mailroom of National Insurance (which later became SafeCo), and my brother and I became latchkey kids, with the mothers in the neighborhood watching over us. You’ve heard the phrase “It takes a village” and it truly does. In so many ways, Seattle and its people shaped who I am and my life’s work to transform education to serve all of our young people, especially those living in low-income and undeserved communities.

When I was a girl, our neighborhood families helped my brother and me continue to participate in scouts and clubs, and even took us to father/daughter and father/son events. My teachers and counselors at both John Marshall Junior High and Roosevelt High School were integral. In particular, my eighth grade science teacher and school counselor, Mr. John DuGay, took me under his wing and put me on the path to college.                  

At Western Washington University, it took a lot of small scholarships and me working two jobs to graduate. I restacked books in the library and served desserts and salads in the dormitory commons to help pay my way. I majored in political science — a funny idea for a woman in the late 1960s. At that time, I was one of only three women to do so. And, I was the first in my family to graduate from college.

In graduate school at the University of Washington, it was the same thing for me: more hard work and jobs to make ends meet. By this point, I had married my husband, Pat Gallagher, whom I had met at WWU.  Teamwork was critical, as we were both teaching and attending graduate school at UW.  I launched my teaching career at Shoreline's Kellogg Junior High — got RIF'd — went to Renton's Dimmitt Middle School, and ended up at Kenmore Junior High in the Northshore School District before leaving Washington for additional graduate school.

My educational journey isn’t so different from other urban students today in Seattle. As we all know, life isn't necessarily fair; you have to go with the hand you are dealt. My mom taught me to rally the troops and get the support you need – even under less than ideal circumstances. It has made me dedicated to building education environments where every student, regardless of personal circumstance, can learn and succeed.

You see, today I am the Dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, where it’s my privilege to help prepare teachers who are remaking our public education system. We do this work on our campus, and increasingly online through our Master of Arts in Teaching program. This fall we opened a charter school in downtown Los Angeles called USC Hybrid High, which uses an extended class day and school year -— as well as online tools — to ensure that 100 percent of our students graduate college-ready and career-prepared.

Later, when I was in graduate school in Indiana, I found myself relying on friends for the use of an apartment for my infant son and me when Pat had to live in another city for a work opportunity.  Another friend stepped up to baby-sit at important times while I was working on my dissertation. The point is — in Seattle or anywhere — don’t be timid about asking for help at any age or stage. 

Second lesson: make it public. I’m a big believer in stating my goals out loud. From an early age I said I would go to college, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I was not going to embarrass myself by not making it happen.

I also said out loud to my mom that I wanted to get my Ph.D. She was baffled. She didn’t think it was a good idea — but I said it . . . and I did it. So, make it public. Say it out loud. 

Over the years, my family and I moved around the country seven times, each time for a better opportunity. I miss Seattle, of course, and come back as often as possible to visit family and friends.  I’m in town this week for the Husky-Trojan football game and to meet with USC Rossier students and alumni in the area.

Now, for me in my role at USC, saying it out loud means living up to our commitment to innovate, educate and transform education for a new generation of students. That means leading the way in true, high-quality online higher education. It also means serving students from incredibly diverse backgrounds and economic circumstances, from rural and urban communities and from over two dozen countries. We have shown that it’s possible.

So when I speak to students, teachers or anyone, I challenge them to not be discouraged no matter where they start. Say your goals out loud and keep the promises you make to yourself. It’s not easy. So don’t forget to ask for help.

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