Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Brenda Dann-Messier has worked for two U.S. Presidents; traveled three continents representing the U.S. Department of Education; led one of the most highly regarded adult education programs in the state; and is regarded as an authority on adult education and workforce development at the federal, state and local level; but it is Rhode Island College’s Feinstein School of Education and Human Development that she credits for leading her to her life’s work.
“I’ve always viewed education as the great equalizer in our society,” Dann-Messier said. “My entire career has focused on eliminating whatever obstacles or barriers are in place so that adults and youth who didn’t think postsecondary education was an option for them could achieve it. That’s been my life’s work and it started at Rhode Island College.”
Dann-Messier completed her B.A. in secondary education at Rhode Island College in 1973 and her M.Ed. in instructional technology in 1974. She went on to earn a doctorate in educational leadership from Johnson & Wales University, but after more than 40 years of professional milestones, she continues to point back to where it all began.
“The faculty at Rhode Island College were exceptional,” she said. “They looked at each of us as individuals and understood what each of our passions were and then tried to connect us to the broader community. I believe that’s what educators do. They form relationships with their students, they help their students reach their individual goals and they make education relevant.”
Recognizing her interest in adult education and workforce development, one of Dann-Messier’s professors suggested she intern at the Urban Educational Center of Rhode Island College located in South Providence. She took his suggestion, and when her internship ended, she was asked to join the staff.
The Urban Educational Center would become the Providence campus of CCRI and Dann-Messier would work her way up to director of the Educational Opportunity Program for adults and then founding director of the Educational Talent Search Program for youth. Both are TRIO programs with the mission to help low-income, first-generation college-bound students enroll and succeed in postsecondary education.
As director, Dann-Messier was also involved in the regional and national association of TRIO professionals and worked with the Rhode Island congressional delegation to encourage their support of TRIO.
“I worked very closely with then-Senator Pell,” she said. “He was a huge TRIO supporter. Because of my work, Pell nominated me to work for the Clinton administration under Secretary Richard Riley.” Headquartered in Boston, Dann-Messier served as Riley’s regional representative from 1993-1996.
She then became president of Dorcas Place Adult and Family Learning Center in Providence (now named Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island), one of the state’s most highly regarded adult and workforce development programs.
For a decade she expanded Dorcas Place to serve more than 1,000 adults through a range of programs, including day and evening adult basic education, workforce education and job training, family literacy, English for speakers of other languages and college preparatory programs in partnership with CCRI.
Dann-Messier was then appointed the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education (2006-2009) and the Board of the Rhode Island Higher Education Assistance Authority (2007-2009), until the White House tapped her expertise again in 2009.
President Obama nominated Dann-Messier to serve as assistant secretary for vocational and adult education in the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education from 2009-2014. He also named her acting U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education in 2013.
She assumed her current role as Rhode Island commissioner of postsecondary education in 2017. She assumed her current role as Rhode Island commissioner of postsecondary education in 2017. As commissioner, Dann-Messier develops higher education policy in collaboration with the state’s three public institutions – URI, RIC, and CCRI, and the Council on Postsecondary Education.
Though progress has been made to increase the number of Rhode Islanders who attain postsecondary certification and degrees, the state still has a lot of work to do, she said. “Only 30.6 percent of African Americans have reached that attainment level, 29.5 of South East Asians, 20 percent of Latinx and 19.5 of Native Americans. We are all committed to eliminate equity gaps,” said Dann-Messier.
Looking back, Dann-Messier is grateful for the foundation Rhode Island College laid in the formation of her life’s work, and she encourages educators to “recognize what your students are passionate about, encourage them to follow their dreams and connect them to experiences both inside and outside of the classroom that support their dream. That’s what Rhode Island College did for me.”
She also encourages Rhode Island voters to support Vote Yes on 2 in November. If approved, the bond would provide $25 million to renovate the infrastructure and technology of Horace Mann Hall, home of RIC’s Feinstein School of Education and Human Development, a building that hasn’t been upgraded in nearly 50 years.
“What it means to be a teacher today is different than it was 50 years ago. So this is a hugely important investment,” Dann-Messier said. “Passage of this bond would transform Horace Mann into an educational facility of the future for our future teachers. It’s an investment in our workforce and an investment in educated citizenry.”