Dr. Melissa Boydston is a Phoenix native who has dedicated her entire career to helping students prepare for post-secondary education and career. With a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Northern Arizona University, Melissa understands the barriers students face when pursuing their college and career aspirations. For the last three years, as the Vice President of Community Development for Valley of the Sun United Way, she works to remove barriers leading to systems change on the education birth to career continuum pipeline.
Prior to joining Valley of the Sun United Way, my entire professional career had been working in higher education with an intentional focus on access for non-traditional students. I had many opportunities to work with institutions in creating pathways to degrees and certificates for students who were juggling a lot of obstacles and having to navigate through barriers, and while I’ve always felt I was helping to change lives, I wanted to do more and impact on a larger scale. I believe education is truly the solution to ending the cycle of poverty and with the opportunity to influence access to high-quality early learning as well as opportunities that support college and career preparation, I knew that working at United Way was the chance to make a bigger impact.
I’ll always be a life-long learner, and with every chance I’ve had to enhance my knowledge-base has come opportunity. I also felt that if I was continuing to encourage others to learn and acquire new skills that I had to model that behavior. But really, I think the biggest inspiration was the opportunity learn and enhance my ability to support students through theory and application. I wanted to know, what is the best way to help students engage in a college-going culture, and how to help students envision a future full of opportunity?
Much of our work is evidence-based, meaning we are looking for adaptable solutions to large social issues that can be replicated and scaled. My team and I do a ton of research, we write whitepapers, we do litmus-tests, we engage in literature reviews, always searching for impactful solutions to the needs of our community. This is not an inherently known skill-set, so the research and work I’ve done through my doctorate, really set the stage for building frameworks and understanding the narrative behind data. My favorite part has been the qualitative work – interviewing those with lived experience, and making sure to incorporate their voice in all that we do.
Over the years, our work and partnership with Phoenix Union High School District has had a special place in my heart. The team at PXU is innovate and willing to do whatever it takes to make sure their students succeed. PXU was a founding member of the Thriving Together Collective Impact initiative, backboned by VSUW, bringing together 13 elementary school districts, the high school district, government, business and community partners to tackle issues along the birth to career education pipeline. We worked on 3rd Grade reading proficiency, 8th Grade Math, career exposure, high school graduation and through our work with FAFSA Fiestas and Peer Influencers, making sure students knew they had an opportunity to go to college.
Most recently, our work to bridge the Digital Divide has been particularly rewarding as it represented an urgent concern that continued to grow in light of the pandemic, reinforcing existing social inequalities. We supported community organizations in key areas identified as necessary for bridging the digital divide and centered on three well established levers to align and accelerate the work of our community partners by convening, developing solutions and using data to continuously improve community-based solutions. We built public awareness, capacity, and action through advocacy and developed a research-based framework to understand the barriers which need to be addressed to bridge the digital divide. We worked with our community, and interviewed members from 11 school districts who shared their most pressing issues related to remote learning and the digital divide. Districts indicated that they faced issues with (a) parents struggling to support effective remote learning for their children; (b) challenges to maintain high student attendance; (c) parents missing out on additional resources that in-person education offered; (d) ensuring adequate internet speeds for video conferencing tools like Zoom (i.e., hotspots are not fast enough); and (e) engaging younger students (K-5) in remote learning.
Ultimately, we were able to announce a grant opportunity to support programs addressing these issues. 32 organizations received funding which supported our students and community in ways, for example, like special masks for students and teachers with hearing impairment (clear around the mouth for lip reading), laptops and hotspots so students could connect to remote learning, Digital Navigators and parent educators who address both digital access as well as learning and upskilling to ensure parents and students receive on-demand tech support and relevant information to secure connectivity, devices, as well as access to foundational digital skills, learning and training opportunities. All in all, we were able to impact:
It has been exhilarating to see the community come together to voice their commitment to making Mighty Change! MC2026 is not just United Way’s bold goals, it really is our communities and the collective impact potential of our community coming together to support Education, Health, Housing & Homelessness and Workforce Development with a common agenda, metrics and data to base our progress off of is exactly how impactful change happens.