Natalie Miller: Intergenerational Leadership, Learning, and Personal Connections
— November 13, 2020
“Everyone needs a support system,” Booz Allen Hamilton Systems Engineer and lifelong learner Natalie Miller observed recently in an interview for the Arizona State University ShapingEDUReshaping Learning blog.
Support is a theme that runs through much of what Miller describes as she thinks about the successes she had as a fairly recent undergraduate student at College of the Canyons and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; as a current graduate student in an online program at the University of Maryland; and through her involvement as a co-mayor (with Trevor Ellis) of the ShapingEDU “Bolster Intergenerational Leadership for Learning Futures” neighborhood.
“Outside of classrooms, I have been so fortunate because I was pulled into Open Education by the Dean of the Library and Distance Learning at College of the Canyons in Valencia, California, James Glapa-Grossklag,” Miller says. “When I was nineteen, James pulled me into a position where I had no idea what Open Education was, and told me to run with it. I ended up creating a full program: a workflow, marketing materials, and a website [Zero Textbook Cost] that grew so fast that five individuals had to replace me when I left the program. Seeing a previous teacher—and current Dean—give me that opportunity and responsibility so young in my educational career allowed us to be inspired by each other and opened up other opportunities like public speaking, faculty assistance, and heading grants. This allowed me to believe there is no limit to what a student can do. (Note: the website has changed, but still all work is done by other students.)”
The work she did with that support led to recognition in the form of an Open Education Consortium (now Open Education Global) “Student Award” in 2018. Watching the nomination video she prepared as part of the application process for that award highlights some of the work she did to support faculty members and students at the college; the playful approach she took to helping others understand what OER [Open Educational Resources] offered; and how working on OER helped her realize “how much one person can do in this world.” Reading the organization’s description of Natalie’s accomplishments provides a glimpse of the creativity and inspiration she brings to ShapingEDU: “Natalie created a promotional campaign for College of the Canyons OER initiative to raise awareness of OER for both students and faculty. Her open personality has made her an excellent ambassador for OER. She has spoken at workshops and conferences, and trained faculty and students on OER search and open licensing. Natalie has been primary designer and technical support in creating multiple open textbooks are used by thousands of students. She has made a lasting contribution to OER projects at College of the Canyons by establishing the workflow for creation of open textbooks and by training other students to work on our OER projects. The local impact of Natalie’s contribution is demonstrated in the growth of total OER adoptions at College of the Canyons during her time on our OER team: from 40 courses to 80 courses using OER; from $1.5 million savings for students to $3 million savings for students.”
Her introduction to ShapingEDU (through participation in a “student panel” discussion at the community’s 2019 Unconference) came, she recalls, through support from another key educator while she was working on her undergraduate degree.
“When I was doing my undergrad at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo—I was a transfer student—the CSU Chief of Innovation, Michael Berman, had suggested me for this event because of my work in Open Education. she recalls. “Being so involved in Open Education, and just passionate about my own journey, as well as other students' journeys, I wanted in. I wanted to make a difference in the education community, and the fact that there were others who would be willing to listen to an undergrad student is amazing. The act of listening to students alone is what brought me on board and gives me hope for an education system that listens and caters to their students more.
“From my experience, groups like College of the Canyons Open Educational Resources and ShapingEDU have been some of the most positive and supportive communities I have been a part of, which is why I continue to come back and be a part of them,” she adds. “The synchronized mindset of wanting the best for others, and for the community, is what drives them, and that is honestly the type of communities America and the education system need right now. Education will always be the future, and supporting the students in the system is how to support the future.”
In focusing on ways to bolster intergenerational leadership for learning futures through ShapingEDU, Miller and Ellis are “working toward creating proposals, solutions, and ideas to help integrate different levels of learning and leadership in an educational path,” she says. They are looking at ways to bring those involved in elementary, high school, and college education together, and are exploring ways to foster leadership among students in classrooms.
“Trevor and I are specifically looking into what communities we could cultivate to meet goals like the ones above, as well as what materials would be helpful in guiding individuals to understand how to encourage leadership at different levels. In the end, I think a toolkit will be helpful in doing so,” she adds.
At the same time, she acknowledges the difficulties of bringing students together in our current pandemic-related shelter-in-place situation, and sees people “suffering because of the lack of social interaction.” She offers some positive responses to that difficult situation: “Individuals who are currently struggling in this isolated learning environment should start with the basics of forming or assigning groups. Throughout my whole education, having individuals to talk to and ask for support on missing assignments, or not understanding topics, has been essential. Most individuals were not made to function alone, and everyone needs a support system….Being away from a traditional learning environment is most likely limiting everyone’s learning abilities. With groups, each individual could get the attention they need, collaborate, ask questions in a more private setting, and socialize virtually. Be sure to also organize meetings just for socialization because it is just as essential!”
Reflecting on the advice she would offer to anyone interested in becoming a leader in education, Miller suggests “One of the most unique things about education is how many different individuals are involved. In the educational community, there are almost no limits to the number of backgrounds, races, specialties, ages, genders, or any other identifiers that exist, but with all this diversity I want to remind everyone that you can be a leader, especially in education.
“Find what you are passionate about. Surround yourself with individuals that will support you. Make a plan. Think about what you see that needs to be improved.
“When I just started school, I made the mistake of thinking I was just there for the degree and all I needed to do was show up to classes. When I started doing more than that, I became more than that. When you become passionate about something, like education, you should learn about it enough that you have no doubt in your mind that you are an advocate, and then people will listen.
“Being a leader is also listening. Once we all start listening to each other, we can all lead each other to better systems and processes that will drive us toward equality, equity, and opportunity for all.”
For more information about ShapingEDU and what community members are doing to shape the future of learning in the digital age, please visit the community website.