Dr. Sandy Caldwell: The Power Of Believing In Yourself


Dr. Sandy Caldwell is originally from Oklahoma and is a member of the Choctaw nation.

She became an independent minor at the young age of 16.

Her experience navigating the world of higher education has made her a passionate advocate for the value of a college degree.

She takes great pride in empowering women in particular who find themselves in challenging family situations, as she did in her youth.

She has worked at Western Wyoming Community College, was board president of Wyoming Women's Foundation and a member of the Wyoming Community Foundation, and is the Executive Director of the Wyoming Community College Commission.

Emy diGrappa: 00:08 Welcome to First, But Last? brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. I am your host, Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the Equality State because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out, and thank you for listening.

Today, we are talking to Dr. Sandy Caldwell. She is the executive director of Wyoming Community College Commission. Today, we're talking with Sandy about her breadth and depth of experience in education as well as her journey to Wyoming. Welcome, Sandy.

Sandy Caldwell: 00:52 Why, hello Emy. How are you doing today? It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Emy diGrappa: 00:57 Oh, thank you so much. It is such a pleasure to just talk to you about your journey to Wyoming and just your great experience and education. And I'm sure you have such depth of experience that, to share with us really.

Sandy Caldwell: 01:15 Sure. And Emy, so where do you want me to start? Do you want me to just tell you a little bit about my whole journey and, and why I even do what I do?

Emy diGrappa: 01:23 Yes. So, I want you to start there. I want you to tell us about your background, where you grew up, and what was your journey to Wyoming.

Sandy Caldwell: 01:31 Sure. First I will say, Wyoming is our home. Once we moved here, it, it just became the place where we raised our children. And I will tell you, we did leave for a few years and missed it desperately, and then looked for a way to, to, to come back. And I will tell you, it is in our hearts and it is, and it is a part of who we are now. But how I started this whole, uh, shebang is I will tell you I'm from a little town in Oklahoma. I am from the Choctaw Nation. I am a member of the tribe of the Choctaw Nation. Uh, if you look up Choctaw County in Oklahoma, it's one of the 10.5 counties of the nation. It is well-known as the [inaudible 00:02:13] County in the State of Oklahoma

Emy diGrappa: 02:16 Wow.

Sandy Caldwell: 02:16 I will share, and I've learned to share this rather openly, I became an independent minor at the age of 16. And in, uh, that journey, I'm the youngest of five kids, six years between me and the oldest. One of those is actually a cousin, but it really doesn't matter when you're sharing a bedroom with a furniture line down the middle of the room. And just through a series of events, my parents moved away, and really I was, I was just on my own. I, uh, supported myself by working at Pizza Hut, which was the nicest restaurant in town. And they let me stay out of the tribal foster system, uh, because I was doing well and lived with some friends of mine. I was self-supporting. I was able to get free lunches and that kind of thing. But it was, it was a little bit rough without, without the kind of, uh, support from the family structure.

And so I will tell you that it was- I was a little bit of trouble, I would say. Maybe not always seeing school as the most important, particularly if I was working late at night. And I had a school counselor who intervened and just said, "You're going to end up in a lot of trouble. Why don't you go to the community college while you're still in high school? Let's get that mind doing something. Too much free time for that brain." And, uh, that's what happened. I went to Paris Junior College. It is one of the reasons I'm such an advocate for the rural-based community colleges and serving, uh, students that are in an at-risk population. I'm certainly one of those, being from a native population, independent minor. Avoided, uh... They let me age out actually at the foster system before I was ever placed. And, uh, it was a community college frankly, a rural-based community college, that really lighted a fire for me thinking about a different way that I could approach life and that it wasn't just survival. I could, in fact, look forward and, and plan a future, and education was my pathway to do that.

