This month, APLU and the Coalition of Urban Universities (USU) named Ashlie Prioleau Executive Director of USU and Vice President of Urban Initiatives at APLU. We asked her to share more about what drives her in her work, her insights on the urban public higher education landscape, as well as the favorite place she has traveled.
What motivates you to work in higher education? The students. As a first-generation student, there was no red carpet rolled out for me or compass to show me the way. I did not know it at the time, but I have been committed to helping students access higher education ever since my high school guidance counselor questioned my college readiness, despite taking Advanced Placement and honors classes. Students need someone to not only believe in them, but who identify with their journey. I don’t want any student to have to relive my experience. Since then, I had the honor of helping institutions proactively find these students and build inclusive practices from admission to graduation. I tell the students that I mentor that I’m in the business of helping make dreams come true, whatever they may be. There is no job more powerful and rewarding than in education.
What makes urban public research universities unique? Urban serving universities are unique because they act as the heart of the city and a center of their ecosystem. They pump new ideas, people, and resources into the local community and partner with organizations to proactively understand future needs. These institutions also act as a talent engine, providing people with opportunities for upward social mobility and to ultimately improve their livelihoods that will impact the future generations of their families.
The pandemic has caused immense challenges for public research universities. What opportunities has it created for them? There is a strong silver lining when it comes to the pandemic. First, the university has transformed faster than we have ever seen before to meet the needs of students, staff, and faculty. Second, the status quo of online learning with the basic discussion board approach has been disrupted. Universities were forced to think innovatively and inclusively on how to engage their students in this virtual reality. Now, universities have proven to themselves that they can move as one entity, serve students anywhere, and accelerate change where it is needed the most. The biggest opportunity for large, public universities is to harness the momentum throughout the last year and continue to apply an agile framework to meet students’ needs in the absence of a pandemic. That is the true light at the end of the tunnel.
Where is the best place you’ve traveled and why does it stand out? I absolutely love travelling and have been to several countries. My most favorite experience was in Monti Cristi, Dominican Republic where I signed up to spend my summer as a volunteer for the Orphanage Outreach program. This town stands out because I saw true happiness not tied to typical American ideals such as money, power, or class. Every morning I would walk the children almost three miles to their school and we would be greeted by smiling members of the community along the way. Despite it being early in the morning, there would be music playing and people dancing on their way to work. People were just happy to live another day and see each other. I really miss it there.