We Can’t Stop: How Union County College Students, Faculty, And Staff Have Refused To Let The COVID-19 Pandemic Defer Their Goals.

0
2

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,044 community colleges in the American higher education system.  In the Fall 2019 semester, 5,369,470 students were enrolled in public 2-year colleges. Post COVID-19, the Fall 2020 semester saw a 10.1% decrease in enrollment to 4,824,204 students. According to the latest estimates reported by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, community college enrollment fell again by double digits (11.3%) during the Spring 2021 semester.

This decrease in enrollment is alarming for many who find most public and private four-year college costs and admissions requirements unattainable as first-year students, and for those seeking to transfer.  From a scarcity lens, institutions may attempt to fix decreased  enrollment by focusing on the factors that result in students dropping out of college, rather than identifying and prioritizing what is keeping students enrolled.  Yes, we should understand the causes keeping students from persisting in their college education or enrolling in the first place.  Yet, I think that we must take a closer look at how college leadership, faculty, staff, and most importantly, students have held on, and made the often difficult decision to continue.

There are many reasons why students enroll at a public two-year, county, or community college.  Inherent in their name is the fact that these colleges are historically built with the surrounding community and industries in mind. They are designed for the public good, and serve as the gateway to higher education for first-generation, low-income, and non-traditional students.   Unlike private universities, and even state colleges, most community college students live, work, and raise their families not too far from where they study. The cost of a community college education is relatively low; they admit students from all walks of life and meet students where they are academically. Unlike competitive college systems, community colleges celebrate the fact that they open their doors to all students — including high performing students alongside students who need ESL or some other additional academic preparation to embark on college-level courses.  

For students like Alessandra Sommer, Ahmed Mashaal, and Stephanie Brenner, Union County College has served as one of the few constants during the COVID-19 Pandemic. They are three of the approximate 8,300 students  who enrolled in the Fall 2020 semester.  The decision to continue their education was based on different factors, but they all have one thing in common. They all agreed that this was not the time to stop their education. For Union County College’s administration, faculty and staff, the COVID-19 Pandemic was met with the understanding that while technology would play a central role in serving students, they also needed to bring the entire community together to make sure students could also find each other.

When Dr. Bernard Polnariev was told on March 18, 2020 that Union County College (UCC) would be closing its building doors, his first concern was ensuring hundreds of instructors were well-positioned to continue teaching virtually and thousands of students had the wherewithal to continue learning remotely with the college’s virtual education doors wide-open. Although Union already had the basic technical infrastructure for classes to be delivered online, most instructors and students were not necessarily trained, prepared, or eager to do so prior to the pandemic. Dr. Polnariev noted “Dr. Margaret M. McMenamin, Union’s President, established the college’s COVID-19 Task Force composed of leaders from all key departments (like Academic Affairs, Public Safety, Human Resources, Facilities, Information Technology, Marketing & Communications, and Student Development), and ensured that we ordered laptops for students and championed newly forged Study Halls so that they had computer and Wi-Fi access (& a quiet place to learn), she directed every phase of the college’s recovery plan with input from the College’s Governance Leadership Committee comprised of faculty, staff, and a student.” 

Along with the Distance Education, Academic Learning Center (ALC), and Advisement Office teams, the college community rallied and worked continually to ensure that all instructors and students could thrive in digital learning environments. UCC did not waste any time — they used the pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine and prioritize their services based on student needs. Union’s goal, grounded in social justice and equity, remains fulfilling the mission of ‘Transforming our Community…One Student at a Time.’ To accomplish this, they focus on student access, learning, innovation, and graduation.

