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Community College Leaders Strategize Solutions to Student Success Barriers

As the challenges—enrollment, limited technology access, food and housing insecurities—persist from the COVID-19 pandemic, community colleges are seeking solutions.

The virtual Innovations Conference, hosted by the League for Innovation in the Community College this week, is providing a space for community college leaders to collaborate and problem solve strategies to promote student success.

“As we navigate this pandemic, getting an education is important now more than ever,” said Dr. Jean Goodnow, president of Delta College.

Dr. Jean GoodnowDr. Jean Goodnow

On the second day of the conference, discussions focused on food insecure students, developing programming for working students and addressing equity gaps within international education.

To address food inequities within the community and promote healthy eating, Northeast Texas Community College (NTCC) partnered with local organizations and developed the EatBetter4Less program.

At no cost, those enrolled at NTCC can sign up to receive monthly meal kits which include ingredients and instructions to prepare food at home. With over 300 meal kits distributed, the program also offers cooking demos.

“I think that it helps a lot to also demonstrate to the students how you cook it, what it looks like, what it smells like and even what it tastes like through our cooking demos,” said Carmen Shurtleff, instructor of sociology and social work at NTCC.

Moving forward, the program plans to expand its recipe offerings to support vegan and vegetarian students. Additionally, NTCC’s food pantry will also provide students with tools and utensils to make a meal while they are on campus.

“A barrier [for students] to eating healthy and having access to food is the availability of how they can eat while taking classes if they can’t afford the cafeteria,’” said Shurtleff.

Beyond meeting basic needs, Metropolitan Community College is developing cohort models to reduce barriers for working students looking to pursue a college education.

“Adult students are looking for predictability and consistency in their lives,” said Dr. David Oehler, vice president of instruction and student services at MCC Kansas City.

To accommodate the schedules of working students, the cohort design offers eight-week courses and student services such as advising, financial aid assistance, tutoring and access to campus resources are provided. The program can be completed within two years.

Last year, a pilot program was developed. However, due to a lack of advertising, there was not enough participation to create a cohort. Now, MCC Kansas City plans to launch a marketing campaign in order to identify and bring in more prospective students.

Oehler emphasized the program is not limited to adult learners. However, a cohort can create a sense of accountability, which positively affects completion and retention rates.

“Students who are in a cohort tend to get to know each other, they start to look out for each other,” he said. “If someone quits coming to class, the students will contact their peers. You just create a network. Students who are participants in cohort programs begin to almost feel an obligation to the other students.”

Due to the family and work obligations on top of taking classes, international education is often an afterthought for community college students.

Deborah GavlikDeborah Gavlik

However, Sinclair Community College is attempting to change that mindset through the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) project.

As part of the program, a professor from Sinclair collaborates with an instructor in another country to co-design a COIL module within their existing courses. Students are then assigned to teams with international students to complete a project together.

For example, one course covered the topics of systemic racism, COVID-19, online learning and gender-based violence.

“Collaborative online international learning in this way provided my students with an opportunity to not only participate in an international experience but also an opportunity to begin to understand what equity means,” said Furaha Henry-Jones, assistant professor of English at Sinclair. “And how can they practice it on a daily basis in particular when you are collaborating with peers from another culture and country?”

Currently, Sinclair has partnerships in six countries including South Africa, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Armenia and Scotland.

Due to time zone challenges, courses are laid out as synchronous, asynchronous or a combination. For courses not held live, students converse with international students through discussion boards, FlipGrid and WhatsApp.

“You do have to keep in mind the schedule that we have with our community college students and be really sensitive to that,” said Kay Koeninger, professor of art history at Sinclair.

Through the program, both students and faculty are able to gain intercultural awareness.

“This is a really resume building activity for students,” said Deborah Gavlik, director of international education at Sinclair. “They learn about other countries from a commercial standpoint and cultural standpoint. They are building their digital literacy skills.”

Throughout the rest of the week, some of the sessions are set to focus on streamlining the transfer process, remote teaching, student learning disabilities and workforce training.

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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