So, we talk about riches out of poverty and empowering women, particularly women, that, uh, find themselves in sometimes challenging family dynamics and financial dynamics, that there are ways for you to, to succeed. And for me that was definitely through the community college. I went on, graduated from Oklahoma State University, had a degree in Math and I got a master's degree in Statistics and actually went into [ag-based 00:05:01] research for quite some time. Married young, I did. And my high school boyfriend, at the time, is my husband now of 30 years (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: 05:12 That's great. That's great. I love hearing that.

Sandy Caldwell: 05:14 Yeah. Yeah. He's, he likes adventure (laughs). And then I just really felt that there was this need for me to be, uh, serving and giving back. And I will tell you, I did quit my full-time job to go teach adjunct at that same community college where I was a student. Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: 05:32 Where were you working full-time when you decided to quit and work as a, as an adjunct professor?

Sandy Caldwell: 05:39 I was working at the South Central Agricultural Research laboratory in Lane, Oklahoma. Look that up on a map.

Emy diGrappa: 05:50 (laughs).

Sandy Caldwell: 05:50 It's in Push County, Pushmataha County in Oklahoma. And it is a, a joint venture between the US Department of Agriculture and Oklahoma State University. And I worked for the Department of Entomology, mostly on [cole 00:06:01] crops and [cucurbits 00:06:02], and most important, watermelons, my specialty, know a lot about. I can do the science side of it, but it, I really felt, uh, compelled to do the work at a community college. And I had taught at the university. And at that point [inaudible 00:06:20] really make my decision that I was going to pursue the route of the community college because it's so community-based and uplifting for the work that it does in, in a region. And where I grew up, it was a high [course 00:06:37], high Native American population, high African-American population, Hispanic population that definitely experienced the equity gap in, particularly in such a rural area. And so that kind of started my whole love affair with the American community college. And I ended up going and getting my doctorate in post-secondary education and with a focus on community colleges and the research a- around post-secondary education and the, the, the power of the community colleges.

I became a full-time faculty member and once I finished my degree, we were looking for advancement, I, I will tell you that. I knew, I knew a lot about one community college in one State, but I really wanted to know more on the landscape of the impact in the regions of community colleges. And that's how we ended up in Wyoming. I went to work at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs in an administrative position, and we just loved it. Our kids are both graduates of Rock Springs High School. Go tigers. One graduated from Western and another one graduated from Casper College. And I'm very pleased to say both are, are university graduates, one from UW and the other one from, uh, Fresno State.

And from there, I will tell you, I became a very involved in other types of, of effort. I've always been very active in the faith community, particularly in those, the, the outreach work. And then I served on the Women's Foun- Wyoming Women's Foundation. I was actually board... the board president at one time in the Wyoming Community Foundation because of the work that it does in the State of Wyoming. So, very important that we are always looking to, uh, support people and enrich their lives in a way that is meaningful. So, that's kind of it.

I, I did go on to become a college president. I was college president at Reedley College, where the few rural-based colleges in the State of California. And just loved the college. It was just a, a, a great place, and I got to see some of the same challenges that happened with people that find themselves in, in challenging situations and particularly low-income, first generation, minority, and, and particularly women of color. And my college was about a 70%, uh, minority serving institution, so it was, it had a lot of role to play in that. But this option, this opportunity came back, uh, open and I knew how fabulous the Wyoming community colleges are, what they do for our State because we don't have regional universities, and how impactful they are for all of the counties in the State, and wanted to become back and become part of this great State and the really deep work that happens with the colleges in the State.

So, that's kind of my story. It... At the end of the day, it comes from this place of personal [inaudible 00:09:47] and knowing that it's not easy work. It would have been very easy for me to have not taken that, that step. It really took intervention. I'm a very positive outcome. I... The investment in my work certainly has paid off in giving back to the community in, in multiple ways for sure. So, that's just kind of my... That's me, Emy. You got it.

Emy diGrappa: 10:12 Wow. That is great. I'm going to take you back in time for a minute because I wanna know what it's like to grow up on a reservation and maybe understand why your parents moved and understand why you stayed and didn't move with them, you know, and how, how that separation took place.

