Spears committed to helping students succeed at College Unbound

PASSIONATE PURSUIT: Sylvia C. Spears gets much job satisfaction as vice president of administration and innovation at Providence-based College Unbound, where women of color make up a lot of the student body. Spears is a member of the Narragansett Tribal Nation. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
PASSIONATE PURSUIT: Sylvia C. Spears gets much job satisfaction as vice president of administration and innovation at Providence-based College Unbound, where women of color make up a lot of the student body. Spears is a member of the Narragansett Tribal Nation. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

2022 C-Suite Awards: Nonprofit/Social Service Agency | Sylvia C. Spears, College Unbound vice president for administration and innovation


For more than 25 years, Sylvia C. Spears has been a teacher and administrator at established colleges and universities throughout New England, including Emerson, Dartmouth and the University of Rhode Island.

But for the past year, she has been working at a relatively new and unconventional school called College Unbound in Providence, where she is vice president for administration and innovation.

College Unbound is an accredited college, the 13th in Rhode Island, with about 220 students. Many of them are women of color, with jobs and families, who face barriers to getting a college degree.

- Advertisement -

“Most colleges are designed in such a way that they meet the needs of some students really well, but not others,” Spears said. “I’ve always been involved in change that would allow all students to thrive … I jokingly used to say that it’s almost as if you have to start a new college from scratch.”

At College Unbound, which was established 12 years ago, Spears has come close to just that.

One of the first things she did when she took the job about a year ago was attend a graduation. College Unbound is small enough so that all the graduates got to speak.

“It was almost magical,” Spears said. “They never thought they’d be able to go to college. To watch people step into their own empowerment and agency, even if people had told them they couldn’t do it, was amazing.”

College Unbound has a unique structure. All students major in organizational leadership and change, moving through the curriculum in “cohorts” of eight to 10 students that form small but supportive communities. They also participate in lab projects – dealing with lead paint, for example – that have practical applications within the community.

In a relatively small organization such as College Unbound, administrators such as Spears need to multitask. Spears deals with future growth, staff and faculty development, student recruitment and lots more. It’s her job, she said, to create the systems and ­structures that can get College Unbound to where it wants to go.

“Sometimes our aspirations are bigger than our infrastructure,” Spears said.

That can be an interesting change from some of her previous jobs, she noted, when she was often the one setting the aspirations. At College Unbound, she’s the one figuring out how to make them work.

In three years, Spears said, College Unbound would like to expand its student population in Rhode Island to between 400 and 500 students. That’s the maximum envisioned for one place, but College Unbound is also considering adding programs in other cities. The Providence location, though, would still be the “mother ship,” she said.

Whatever the future brings, Spears said, College Unbound needs to grow in a way that’s sustainable and true to its model.

College Unbound Provost Adam Bush, who works closely with Spears, said he’s a big fan of hers. Even before she came to College Unbound, he said Spears was pushing institutions of higher education to be their truest selves.

At College Unbound, Bush said, Spears brings a tremendous amount of depth, heft and intellectual rigor to the job.

“We want to make sure we’re not just replicating systems that exist because we thought we needed them,” Bush said. “Spears is able to look at both the systems that exist and ones that should exist that we haven’t even thought of yet … she is able to be both deeply concrete and amazingly imaginative at the same time.”

And she has a passion for helping College Unbound students, mostly women of color.

Spears is a member of the Narragansett Tribal Nation and served as tribal administrator from 1992 to 1994. She said when she realized a very small percentage of Native Americans are among college student populations, it inspired her to get her master’s degree at URI. Her research project was on “The Persistence and Completion of Native Americans in Higher Education.”

She followed her master’s degree with a doctorate in education from a joint doctoral program run by URI and Rhode Island College.

College Unbound President Dennis Littkey said Spears has been “better than one could imagine.”

“She’s great on a leadership team where we’re constantly innovating,” he said.

No posts to display