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Dean Elza: Empowering the 'non-traditional' student

Maryam Abdul-Aleem | 4/12/2011, 4:40 p.m.

Many agree in the power of education in the hands and hearts of the youth. But how many people believe in the transformative power of education in the hands and hearts of the older, non-traditional student?

Elza Dinwiddie-Boyd, the dean of the School of New Resources at the College of New Rochelle, believes in empowering adult students to reach their full potential and to finish their journey. Wherever that may be.

You can hear it in her voice. "I love working with adults," Dinwiddie-Boyd told the Amsterdam News. "It's always exciting to see adult learning taking place." It's amazing to see the "opening of their minds" and the transformation that takes place as they experience the power of knowledge. "It's like watching a flower open," she said.

Dinwiddie-Boyd said it excites her to hear the students say that after taking care of their children, it was now time for them to take care of themselves.

"At the School of New Resources, we provide educational services and access for higher education where that access has not been available before," she said. The school's reach extends to neighbor- hoods in South Bronx, Co-op City, Harlem, Manhattan and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where non-traditional students over 21 years of age can obtain a bachelor degree in liberal arts. After a brief stint teaching high school in Detroit, where Dinwiddie-Boyd went to college, she found out where her passion was.

"I did not find the younger generation as ambitious as" the older generation, she said. Don't get her wrong, she said, in the same breath. "We need and appreciate those teachers," but it just wasn't for her.

Adults accumulate a reservoir of experience that enhances the learning environment and practice, she said. "I believe in the tentative learning theory." She said she believes in that valued experience that the non-traditional students bring with them into the classroom. And some students can even get credit for it toward their degrees.

In 2004, Dinwiddie-Boyd participated with the National Women's Education Center of Japan and at the Women's University in South Korea on international comparative research on women's learning needs practice, something that was influenced by her work, passion and dedication at the College of New Rochelle. Teaching runs through her blood.

"My mother was a school teacher," Dinwiddie-Boyd said. "I have aunts and cousins who are also teachers. I come from a family that believes in education and giving back to the community."

Growing up in Taft, Oklahoma, the third largest all-Black town in the state, racism was not covert, it was overt, she said. Taft is the foundation where she got her values and beliefs.

"Everyone in the town was my parents," she said. "They were hard-working people. My father," she continued, "was very active in politics. He was the general store owner and a land owner with several farms." But it was in Detroit where she said she became totally politicized.

"People say that 'if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,' but I think that if you can make it in Detroit, then you can make it anywhere," she said. This is where she received her deep roots in African-Americanism and Blackness, but at the same time she also had enough contact with the larger culture to be able to adapt.

"I love New York, though," she said. "I love the energy. New York City is a special city with all its diversity, and I love living in Harlem. It is a great African-American community." She has lived in New York City for over 30 years and authored several books, ranging from "Proud Heritage: 11,001 Names for Your African-American Baby" to "In Our Own Words: Quotes for African-American Community" and "Shortcuts to Increase Your Typing Speed."

Before her current position, Dinwiddie-Boyd was at Wayne State University, where she worked with low-income neighborhoods as an assistant director.

She is a vegetarian and said that at first it was political, then it became a heath decision and an animal rights stance. She said that she was influenced by Gandhi and philosopher Bertrand Russell, who she said once remarked that true knowledge is action. She said the model of the School of New Resources at the College New Rochelle is now being emulated by hundreds of schools. And that model teaches to "think outside the box, take educated risks and be a leader in your community."