Recognizing the Excellence and Promise in our Communities

Extraordinary Leaders, Teachers and Counselors


By Dr. Debra Colley

We often speak of education, human services and transformative programs and as systems initiatives – knowing that the creation of sustainable change is complex and interdependent.

However, just as a small pebble creates a ripple in the river, so can be the impact of just one single educator, counselor or community leader.  The powerful impact individual teachers and leaders have on young people within their communities is immeasurable. Given our focus on success for all students (beginning with young children and extending across the educational continuum),  the outstanding work of our superintendents, teachers, counselors, and community leaders is what truly makes the difference … and this is most often not recognized amidst the crises, controversies, and challenges we face in education and human services.

It is because of the leadership and outstanding commitment of extraordinary individuals that we are able to meet the needs of all children, inspire the best results from young people, and address the multitude of issues that affect us during our lifetime.  Education requires the commitment of many individuals…as we build systems one person at a time … as we transform our communities one child at a time.

This past week, the College of Education hosted its 33rd annual professional recognition dinner wherein educational leaders, teachers, mental health counselors, and community leaders from both Ontario and Western New York were recognized for their outstanding contributions.  It was with great pride that the faculty and administration at Niagara University paused to recognize the truly amazing commitment of educators and professionals in our communities who bring their knowledge, skills, excellence and hope to children and families every single day. We took time to celebrate the partnerships we have with these outstanding honorees and to thank them for their dedication and commitment.

A record crowd joined us for the celebration of excellence – over 230 attendees joined us to applaud the honorees for their great contributions and untold stories of remarkable inspiration and success. It was my privilege to embrace this unique moment to thank those who work so hard on our behalf, to recognize the truly outstanding people in our community, and to celebrate the hope and commitment to change that was so evident in their comments throughout the evening.

Click here for information about the honorees

It is from our Experience that Possibilities and Responsibilities Emerge

photo (2)By Dr. Debra Colley

Over the last few months, as I have traveled to witness the persistence of one family in the hope for children in Haiti, to study St. Vincent de Paul in France, and to embrace educational partnerships in Vietnam, I have experienced the lasting imprint of one mission – the charism of the Vincentians in their commitment to transformative service and in their far-reaching influence.

This Vincentian heritage inspires a call to action to develop sustainable strategies to address core issues of poverty… a footprint that is uniquely represented through the three Vincentian Universities in the United States – Niagara, St.  John’s, and DePaul. The cycle of scarcity and poverty endured by so many people throughout the world is at the heart of the work we do as Vincentians. The graduates of Niagara University participate in this shared experience through their studies, their community engagement in service, and their research – experiences which will shape their contributions and leadership throughout their lives and careers. Experiences which will become the distinguishing difference in their life’s journey and the opportunities the future holds for them.

photo (3)From these experiences, challenges and responsibilities will emerge as well.  No one has said that this commitment to serving those most in need would be easy.  They have said it must be done; we must regard aid to the poorest and most vulnerable in our world as a fundamental duty.  We will bring our experiences to the question of how it must be done. Our mission calls on us to strive for innovation and excellence in the work we do as advocates for those in need and to support the development of programs and strategies that will make a difference in local communities and the larger world. Let’s, therefore, extend our experiences – domestic and global – in a strategic way so that actions emerge and we develop the persistence to stay the course and truly make a difference in our world.

Systems Change


By Dr. Debra Colley

Through our Vincentian mission,  we ask …

 What must be done? and  How must it be done?

photo (5)Our journey in France allowed us to walk through cities where these questions began to unfold in the life of St. Vincent de Paul.   We gathered in Folleville realizing that we would not have our community of Vincentians had it not been for the history of all that transpired in that town – the question of “what must be done”  was asked here.

photo (4)We walked the path in Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne where the townspeople came to assist a neighbor in need – with so much food,  St. Vincent knew that we needed to organize the great charity of people – “how must it be done”  was asked here,  providing a clear example of systems change.

As leaders,  we must think about the effectiveness of our ‘best efforts’ if not organized and sustainable.  Our greatest challenges in serving those most in need require this systems thinking  – a purposefully planned and organized use of the goodness of people,  the professionalism and knowledge of the related disciplines,  and the effective use of resources.    The transformation that is needed to address issues of poverty today requires nothing less.

photo (3)photo (2)Our journey continues;  however,  I am struck by the relevance of these two questions (what must be done and how should it be done) in our leadership and in the issues facing our schools,  families,  and communities.   My question becomes  … how are we answering  them?

Our Vincentian Heritage

By Dr. Debra Colley

As a Vincentian university, our mission inspires our studies, our service, our research, and our professional commitment to serving those most in need. We are joined in this mission by the other Vincentian Universities – DePaul University in Chicago and St. John’s University in New York City.

