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Community Colleges

Serving the Community

Two-year institutions making a bigger commitment to community outreach
University Business, April 2013
Faculty at Mount Wachusett Community College are expected to make civic learning part of all courses, so it's not surprising there have been many types of engagement efforts­—including alternative spring breaks close to home.

Maintaining healthy town/gown relations enhances campus life and generally makes the institutional mission easier to achieve. In recent years, however, community college officials are finding that efforts must go beyond providing cultural venues that locals can access.

Working with community leaders improves the outlook for everyone, says  Maureen Curley, president of Campus Compact, a national coalition of college and university presidents committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education. “If you have good schools and a safe area, then they are more apt to attract students.”

Read on to see some examples of how assisting the community benefits the institution, as well.

Service Learning

While community engagement efforts can bring benefits to everyone involved, including a service learning component can also bring academic benefits.
“When it’s tied to curriculum, it helps them do career exploration beyond the basics,” says Lyvier Conss, executive director, Community College National Center for Community Engagement. When CCNCCE started in the 1990s, the focus was on encouraging students to volunteer, and the shift to academics came later, she explains. “We started seeing that programs that were coming out of academic departments were being sustained and funded.”

Service learning projects can help students reach a deeper level of understanding. “I think the reason it’s important to colleges is because it’s a very effective tool to student learning,” says Thomas Murphy, chair of anthropology at Edmonds Community College (Wash.). “Independent of what it does for the community, when students are learning in a hands-on situation and their activity has importance and impact on the community, they care more about their assignment than they would if it is make believe.” Murphy, who is also the faculty liaison to the Center for Service Learning on campus, says they work on projects with local Native American tribes, government agencies, and nonprofits.

A recent project resulted in the college sharing the 2012 VISION 2040 Award from the Puget Sound Regional Council with the City of Mukilteo and Paine Field Airport. While doing some wetlands mitigation, airport personnel discovered artifacts from a Japanese American village from the early 1900s.

“When you encounter cultural artifacts, that will often impede if not stall a project,” Murphy points out. The school had been looking for a field site to go along with its curriculum. The artifacts were uncovered and recommendations were made for restoring the salmon stream. “We did the fieldwork and reduced their cost so they could complete the project,” says Murphy. Students are still benefiting from the project with the current class monitoring the first salmon spawn in the stream in 50 years.

“It gets the name out there and builds partnerships,” he notes. The relationships created with city and state representatives over the course of various projects builds a basis for requesting assistance for future projects, he adds. “Students are doing amazing things every day but the state legislators might not be paying attention. Service learning lets you showcase it.”

Since students are more engaged with their schoolwork, they tend to persist more, as well. “We found in tracking students in field school courses they have twice the graduation rate of the average student,” Murphy shares.

Family Outreach

Not all programs are academic. Some are just addressing a need in the local area. Curley explains Campus Compact was formed in 1985 by three college presidents who wanted to recommit to community engagement. Since then, membership has grown to nearly 1,200 institutions. “We know that higher education in this country is founded on the notion of training the next generation of active participants in the democracy,” she says. “Higher education teaches people how to behave and how to be responsible citizens.”

Community colleges serve nontraditional students who often have challenges that keep them from pursuing educational goals. The DeltaLINC (Literacy Initiative for Northern Louisiana Communities) program at Louisiana Delta Community College is meeting this population where they live through a partnership with the Monroe Housing Authority.

The program provides intergenerational family literacy services, explains Kaye Sharbono, program director. “The parents and the children come to school together. The child doesn’t come unless the parent is in the adjacent room.”

In addition to educational services, the parents receive guidance. Lessons are coordinated between the classes so children might have a basic lesson in plants that covers leaves and petals, while parents will learn more about the biology. An important part of the program is providing a common vocabulary that family members “can take home and keep building their learning outside of a formal environment,” says Delayn Rolls, family literacy coordinator.

The housing authority built a new facility to house the program, while the college provides space for the leadership team and some of the classes.

They quickly realized that allowing residents to drop in and out of the program was not effective. Now they are required to be on time, call if they will be absent, and risk losing their place if they are not committed. Sharbono says these changes are not only bringing respect to the program but are giving students the life skills needed for either a job or future education.

“We’re asking people to break a generational cycle; they might not have seen people make the gains needed to be productive members of society,” Rolls says. “We’re helping them not only get a job, but know to show up on time, and to make arrangements for their children.”

Although the women say the goal is long-term change and results are usually measured at an individual level, they have seen some measurable changes, such as 30 people obtaining GEDs since 2010.

Now that the initiative is under the auspices of LDCC, program leaders are looking to add work-based credentials and otherwise leveraging training resources at the community college. “They have tremendous support for these programs,” says Rolls.

They share the story of a student named Vanessa who obtained her GED and then enrolled in the manufacturing specialist program at LDCC, which includes teamwork and communication skills components. After completing the program, she obtained a job at a graphic design company with a higher pay because of her education. After completing her probationary period, she was promoted to an administrative position. “She’ll tell anybody it was because she could go back to the Ouachita Family Literacy Center if things got overwhelming, but they’d tell her to get back to it,” Rolls says. “We don’t have 20 examples like that yet, but there are students in school. We know we’re making changes.”

Mission Critical

“You can argue that community colleges have students who are more likely to stay in their community and already be engaged in their community,” says Curley of Campus Compact. Unlike traditional-aged students at a four-year institution, community college students usually start local and stay local. But that doesn’t make intentional engagement less important to these institutions.

“I think it should be important to all community colleges,” says Daniel Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett Community College (Mass.). “The reason I think [community is] important is because that’s our middle name.”

He is concerned by the lack of civic engagement in the country as evidenced by the same people volunteering on town boards. Students should be encouraged to engage with the community, he says. It is important to use civic learning to connect the subjects students are learning in class with the community. “They should understand how government works.”

He says he doesn’t worry about funding, but instead ensures that all faculty understand that civic learning should be an aspect of their courses. Assistance is available to help them make it happen. “They get excited about it,” Asquino says.  “When they connect the class to the community, it becomes sustainable.”
As others have said, Asquino confirms the students benefit as much as the community. “We’ve found that students who participate tend to stay with their education and be more excited.” Every student club on campus includes a volunteer component, he says.

Programs on the Mount Wachusett campus include a community garden, alternative spring breaks (often in the community rather than away), Americorps Volunteers, and support to the local YouthVenture program through mentors and grants, among others.

While he might not be thinking about funding, Asquino says resources have to be committed for the effort to succeed. “You commit resources to what is important, and for everything else, we find excuses.” Having a plan and a faculty champion are also important for success. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” he cautions. “Education institutions don’t usually implement quick change. It’s a process.”

“I think the thing I’m most proud of is when I see the students at graduation crossing the stage with their medals and I know each one has committed 100 hours,” Asquino says. “We put that on their transcript. I’m proud that it’s part of our culture.”