Sandy Caldwell: 10:33 Yeah. So, the Choctaw Nation's a very interesting place. It's actually the lower 10.5 counties of Oklahoma, so it's the entire region. So, it's not reservation-based. It's sovereign nation-based and very interesting. We were very active tribal members, I will tell you that. So, there's high poverty in, in the area. Generational poverty creates a very specific dynamic that make it very difficult. It, it's the momentum around that in order to break that cycle.

And my parents left because of opportunity. They saw the poverty just increasing. I sometimes look back at that time, I don't know what my parents were thinking. And they were just struggling themselves at the time. And I think they felt like I was okay, I was doing well. And rather than moving me away from that, which they didn't give me an option, I'm going to be very blunt about it, they had to get their act together and I, at least, was doing okay. And I think that's how it happened. So, the tribe didn't put me in foster care, put me as an independent minor, which allowed me to get on the free lunch program. [inaudible 00:12:02] I had to be able to eat. And allowed me to age out because I was doing well.

Emy diGrappa: 12:08 You must look back on that time and think, "How the heck did I do that? I mean, how did I survive that?" And, and I want to know, you must have a lot of inner strength because you, even though you, you said you were kind of the wild child, getting in trouble, um, (laughs), um, but you still found a way to pick yourself up and do the next thing. And that takes some strength. And so besides your counselor that you talked about, who were other people that really supported you?

Sandy Caldwell: 12:47 Yeah. You know what? There were, there were certain... I'm, I'm going to be very honest, there were some really strong women who intervened in my life in ways I probably didn't realize at the time. I did have a strong faith family, very small congregation, but it was people that I had grown up with. So, they just kind of kept checking in on me along the way. I did, at one point, finally move in with my, my grandparents who were close by. I think there were, were just some really... I think of them very specifically, who just kind of said, "Hey. We want to help you through this. How are you doing? Come by and see us," who really encouraged me to, 'You should do this. You should do that. Look at these opportunities" so that I knew that the doors weren't closed.

It would have been very tempting. You know, I could have just been a waitress and continued to do that, but they just knew I had potential and they kept reminding me of that. And it's just something that I, to this day, recognize that it does take someone bringing it to your attention of the potential that you have because it's really easy for that self-doubt and the need to just survive to take over. And also when you do fail, because I have a few of those, that you, you don't give up. That's not the signal that you shouldn't try. You tried that. That one didn't work, but what about this? Instead of just falling back on what you know, getting over the fear of that failure, and pursuing different opportunities took some really great intervention and some people who had seen me grow up.

Emy diGrappa: 14:40 Well, and, and I do think it is amazing that not, not that you just went out of the community college, but then you continued on in your education and found a lot of value in that. And I think that that is wonderful because you understand the importance of education, especially when you come out of poverty, that it does take you to a different place. And I think, you know, because my dad was the first Hispanic to graduate with his doctorate from [Colorado 00:15:12] State University, and he always said that education made the difference.

Sandy Caldwell: 15:19 Yeah. So, I will tell you, it... absolutely. And it was... Come on, I have a degree in Math and another one in Statistics. [inaudible 00:15:28] speak to my brain, and it's compelling information whenever you're seeing... You, you have these options. If you don't complete high school, you are pretty much guaranteeing your lifetime of poverty. If you move forward in that, it's not a guarantee. It doesn't say, "If you go to college, you will do great." It's, "If you go that direction, you have more options in creating that." It's going to make that easier than if you don't have that. Not that there aren't any exceptions in all of it. I mean, that's, that's always the case. But the data's very clear (laughs). If you don't complete high school, uh, you will probably have poverty level income. So, I was able... People were pointing this kind of information out to me and it makes sense. And I knew it would be hard. Well, if it was easy, it wouldn't be worth doing (laughs). So, I did have that mindset of, "You won't get there if you don't work hard in the first place." And it certainly wasn't going to be the case with the cards I had been dealt.

