A College Leader Tries to Help the World's Children

David Binder, Wheelock College

Jackie Jenkins-Scott
June 03, 2013

Jackie Jenkins-Scott, 63, is president of Wheelock College, a private liberal-arts and teaching institution in Boston whose mission is to educate students to help improve the lives of children and families. From June 19 to 22, as part of Wheelock's 125th-anniversary celebration, Ms. Jenkins-Scott will help host the college's first international conference on children, youth, and families. Here is her story, as told to Seth Zweifler.

Throughout my life, I've managed to escape through education.

When I was 5, my family moved from segregated Arkansas to Flint, Mich., in part to seek better educational opportunities. Years later, it was only because of my parents' and grandparents' lessons that I chose to pursue my undergraduate degree at Eastern Michigan University, rather than work on the local General Motors assembly line.

Before I became president of Wheelock in 2004, I spent two decades running the Dimock community health center in Boston, which serves some of the city's most vulnerable populations.


There are more similarities between a community health center and a higher-education institution than meet the eye. Issues like quality and access are vital in both settings. At Wheelock, we are training our students to work with some of the neediest populations, in fields like social work and juvenile justice. We may not produce the next founder of Google in one of our graduates, but we are producing a new generation of community-service-oriented scholars who will have a core commitment to the nation's children and families.

Nontraditional backgrounds like mine are, in my view, critical to the future of higher education. As institutions like Wheelock face immeasurable challenges moving forward, we must innovate, or risk falling behind.

When I began at Wheelock, one of our greatest challenges was a lack of visibility. Here we were, a mission-oriented institution with less than 1,000 undergraduates, in the shadow of nearby giants of higher education like Harvard and MIT.

One of the key ways we've gone about combatting that visibility problem is by emphasizing the importance of global work. Since 2004, we've expanded our global reach by creating opportunities like our International Visiting Scholars program, which brings leaders from all corners of the world to our campus. Our issues aren't exclusive to Boston, or to the United States; they're very much global issues.

Our 125th-anniversary conference will highlight our expanding global footprint. The conference—which will draw attendees from more than 40 countries—is set to feature the women's rights advocate Cherie Blair, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It's hard for a child to go to school hungry, or to live in a violence-ridden community while trying to get an education. These issues are going to form the crux of some of our conference discussions. We may not come away with answers to all of these problems, but we're ready to start the conversation.