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NCAN Alumni Spotlight: Michelle Y. Bess, Degrees of Change Alum

Tuesday, July 28, 2020  
Posted by: Carm Saimbre, External Relations Associate
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The college access and success field is old enough that classes of students we’ve supported have graduated and are now creating the change we want to see in the world. As NCAN marks 25 years of progress in the effort to close equity gaps in higher education, our Alumni Spotlight series will feature the stories of outstanding alumni who have come through our member organizations over the years.

At a time such as this, we believe it’s still important to share the success stories of the students our members serve. We hope you enjoy the series and this week’s alumni.

Michelle Y. Bess currently serves as the global diversity, equity, and inclusion director at Sprout Social. She also serves as the board chair at Degrees of Change – the first-ever alum from any of Degrees of Change’s programs to hold that role. Michelle credits the same organization for making that investment in developing her own leadership skills years ago. It’s propelled her to incredible heights, including recognition in 2018 as AdWeek’s Rising Brand Star Changing the Landscape of Chicago.

Michelle's commitment to DEI is not only rooted in wanting better opportunities for herself, but for her family and those who can see themselves reflected in her.

Read more about Michelle’s story below.

Note: the responses below have been lightly copy edited for clarity.

Tell us a story of how a mentor or counselor helped you on your journey to earn your postsecondary degree/credential.

I earned a B.A. in biology and it was a hard fought battle to say the least! I was able to complete my studies with the support of a number of individuals. The one that stands out right now was in my junior year.

I was in a moment of crisis, taking an MCAT prep class and physics, and grappling with whether I actually wanted to be a doctor and go to medical school. And despite going to my professor’s office hours and joining study groups, I failed my first exam.

I sought the support of Esther Louie and Carrie Streepy, and within the day they found me a tutor to help me study. While I didn’t end up passing my physics class, what I needed in that moment was a safety net of resources; I needed support, encouragement, and belief in my ability. They demonstrated that and helped me regain my confidence and see that my value was not tied to my ability to perform in this class. I was valuable and capable because I was me. Period.

As a student, what hurdles did you face while getting your postsecondary degree/credential?

Fortunately, because of Degrees of Changes’ Act Six program, I didn’t face many of the financial challenges that most students did. My challenges were around feeling a sense of belonging as one of the few Black people on campus and combating the belief of some peers and professors that I had not earned my scholarship but was only at Whitworth and received the scholarship because of my identity.

My other challenge was trying to balance completing the biology degree I committed to so I could be a doctor. I felt a sense of my responsibility to my family and community to succeed and be an example of success, and also had a growing acknowledgement that I wanted something different for my life. It took a combination Women Studies and Business trip to Thailand with some other incredible mentors, Pam Parker and Craig and Denise Hinnenkamp, in the middle of junior year to admit to myself that I didn’t want to be a doctor. And in fact, I was not sure what I wanted to do next in my life.

Why was it important for you to get your postsecondary degree/credential?

My parents always told me that I needed to go to college so that I could get a good job and shape the future that I wanted and deserved. And my mom said if I went to college, I’d be able to travel the world and learn, which really appealed to me.

Personally, it was important to earn my degree to demonstrate to my younger siblings and community that college was for Black people and we could be successful in it. Additionally, I knew that if I earned a college degree, I could achieve financial stability and independence, start to build the generational wealth for my family that so many White families have and set up my own children with more options than my siblings and I had.

What inspires you to work in your field?

My nephew Michael is three years old, and he will likely grow up to be a Black man who our country and world see as scary and threatening by the age of 10. His joy, curiosity, and inherent value as a person inspire my work in diversity, equity, and inclusion through a personal mission to connect people of color to opportunity.

I want to help companies and leaders build companies that will see him as a qualified individual, grow and develop him, and promote him for his talents at equal rates as anyone else at the company. Through my work at a global tech company, I am able to create systems that allow our company to operate equitably, ensuring that people of all identities can build successful careers. It’s important to me that we demonstrate to the world that businesses can do good and be profitable, and that we all can lead through a lens for equity, regardless of our position in the business.

In light of COVID-19, it’s important for students to hear words of encouragement from those who were in their shoes not long ago. What advice would you give to students right now?

I spent four years studying something that I thought I needed to study in order to be successful and gain the notoriety of being a doctor, so my advice to students is to do as many things that bring you joy as you can while you’re in college.

If your studies do not excite you and you are not having fun in your college experience, ask yourself why. If you’re like me, it’s because you are living someone else's dream, not your own. Find and develop your own dream for your life and do that.

What drew you back to Degrees of Change?

I'm not working at Degrees of Change as a full-time employee, but I have returned as a board director and now chair of the board. I came back to serve, 1) because my mother always said to whom much is given, much is required. And 2) through Act Six, Degrees of Change gave me so much, an education, lifelong friends, nurtured a commitment to equity, changed my family trajectory, helped shape my understanding of leadership, and directly impacted the work I do today.

So much of who I am today has been influenced by the initial investment of Degrees of Change in me as a leader. I joined the board so I could empower young leaders like myself in my home community. Additionally, I think that the organization's leading movements must have representation from the people and communities most impacted. My perspective of a Black woman is incredibly valuable as we make decisions for other young BIPOC around the country.

How have you seen the college access and success fields change?

The college access and success field have changed in that more and more organizations are identifying Black and Brown leaders to lead the organizations and the work. This is imperative because of the life experience and social capital from the community we bring with us.

And it’s critical for our students and alumni to see themselves reflected in leadership; representation is life changing.

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