For Professor Marc Postiglione, discipline expert for the Sport Management program, his major source of worry was the absence of campus life would make it difficult to connect with any students. The most vulnerable and disconnected students would become a challenge that, if not addressed, could derail students and make them unreachable. Professor Postiglione was certain  that the students would need Union more than ever. The school could provide a level of certainty and stability for students worried about unemployment, rent, medical bills, gas for the car, etc… For Dr. Polnariev, who leads the Learning Resources Division and works closely with college leadership and students in the American Honors and ALC Peer Tutor programs, there had to be continuity of quality student services and learning. And while there was undoubtedly a period of adjustment, students and personnel alike had to be supported and encouraged to achieve at the highest levels. After all, as he said “Our students need us and we need our students to succeed.” 

Within two-weeks, most faculty were trained by Distance Education on delivering their classes virtually in an “emergency remote learning” period. Students received continual support and training opportunities to ensure robust remote learning engagement. According to Professor Postiglione, what held the college together was the connection so many students already had to the campus community. The college was riding on a network of relationships that student life, athletics, tutoring, and programs like American Honors, had built. 

Key college stakeholders found creative ways to engage and support their students including creating open virtual meeting rooms for cohort-based programs. Students could drop-in to get the help they needed, or even just to  say ‘hello’ to someone. The Distance Education department conducted weekly virtual tours of the Innovation Center tools which are connected to academic courses and activities, and they remotely trained students on how to code. As a hallmark of the college, Union’s tutoring program through the ALC reinvented ways to remotely provide the necessary academic support which relies heavily on peer tutors — the same students, who in many cases were also struggling with being a full-time student while concurrently working a few part-time jobs. The college worked to minimize the impact of the multitude of challenges facing their students.

Once cleared by the Governor’s Executive Order, Union County College re-opened its physical doors on July 27, 2020 to educate the County residents of New Jersey.  Union is also a vital source of career development, and like many other community colleges, it is a place where you can earn a degree in unique, innovative programs like Drone Design and Applications, polish necessary communication skills, enroll in a certificate programs like Blockchain Management, or take non-credit classes in Executive Leadership. The pandemic put all that the school was built to do, that is, to advance student success at risk — especially in-person instruction. 

To be clear, even low-cost educational choices, like attending community college, provide financial challenges as students weigh the pros and cons of reducing work hours, leaving employment, or facing increased transportation, child-care, and added educational costs. Yet, the aspirations of those who attend a community college are based on a desire and a plan to better employment prospects, and dependable ways to support themselves and their families. Students need to learn skills like time management to ensure their success. The classroom experience, whether online or in person is key to learning, yet it makes up a small portion of the college experience. A full-time student takes anywhere between 12 to 18 hours a week of classroom instruction. Students who are planning their schedules should consider study hours, academic research, and writing will require an additional 20 hours of out-of-classroom activities to take full advantage of what their professors are teaching in class. 

As we maneuver through the COVID-19 Pandemic, we can’t forget that a college student needs more than just a faculty member in the classroom. When a college admits and welcomes a student to the online or in-person classroom, it also commits to providing guidance and support to  secure the learning that must happen in order to make a student’s investment one with significant returns. Upon graduation, we expect college students to be intellectually engaged and proficient in their areas of study, but we also know that long-term earnings, and social mobility depends on graduates having more than just credits. They must also contribute as analytical thinkers, skilled communicators, ethical leaders, and team players. Those skills are not always learned in the classroom. A competitive bachelor’s degree is not merely the result of accumulating 120 credit hours, it requires rich experiential learning opportunities outside of class. An associate’s degree typically requires 60 credits to 75 credits (depending on the field of study), which combined with field work, study time, and student activities, may take more than 45 hours a week for a full-time student.  

