Laney College


Opinion: It Should Not Take A Natural Disaster in Oakland

By Laney College President Tammeil Y. Gilkerson, Ed.D.


In the wake of the disasters that are plaguing our sister states and countries around the world, students, faculty, and staff from across Laney College have been grappling with how to show support and contribute to relief efforts.  Mr. Antonio Watkins, one of our outstanding English faculty, is one person who has responded by providing a curricular connection between what is happening around the world and the contributions communities, large and small, can make.

Students in Mr. Watkins’ classes read an article about the struggle of community college students in Houston who were homeless or residing in insecure housing before Hurricane Harvey hit. Watkins’ students were concerned and he’s offered a challenge to each of them.  For every late assignment they turn in, he will add $1 to a fund that will be donated in their names to the Houston Community College Foundation to support students in Houston.

It is a simple proposition, but one that ties immediate actions to an action that can truly impact others.  Not only is every dollar toward a fund to support students, but Watkins’ is also motivating his students to invest in themselves—by teaching them the importance of turning in their work, a step toward completing their education.

Today, a college education is critical to moving students into employment that supports our regional and national workforce needs.  It is reported that there will be 55 million job openings through 2020, but 65 percent will require some form of post-secondary education including a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree or certificate.

However, similar to some community college students in Houston, many of our students right here in Oakland are also faced with homelessness, housing insecurity, and lack of adequate access to food that creates real barriers to college completion.  A 2015 study of more than 4,000 undergraduates at 10 community colleges across the country found that half are struggling with food and/or housing insecurity and 13 percent were homeless.

Students are not dropping out of college because they don’t have the intellectual capability to complete, they are motivated and incredibly capable.  The truth is that the level of financial insecurity for many of our students makes unanticipated emergencies related to healthcare, housing, transportation, and childcare a forced choice to miss classes or drop out entirely.

The project Mr. Watkins and his students are undertaking is an amazing example of the generosity of individuals, but also reminds me that it should not require a natural disaster to hit Oakland for us to collectively do something we know can support students. Research shows instituting emergency funds that can provide small cash grants to help students in these types of situations can be the difference between dropping out and persisting.

I know we cannot change all of the circumstances that impact our students on a daily basis, but I strongly believe we have the capacity to help ensure that one emergency does not derail someone’s educational journey.    I shared the vision for developing a robust emergency fund with Mr. Watkins and sure enough, two days later a check arrived to seed the dream.

Mr. Watkins is demonstrating to his students that small actions can snowball into real impact.  One late assignment turned in is $1 toward the fund, but taken collectively across a semester and multiple class sections the contribution is even greater.

I am moved by their example and am challenged to see if we can get 5,000 individuals or businesses to contribute as little as $1 or more to help build a true emergency fund.  Mr. Watkins’ contribution marks, number one.  To find out how you can contribute, visit

Together we can make a difference.