France BuildingWhat a privilege, therefore, to be asked to participate in the Vincentian Mission Institute to study St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. This provides is with an opportunity to think about the importance of the Vincentian mission as we prepare leaders across all disciplines of study.

We are now in France following the footsteps of St. Vincent. We initiated our trip in his birthplace in Dax (the Berceau) and will make our way to Paris. I am interested in the transformational role of St. Vincent as he began his life as an ambitious and successful man, bringing what seems to me to be a commitment to systems thinking and sustainability to his work with the poor.   In the professions of education and human services (among others), we are challenged by the need to influence systems that will sustain reforms and change the course of opportunity for those who are under-served.

France FoodSo as I enjoy the pastries during this journey through France. I will reflect on the contemporary application of our mission given the pressing issues we face today.

Salaries for Educators

By Dr. Debra Colley

I listen, with great interest, to the ongoing discussion about salaries for teachers and educational administrators (the CEOs of school systems). Often the bottom line in this discussion is this: Are educators paid too much?

In my experience, I have learned that teachers take on the awesome responsibility of facilitating the cognitive, psychological and psychosocial development of their students. These teachers continually strive to shape our world’s rapidly changing workforce by fostering crucial literacy and communication skills in our children, and by inspiring students to a higher level understanding of math, science and technology (to name a few). The support they provide to their students translates into success and innovation for engineers, medical doctors, scientists, and CEOs (again, to name just a few), who will lead us into the future.

Why, then, are we not talking about salaries that will entice our greatest young people to select teaching as their profession?

We know that the average salaries being discussed by the media are heavily weighted by those who are most tenured. It is the beginning salary, however, which drives young people into the profession as they consider how their skills and talents will translate into a career – a career which promotes fiscal independence or even one which will provide confidence in the ability to support a family within the economic conditions of this generation (not to mention paying student loans).

As a professional woman, I have been interested in seeing the entry level salary for teaching increase over the years, as I would like our most talented students to choose this exceptionally significant profession. The competition to choose other more lucrative careers is fierce…young women and men alike (both of whom are needed in our schools) have many professional opportunities and they should indeed consider the financial foundation and growth that is needed for a secure future. I would like to see teaching on that short list!

So we may ask … is the salary of a teacher too high?

I ask . . . what is the value of the professional who shapes the academic and personal development of our children and adolescents, influences our community through the education of its citizens, and imparts cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge and skills that are essential to the future workforce of our country?

Commencement – The Beginning

photo 1By Dr. Debra Colley

On the morning of our commencement,  I noticed how beautiful the campus looked with the timely arrival of spring (finally).  It was a tranquil and welcoming campus waiting, it appeared, for the laughter, the tears, and the excitement of commencement to begin.

It seemed like just yesterday that our graduates were moving in, looking for a parking spot for their first Tuesday morning class, or just beginning their research with faculty.   But here we are as witness to the accomplishments of the 1,100 graduates of Niagara University – the time has truly flown by.

One of the most pronounced honors I have as a dean is to present the candidates for their degree.  From baccalaureate to doctoral degrees,  it is with great pride that I watch our students walk across the stage knowing that we have inspired their quest for knowledge,  promoted inquiry in their response to the critical issues, and built the connections between theory and the professional skills they need for their career.    It is the persistence to go the distance, the commitment to excellence, and the willingness to lead and to serve that is evidenced in the accomplishments of the newest alumni of Niagara University.

This marks a new beginning for the class of 2014 and my message is to remember that the ‘world is your stage.’ Choose your path wisely; thank everyone along the way; continue to learn and nourish your spirit;  embrace all people, especially those who are poor and who are most in need; and make a deliberate difference in all that you do.

photo 2

Congratulations to all of our graduates and to the many people, family and friends, who have supported them along this journey!

Lasting Memory

Unknown-10By Dr. Debra Colley

I leave Vietnam with the warmth of the people in my heart and the beauty of the country in my memory.  We met many new colleagues and laid the foundation for partnerships with P-12 schools, university schools of education, and the Ministry of Home Affairs, among others.  Similar to our work in the United States, educational reform and the preparation of educational leaders who can ‘lead’ this reform is in the forefront of the discussion in Vietnam.

I leave with this picture of a child on a warm day – our global understanding does begin with children – and I am reminded that children from around the world are quite similar in many ways. On a very warm day, all of our children will smile while they enjoy the cool sweetness of their culture’s version of ice cream.   We can learn so much from each other when we embrace the simple smiles that extend across language, culture, and history.