Emy diGrappa: 16:38 Well, so what do you think about... Because there is a lot of young people that don't see the value in education right now because... Well, and the pandemic hasn't helped that because a lot of young people have graduated without jobs. And they have different attitudes about higher education. Not that they don't graduate from high school, but it's like, is it trade school? What, what are the other alternatives to help people succeed? Because they're thinking, "Well, not everybody is meant to go to college." I mean, it's just... There's different attitudes right now.

Sandy Caldwell: 17:13 Yeah. So, what I would say is it's very important that we broaden out and widen what we mean by the definition of going to college. For example, all the community colleges in the State of Wyoming all provide the trades. That's what they do. They do the associative [inaudible 00:17:28] degrees and the certificates. So, that... those are great avenues to do that. And so when I say that, when I say college, when I say get a credential or a degree, that's what I'm talking about. It isn't only moving forward in receiving a bachelor's degree or, or higher. It's also recognizing that you have a lifetime career. And so it isn't just the jobs. Sometimes you hear it called the ABCs. Get a job, get a better job, make sure you get a career. Those are the ABCs. You want a pathway in order to do that.

So, I always think about, you've got to help people be cognizant that you don't want to train the next generation of displaced workers in fields that are no longer going to exist. The challenge is we don't know exactly what's going to exist. When I was in college, there was no such thing as a webmaster and we can't live without one now. So, those are just examples of that. There are some trades, at one time, we couldn't imagine that that particular one wouldn't always exist. But they do evolve. So, you want to make sure that whatever trainings... I think the trades are fantastic. Trades lead to, to associate degrees. Associate degrees are all transferable in some way or another, whether that is traditional degree, but there's also what are called the applied science bachelor's degrees and that is to add in the business component in leadership. So, if you have a trade, you want to be able to run that trade business, for example. So, to me, I always make sure that they think about, it's not just the job for today, it is making sure that you are able to be flexible and adaptable and have transferable skills as the economy and the marketplace changes.

Emy diGrappa: 19:15 I love your, what you said about education. That we need to broaden the definition of higher education, that we just can't think about it as, you know, a bachelor's degree, that we have to think about it as the degree that puts you on a career path, whether you're a journeyman, you know, to become an electrician or a bus- you know, all those things. The other thing that really is interesting to me is that you've obviously been a career mom. And you have two kids. And I think about career moms these days. And wow, just the pressure of working full-time and raising your kids. What, what was that like for you?

Sandy Caldwell: 20:02 It was crazy (laughs). I don't even, I don't even know how else to say it. My husband and I were just talking about that last night. How did we do that? I mean, I was raising the kids. We were both working. And I got a doctorate in the middle of that. I don't know how we did it. We just did it. There were days when things collided and it just didn't work very well on that particular day. And you just have to know the sun is going to come up tomorrow, that's what's gonna happen. The day will end, the sun will come up tomorrow, and you'll deal with whatever you've got to deal with at that time. Priorities, planning, being very organized, I don't know how else to say that. It was a big, full, crazy life and it still is.

Emy diGrappa: 20:50 Yeah. I mean, I, I think about my girls and raising kids right now and (laughs) it's like, they love their kids, but they're both career moms. One of them is getting a master's degree plus she works, and the other one has full-time... She's an entrepreneur. And now with the pandemic and homeschooling, they're like, "I did not sign up for this" (laughs). I did not.

Sandy Caldwell: 21:19 I don't know how. I, I could not imagine doing all of that, particularly when I was a, a faculty member and the schedules are just crazy with kids. And I don't, I don't know how they're doing it right... Hats off to all the parents right now who are trying to... if they're having to work from home or even not if they're working from home and their kids are home. I don't, I don't know how you do that with a first grader. I can't imagine what that's like. So, hats off to them.

