“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Walden,” says Dr. Reagan Romali ’11, PhD in Education. “In every class, there was an agenda of equitizing outcomes and understanding social justice. It was expected that we as students would become leaders who would then go out into the world and implement social change.”
As a nationally recognized community college leader, Romali measures social change in the number of diplomas she hands to students on graduation day. From Chicago to Los Angeles, she has dedicated her career to broadening access to higher education in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and closing achievement gaps for people of color.
“When you work in inner cities, you see stories every single day—stories related to hunger or homelessness,” she says. “You see what people go through due to the lack of something—whether it be food, safety, home, family—and it cuts you to your core. You want to spend your entire career trying to make it better for them.”
And that’s exactly what she’s done. Over the past several years, Romali and the colleges she’s led have implemented a number of strategies to help ensure everyone achieves at the same rate. This has boosted graduation rates—and not by a modest amount. At one Chicago college where she served as president for six years, graduation rates tripled.
“We can raise graduation [rates], but if we’re not raising graduation [rates] for students of all backgrounds, then we’re really not doing our job.”
At a college in Long Beach, where she was superintendent-president for three years, the success was particularly notable. In 2017/2018, the degree attainment rate increased by 27% overall, with a 21% increase for Latinos, 41% for Pacific Islanders, and 25% for African Americans. “Then, in 2018/2019, we increased graduation 29% with similar numbers for populations of color,” she explains. “That made [the college] the most improved in the state for [degree] attainment.”
Today, as the interim vice president of administrative services at a college in Los Angeles, Romali is part of a visionary leadership team navigating new complexities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve provided students with laptops, Wi-Fi, food pantry access, and grocery gift cards. “Being able to get food and technology into the hands of students has been critical. Every day, we think: ‘OK, what else can we do?’” she says.
“I know I’m an idealist, but I think we can heal a lot of what ails our society through education,” Romali explains. “When someone has that piece of paper in their hand, I see it as a golden ticket to a better future. And if my work had even the tiniest impact on that, I’ve done what I need to do in life.”