The  ability of a college degree to allow students to enter and remain in the workforce depends heavily on the development of critical time management, communication, and team building skills.  For many students, those skills are built through close relationships with faculty, staff, and fellow students. For Alessandra Danielle Sommer, a full-time student, in her last semester as a biology major, and who worked as a waitress at Old Havana Cuban Cuisine, a restaurant her parents own and were keeping above ground during the COVID-19 closings, the pressures were many.  She was concerned her parents were at a higher risk due to pre-existing conditions and committed to helping her family keep open the small business her parents had worked so hard to establish. Alessandra was committed to remaining enrolled in honors classes while helping her parents adapt to a take-out operation due to COVID-19 restrictions; she is a commuter student who didn’t have enough money to repair her car.  She gives credit to the faculty, and especially the ALC for reopening their doors, and ensuring that students like her could get the tutoring support they needed and continue working and collaborating with faculty and other students. 

Alessandra quickly noticed that the college was meeting the challenge head on. She shared,  “I keep thinking about all the students who can’t make it to school for any reason, even before the pandemic.” In the chaos, Alessandra found that there was a “silver lining”  of the ALC moving online: more students could access free tutoring.  Alessandra said “It was amazing that they were able to [offer online tutoring] so quickly… I definitely noticed they’re just dedicated to helping the students.” Yet, she also understood that for many students, who like her, lived in tight quarters with family members, campus access was key to staying enrolled. Without a working car, and decreased income, Alessandra’s commuting hours increased once the college reopened, but she was committed to returning to campus. Union made the necessary arrangements to open its doors and create safe places where students could access the out-of-classroom resources, such as dependable wifi, quiet study spaces, and computer and science labs for students who, like Alessandra, are enrolled in pre-med courses like organic chemistry.  

Alessandra was able to secure some scholarships through the College’s generous Foundation to help her cover her tuition and educational expenses. While the financial support brought some relief, she is still working at her parents’ restaurant and picking up tutoring shifts. She credits her resolve to the efforts of the Union faculty and their commitment  to not let her and her classmates fall behind. Alessandra recognizes students weren’t the only ones struggling; the entire college community faced significant challenges. She said, “It was really nice to see [professors] have your back throughout whatever was going on. They were going to be there for you. I know some professors were struggling way more with teaching their students with what’s going on. They’re adjusting… And that was really incredible because they really want to help students thrive…” 

Like Alessandra, Stephanie Brenner has found a supportive community at Union County College. A “non-traditional” student,  Stephanie is a mother of four, with a full-time job, who initially enrolled at Union as a part-time student.  She says, “My son thought he wasn’t going to go to college because I never went to college. So I just opened my laptop and signed up to UCC because he said he wouldn’t go. His reason was, well, you didn’t go to college, so I said hold that thought.” She had only enrolled for one class a semester, and after two years, she felt this was the opportunity to refocus. On her decision to enroll  full-time, Stephanie  said, “ I think that my situation might be different than the considerations that the average student might be taking on whether or not they want to continue through the pandemic or not. I [considered] two factors for my decision. One was that I’m coming off a 20 year experience in a whole other field.  Going to school was just something I was doing so that when my kids grew up and got out of the house that I would eventually be able to follow my dreams, after I was done being responsible.”  

Stephanie started to feel attending college was more than setting an example for her  children, and the decision she called “a midlife crisis”, is now an opportunity to do something for herself.  She said, “Because of my age and because of losing my job, because of COVID-19 rather than COVID steering me away from education for financial purposes, I sort of steered towards education because… if you could lose it all in a minute for a pandemic, you might as well lose it all and risk it for your education. If we’re going to be broke, let’s be all the way broke and jump in with both feet.  Stephanie noted that as an adult college student the decision was tough. Referring to the job she lost, Stephanie said. “Twenty years working in title. Twenty years working my way up from answering phones to getting my title license to being able to prepare legal documents. And I can lose it all in the blink of an eye. “I might as well put the rest of my years towards my passions, towards what I want.” By immersing herself in her education, Stephanie found a support network.