You know, both of my sons, I have two sons, whom I'm very, very proud of, they value education. But I hope that we've raised them with an appreciation and a gratitude for having the opportunities that, that they, they have had and that we have had. Of course, I had challenging circumstances, but you know what? I'm grateful every day that I was able to take advantage of those opportunities and, and have the ability to give back. So, our sons are... One's in human resources down in, in Denver and the other one is actually... Because of, of coronavirus, he is now working on his master's degree at, at Carnegie Mellon from Cheyenne, Wyoming, because he's in the Peace Corps. He has a heart for service as well. And he was in Kosovo in the middle of his service time and they evacuated all the Peace Corps volunteers that were working in developing countries. So, my son was working on economic self-sufficiency of the youth, particularly women and girls in a very young country that had very strict identity roles. So, I think both of them really took a lot from the, the challenges of growing up with, uh, two working parents.

Emy diGrappa: 23:10 Oh, yeah.

Sandy Caldwell: 23:11 I mean, I think it's paid off for them, but one of them's upstairs working from home in my house and he's upstairs working on his, uh, master's degree from Carnegie Mellon while he's trying to figure out what he's going to do with his life in public policy (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: 23:25 Oh, wow. So, because the Wyoming Community College Commission is such, you know, a big name, can you just kind of define and break it down what exactly is, is it that you do there?

Sandy Caldwell: 23:42 Okay. So, I can answer that pretty quickly. Um, the Community College Commission is a coordinating body on behalf of the State of Wyoming for the seven community colleges in the State. It's job is to advocate for community college education statewide, to coordinate across the colleges. We manage the funding, allocation of the State to the community colleges. And, uh, we are responsible for accountability and reporting on the colleges on behalf of the State.

Emy diGrappa: 24:13 Wow. Let me see your gray hair. No, I'm just kidding (laughs).

Sandy Caldwell: 24:19 It's getting fixed today.

Emy diGrappa: 24:20 (laughs).

Sandy Caldwell: 24:21 (laughs) I have an appointment today.

Emy diGrappa: 24:26 (laughs) It's like, wow, Sandy. That, that is a lot and there's a lot that encompasses, well, just allocating, you know, and, and distributing the funds and making sure that everything for every college becomes equitable.

Sandy Caldwell: 24:43 Yeah. And it's hard. And of course, the local boards manage the individual colleges along with the presidents, which I'm, I, I'm grateful for, that allows them to be flexible and adaptable in, in the local areas and to be the most responsive to their communities. I mean, how a college... And I'll just use two very different comparisons. Central Wyoming College, how it interacts with its communities in Fremont County and how it interacts in Teton County are not the same in how they have to address the population base. And all of that is very different from how, for example, Eastern Wyoming College impacts, how they interact with Gosh- within Goshen County in Torrington, but also Douglas in Converse County and then up in Crook and, and Weston counties, right? So, we rely on them to implement on the local level and we coordinate with them to make sure that we're meeting the needs of the State of Wyoming and because I have such a large investment in the colleges. So, yeah, it's a, it's a lot, but the colleges are fantastic. I mean, the State of Wyoming community colleges ranked number one in the country this year. They were number eight last year. Number one this year for the States.

Emy diGrappa: 26:05 Wow. That is something to be proud of, seriously. Well, I have one last question for you. Because you've given so much great advice and, and you have so much experience in just, not just your growing up experience but your educational background, what advice do you like to give young people in order to inspire them to not give up and to succeed in what they're doing?

Sandy Caldwell: 26:27 So, my advice is always don't let your circumstances of today and your fear of the unknown prevent you from pursuing your opportunities of tomorrow. You're capable and there, there are ways to move forward. So, that's really my advice and guidance is, is don't let the restrictions that you see today define who you are tomorrow. Wyoming people have a superpower called optimism (laughs). And really lean into that and, and know it may be very difficult and may be, uh, challenging right now, but it's not hopeless and there is an ability to pursue a bright tomorrow.

Emy diGrappa: 27:14 Thanks, Sandy. Thanks for being with me.

Sandy Caldwell: 27:16 You bet.

Emy diGrappa: 27:21 Thank you for listening to First, But Last? brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the State. You can also find us at thinkwy.org, where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey, and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the Equality State. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.