Originally published January 17, 2009
This seems to be a season of loss. We face daily headlines about the loss of jobs, the plummeting economy, major retail chains going under, financial institutions in crisis, housing values declining. It’s hard to look at the newspaper without feeling some sense of loss. Sometimes that loss takes on a very personal nature. Sometimes it’s the loss of a friend that makes you take pause to reflect and remember.
Yesterday I visited Long Beach City College’s west campus for a memorial event honoring an amazing faculty member who died far too soon. Just 40 years old, she had taught at the college for 10 years, but her impact went far beyond the classroom. That was evident in the celebration of her life that took place on campus Friday. Tears were shed, but there were just as many smiles and even more laughter and song as students, faculty, staff, friends, and family members gathered to honor her life.
This event held special significance for me. Shannon Quigley Runningbear and I had known each other for well over 20 years. We met in college, worked together, played together, hung together, and grew up a little bit together before I graduated and moved to Massachusetts for graduate school in 1990. Over the nearly two decades since, we had stayed in contact, sometimes sporadically and sometimes regularly. We had seen each other just a handful of times, as distance and life kept us in different places. However, whenever we got back together, or even talked on the phone or exchanged letters or e-mails, it was as if we were right back in college sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings all over again. We had just text messaged each other on Christmas Day, and on January 4 she was gone.
The most rewarding part of the memorial was seeing what Shannon had become firsthand. I knew she was happy, and I knew she was doing great things with her students, but I had never seen it up close. As I arrived on campus and saw the courtyard filled with balloons and signs and dozens upon dozens of photos of Shannon’s life, and as I saw and started meeting students and colleagues of hers, I started to sense what Shannon had truly accomplished. These were people…warm and gracious as any I’ve ever met…who welcomed me into their world and told me stories of what Shannon meant to them.
Some talked to me individually; others told their stories to the entire crowd. One student talked about how when he entered her class he couldn’t write a sentence, and when he left it he was writing pages…and it didn’t stop there. She continued to be a mentor and advocate for him, and he’s about to graduate from Long Beach State University thanks in no small part to the help she continued to provide him long after their class together was completed.
Staff members came up to me, recognizing me from some of the old photos of Shannon and me from events at UCSD, and wanted to meet me and hear my story. And they had stories to tell me as well. Some had once been Shannon’s students, and now they were working with her to provide opportunities and make a difference in the lives of students who came after them. More than one told me that Ms. Runningbear made the difference for them…gave them a chance…gave them a future.
This story takes on a deeply personal nature for me because I knew Shannon as a student, at a time when we were both searching for who we wanted to be and what we wanted to do. She found it. The dozens upon dozens of current and former students who were there yesterday, singing and chanting and shouting and praying and telling their stories for all to hear, they are Shannon’s legacy. They are students who wouldn’t have been students if it weren’t for her advocacy, mentorship, passion, leadership, and dedication. Shannon established and ran a program called the STAR Program – Students and Teachers Achieving Results. It was and is a learning community designed to provide basic skills education to students lacking the preparation for college-level coursework. It required uncommon commitment and a never-say-die attitude in the face of tight budgets, academically challenged students with a myriad of life challenges as well, and the need to juggle that program with other teaching assignments.
So many young people today are leaving high school without the basic skills they need to succeed in college or in the workplace. Our system is broken, and there is no easy solution. Too many people are falling through the cracks, walking away from high school with diplomas but without the education they need and deserve. Most often it is our community colleges that are challenged with providing opportunities for these students when nobody else can. It is programs like Shannon’s STAR Program that can make a difference.
There is no “one size fits all” approach in education that works. Shannon Runningbear understood that every student – particularly those for whom school is a challenge, or for whom life has gotten in the way – every student needs personal attention, and a champion. Shannon was a national champion athlete in college, and in her professional life she showed that same drive and determination to become that champion to so many students over the past 10 years. Her untimely passing is a profound loss to Long Beach City College, to her students, and to all who knew her during her lifetime, but the life she lived and the legacy she leaves behind has enriched the lives of so many.
I’m proud to have known Shannon all these years, and prouder still of the work she did at Long Beach City College. She’s an affirmation of the value of community colleges in our state, and evidence of the impact a passionate mentor can have in the lives of people. Rest in peace, Shannon Quigley Runningbear, knowing that your work will continue. Given the challenges we face in our state, that work has never been more important than it is today.