Speaking with Phi Theta Kappa alumna Isa Adney, even over the phone, you can tell she’s passionate about community colleges.
She’s one of those who gets you excited; who makes you think that you, too, can do more than you’re already doing. That you can give more than you’re already giving. And that you, too, can help shape someone else’s future.
It’s what she does. At just 25 years old, Adney is traveling the country, telling community college students that there is more out there for them, if they’re just willing to get involved. And she’s telling college faculty, staff and administrators that they can affect change in the completion rates on their own campuses, just by giving students a word of encouragement and advice.
“Relationships lead to success,” Adney said. “I want (students) to remember that, no matter how technical the world gets, opportunities happen through people.”
Adney literally wrote the book on how to succeed at a community college. Entitled Community College Success, the book uses Adney’s personal story to illustrate the steps students can take to ensure their success at college and beyond.
“My dad actually went to a community college, which I just found out a few years ago, oddly enough,” Adney said. “He didn’t really know what he was doing. In fact, when my book came out, he said he wished he had been able to read a book like this when he was in college.”
Adney grew up in a lower middle class family in Florida. Her family never talked about college; but, because of her love for school, she knew she’d attend college somewhere, someday. And her parents were committed to making that dream a reality; they were even willing to put themselves further in debt to help her accomplish her goals.
Adney applied to and was accepted into a four-year university near the beach – every college student’s dream. But the high tuition costs changed her direction – she instead headed to Seminole Community College (now Seminole State College of Florida), where she began filling out applications. She talks openly in her book about the sadness she felt – she had expected much more from her life.
“I felt very alone,” she said. “I did not feel any hope.”
What changed Adney was involvement, both on campus and in the classroom. She would strike up conversations with her classmates before the teacher arrived, turning strangers into friends. She accepted an invitation to a Phi Theta Kappa meeting from a stranger who thought she might make a good officer. The chapter was small, and the stranger – the chapter’s president, in fact – was working to grow it.
“It was me and three other people,” Adney said. “But I felt so engaged there. I just fell in love with it.”
Adney became the chapter’s fellowship officer before taking over as chapter president in 2007. She was given the opportunity to attend the Annual Convention, held that year in Nashville, which put her on her first airplane ride.
“Something I never thought I would do was happening, and that made me feel like I could do other things I never thought were possible,” she said. “You’re with a group of people who really care about their own education and who want to make the college experience worthwhile for their whole campus.
“It’s what I’m doing in my career. It really inspired me.”
Upon graduation in May 2007, Adney received $110,000 in scholarship money from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation – $30,000 per year to finish her baccalaureate degree and $50,000 to complete graduate school. She transferred to Stetson University and received her B.A. in Communications in May 2009.
In 2009 Adney returned to Seminole State College of Florida to work in Admissions and Student Life. Seeing community college first as a student and now through the eyes of a staff member inspired her book.
“I saw myself in all of these students,” she said. “When I actually worked at the college, I saw how every person affects the students. Every single person at the college has so much knowledge to give.”
Adney saw the importance of befriending everyone from secretaries in the admissions office to maintenance crew members – “They’ve worked there for years. They know the history of the buildings. They’re great people to talk to when you’re feeling literally lost on campus,” she said. Tell these people you have no idea what you’re doing; and then, be sure to go back and thank them, she said.
“I was amazed by how much they wanted to help,” she said. “I’m still thankful for those people.”
Adney said her position in the Student Life office allowed her to mentor students, and she saw a pattern emerge when they began planning out ways to achieve success: she consistently advised them to talk to peers, talk to professors and talk to professionals. The pattern worked, and she knew she had something.
“And now when I’m out talking to people, I always see the same pattern,” she said. “Everyone always says it’s the people they met, the people they connected with, who made them who they are today.”
Adney has since received her Master’s in Education in Training and Development from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a full-time author, speaker and consultant; she is the Education and Community Columnist for Fox News Latino; and she hosts a television series for Tallahassee Community College. She and her husband live in Lake Mary, Florida.
And while everyone from high school to four-year university and graduate students have found inspiration in her book, Adney said it’s community colleges and their students who remain her passion.
“It’s the idea of open-access education,” she said. “Everyone is welcome. Being inclusive is one of my strongest values, and I see community colleges as such a pillar of that.”
For Adney, it all goes back to those personal relationships she forged early on: the admissions counselor who walked her through the paperwork; the fellow classmate who shared what they had heard about that particular class or teacher; the Phi Theta Kappa chapter president who invited her to that first informative meeting. Those were the moments that made the difference in her own life and gave her hope again.
“In the end, I think there’s a lot of promise in one student meeting another student and introducing them to that experience,” she said.