The support and encouragement she received from the faculty resulted in her joining the History Club and the American Honors Program where she is taking honors-level courses and participating in leadership activities.  She is grateful that colleges like Union exist for students like her, especially in moments of crisis.  For Stephanie, community colleges “provide this opportunity for so many students to kind of say, I  can do this.  The assumption of the  people that work there is that ‘I can’. It is just as important to me that given the opportunity, when things like this with the economy happen, that you are able to then fully enroll and incorporate college life into your life.” Union County College is also the place her son who transferred in from another institution, will be graduating later this month. 

For Ahmed Mashaal, a full-time computer science major at Union and a 2021 Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship semifinalist, the COVID-19 Pandemic was an opportunity to step up as a student leader. He said “When the pandemic happened, we had just come back from spring break and none of us knew what was going to happen. I decided  to take  some leadership roles because some students were graduating and I wanted to help, especially the newcomer freshmen students to still gain some college experience in that year.  He notes that the support and patience of faculty especially for students that were lagging was important and that many students took it upon themselves to reach out to other students that were strugglings. On his decision to step up as student leader, Ahmed said, “I became the chapter president of the [PTK] National Honor Society and the vice president of the Union History Club, Stephanie. I wanted to help, especially the newcomer freshmen, to still gain a little bit of the college experience in that year. So we don’t waste this year because community college is two years. Due to COVID-19, one year could be done.” Through his own challenges to work, and attend school, Amhed said that the support he received from fellow students, like Stephanie and because he found campus life and facilities to be the place for him to learn, he takes most classes online, but takes a course in person and stays on campus to do some school work and meet with other students. Ahmed said, “I was really looking forward to helping others more than just helping myself.”

Through his collaboration with the American Honors and PTK programs, Ahmed has also taken the opportunity to participate in an academic project that examines the students’ reactions  to the COVID-19 Pandemic and remote life.  He explains, “We basically called it “Learning Outside the Lines.” Where we are learning how students adapt. We have found that students progressed as they went along through the pandemic. Some people actually preferred and they worked better in the online environment.”  For Ahmed, the most challenging yet gratifying part of this experience has been the close relationships he has built with other students and the opportunity to immerse himself in college life at a time when he thought that the college would be less accessible. 

The concept of not leaving anyone behind starts with institutional  leadership and must be consistently applied across campus policies. Prof. Postiglione shared how Union’s college leaders understand that “our students need face-to-face interaction with teachers and advisors and coaches and all the rest.  We always talk  about equity. A lot of our students that we want to serve come from situations where they could fall behind if we don’t keep our focus on them.” Dr. Polnariev added, “The college was facing many challenges, including a fiscal one that forced us to lay-off many dedicated employees, but the message was always that we must balance the budget and keep our college resources available so that students can be supported; we have to serve all students, including those who were struggling academically and losing hope, it was our duty to encourage those students to prevail no matter what. Also, we advance equity and social justice not only through our academic and student support programming, but moreover by continually increasing the graduation rates of our diverse student body. After several years, we have quadrupled our overall graduation rates, including the rates for our most vulnerable and underserved populations.”  

After a year of battling the COVID-19 pandemic, Union saw enrollment drop by 10% this  Spring semester to 7,350 students.  Union is now looking to open the campus further and expand their services to ensure more students return and new students enroll.  The plan is to involve the entire college community in engaging, encouraging and supporting students. Union County College currently has three modes of instruction, which include face-to-face, online, and the newly implemented remote live. For students that are not comfortable coming back to campus because of the pandemic, they have virtual teaching and support options; in-person options remain available for students who want to come to  campus. Even prior to the Pandemic, Union strategically invested in various technologies including Cisco Webex, which provides students with a more robust virtual classroom experience. The College has capitalized and expanded its “virtual campus” footprint by investing in Cengage Unlimited as part of the college’s Book Subscription program to provide students with an expanded portfolio of course resources for a nominal fee. While incorporating technology into advisement, student activities, and keeping the college community safely engaged, Union has refused to accept limitations to learning. While the current system is not ideal or the same as pre COVID-19, it has demonstrated that Union County College will not stop innovating or prioritizing student success.

.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here