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A Bridge to Higher Education: Dantrell Cotton, HEP'18

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Higher Education reflects on his time at HGSE and looks toward the future.

Dantrell CottonWhile a master’s student in environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Dantrell Cotton found himself heading down a new path. He was working in the Posse Office as an academic adviser and STEM mentor when he discovered a new passion for helping to improve student success and retention, particularly, he says, for underrepresented students.

He decided to enroll in the Ed School’s Higher Education Program (HEP) in order to learn how institutional priorities are formed, and also how schools can address campus climate concerns most effectively. While at HGSE, he has been able to look at some of these issues firsthand as a program specialist working with Senior Diversity and Inclusion Officer Domonic Rollins.

“This professional experience has expanded my understanding on institutional decision-making, inclusive excellence frameworks, and faculty and staff development practices,” says Cotton. “I have learned how to assess and evaluate commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education, and have gained a more exhaustive understanding of the challenges and opportunities in the profession.”

Cotton hopes to take this experience and put it to use as a “bridge” between K–12 and higher ed. “I have been privileged to work with some of the brightest college students, yet it pains my heart to see so many students foreclose on college for a slew of reasons,” he says, expressing his commitment to improving college readiness, retention rates, and academic success, as well as striving to create more equitable systems for all students.

“Dantrell is a much-loved member of the higher education program community,” says Senior Lecturer James Antony, faculty director of HE. “He is widely acknowledged as someone who helps others ask hard and important questions about equity and diversity in higher education. He stimulates conversations, and is able to build bridges through his engaging style and his sincerity toward others. He inspires those around him, and has proven himself someone who stretches others’ thinking. On top of all that, he is a colleague, a friend, and a genuine soul who brings the best out in others.”

Cotton will receive the Intellectual Contribution Award for HEP at Convocation on May 24. Here, he reflects on his time at HGSE and his life in education.

What was your greatest fear before attending HGSE? How has your time here shaped your understanding of the school?
Like many minoritized students, attending HGSE catalyzed an identity crisis of sorts, where I had to make meaning of my dual-identity as an African-American male from the Southside of Chicago, as well as a future HGSE alum. I had to decide how I would “show up” each day, and how to bring my authentic self to HGSE. I wasn’t sure if all of my identities would be embraced, and at times, it has been this dance between “Harvard is” and “I am.” I feared that in order to thrive here, I had to code switch and leave my communal experiences behind. I am glad that I was wrong! I’ve learned that it is those very experiences, both from home and my experience with the Posse Program, that have allowed me to bring unique perspectives into each space I enter.

The number one, biggest surprise of the last year was …
Meeting my current supervisor, Domonic A. Rollins, who has radically changed my life and helped me challenge this notion that my thoughts were not valued. He took me under his wing and has been one of the best mentors I didn’t know existed.         

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?
Dr. Karen Mapp! She cultivated a class environments where we could engage across difference. Her leadership and social change course was brilliantly constructed to promote self-reflection, relationship-building, and practical tools to help advance organizations. Furthermore, last semester was rough with threats to DACA, hurricanes that devastated multiple regions, school shootings, and the #MeToo movement. Dr. Mapp held space for us to process each of those occurrences in a way that was genuine and heartwarming. For that, I am eternally grateful.

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education?
I’ve learned the importance of being “content in the waiting.” Over the past few months, I have engaged in several conversations with fellow HGSE colleagues. These conversations have left me frustrated, saddened, hopeful, empowered. What I’ve come to learn is the importance of giving everyone an opportunity to grow and flourish, and to understand that everyone has needs. The key is to see where our needs intersect and how we can better mobilize around those needs to create opportunities. Lastly, I have learned the importance of authentic relationships and vulnerability. I used to try to be perfect in all I did, only to be left exhausted. My time here has taught me the value of community, storytelling, and ongoing introspection.

What will you change in education and why?
As HGSE graduates, our contributions, our voices and our ideas are needed across the world. We need more educators inspiring the brilliant Black and Brown minds of tomorrow, just as we need more educators increasing access and opportunities in our rural communities. There are so many students at educational intersections, eagerly awaiting our arrival.

So today, I’m committed to living out our mission to change the world. Every time I engage in a difficult conversation, I am changing the world. Every time I consider a new perspective, I am changing the world. When I increase my capacity for empathy towards others, I am changing the world. Finally, I help change the world by standing at the intersections to serve as a bridge across culture, identity, values, and difference.

Learn more about the Intellectual Contribution Award and read about all of this year's recipients.