Monday, May 24, 2010

Graduation & the Stories Behind the Smiles

Our spring graduation event this year was particularly special for me. Following my first year at MVCC, which began and ended in the "blink of an eye", I've since been able to find more time to spend with students the past couple years. I found that I knew a fair number of then walking across the stage this past Friday afternoon. Their stories amplify the significance of our work.

The comments of commencement speaker Liz Murray illustrated her story, from being the homeless child of drug-addicted parents to graduating from Harvard University. The fact is that many MVCC students graduating this past weekend have experienced similar stories overcoming adversity.

I handed diplomas to such a broad range of individuals - spanning the full spectrum of the human condition. Young, old, differently-abled, honor students, international students who completed our ESL sequence before completing their academic program, and those who've overcome their own set of unique circumstances smiled as they shook my hand and walked across the stage. One woman accepted her diploma, marking an important milestone in a challenging journey that started with her release from prison and subsequent entry into a drug rehabilitation program at Johnson Park. Her journey, which now includes successful completion of her first college degree, continues this fall at a four-year university.

One of the brightest faces to walk across the stage was a young man who came to my office two years ago at the recommendation of one of his mentors. I asked him what he wanted to talk about and he said, "I just try to surround myself with positive people. I left high school early to get away from some bad influences and completed my GED. I came to MVCC to just find as much positivity in my life as possible." Here he was Friday evening popping up on stage to accept his diploma, smiling the biggest smile - graduating on time.

These two stories are part of the larger tapestry that defined our graduation ceremony this past weekend. They blend with the Phi Theta Kappa honor students walking across the stage, our Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence winners, Tatyana Gurina, Alyssa Strife and April Vroman, and Kyle Richardson, the National Scholar Athlete of the Year in Community College Sports, who is transferring to St. John's University on a scholarship as a junior majoring in Pre-Med. The diversity, the smiles, and the stories behind the smiles were all amplified by cheering families and supportive friends, providing a remarkable exclamation point to an incredible year.

If you have any comments on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Making Sense of it All

At the end of each academic year, May is crazy with a calendar of events, celebrations and activities that culminate with Commencement. I want to share some of my experience over the past few weeks. The MVCC Mission, to promote STUDENT SUCCESS and COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT through a commitment to EXCELLENCE and a spirit of SERVICE, provides focus and clarity, so I’ve used it to organize my thoughts here.

Student Success
The caliber of students choosing to attend MVCC speaks to the quality of education we provide. Two examples of remarkable achievement are Kyle Richardson and Ahsan Ali. Kyle chose MVCC after graduating from Rome Free Academy. He graduates this Friday with a 3.98 g.p.a. after an outstanding two-year career, leading the Hawks baseball team to consecutive post-season tournament play. He’ll attend St. John’s University on a scholarship and major in pre-med. By the way, Kyle was named the National Scholar Athlete of the Year by the national coaches association representing more than 700 community colleges nationwide across all three scholarship and non-scholarship divisions. This is a tremendous accomplishment for Kyle that reflects well on MVCC. Interestingly enough, MV has been home to the National Scholar Athlete of the Year in five of the last six years. No other community college has had more than two in the last 20 years! We celebrated Kyle’s many achievements at the MVCC Hawks Athletic Banquet recently.

Ahsan Ali is another student who recently received national recognition. For the second consecutive year, MVCC has had a National Coca-Cola Scholar (a competitive award that goes to 300 students…out of the 6 million community college students nationwide). In addition, Ahsan was named to the 1st team all New York Academic Team. A product of our Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) with Utica City School District, he has his sights set on medical school upon completing his studies at MVCC.

Community Involvement
We talk a lot about breaking barriers and creating opportunity for education here. Much of the time our community connections help make that happen. Last week, at the annual MVCC Foundation Scholarship dinner, more than 70 scholarship winners were honored. Each of them had the chance to eat dinner with the donors that funded their scholarships. This was a record-breaking year for our Foundation as our fundraising efforts resulted in nearly $300,000 in scholarships.

Commitment to Excellence
While I could highlight a number of areas of excellence from the past year (program accreditations and faculty and staff awards), the MVCC Hawks Athletic banquet last week was nothing short of incredible. All 22 of our intercollegiate athletic teams were highlighted, and having seven new coaches, the overall winning percentage for the entire athletic program was more than 70 percent! The individual and team achievements recognized that night only serve to reinforce MVCC’s long-standing commitment to excellence, regardless of venue.

Spirit of Service
I experienced the ever-growing MVCC spirit of service first-hand as I joined a number of other staff members (including Khahn, our visiting professor from Vietnam) serving “midnight breakfast” - an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet - to hundreds of residence hall students loading up for their final exam study sessions. The spirit of service here continued to come to life in the work of the amazing efforts of Team MVCC (which is certainly worthy of a separate future blog post). In addition, we should all be extremely proud of our Phi Theta Kappa student honor society. With an amazing student leadership team and chapter advisors, they earned a national ranking of 4 out of 5 stars (based on the number and quality of their service activities) and were recently recognized for their tremendous efforts in the inter-generational community cleanup last month.

All the banquets and recognitions are, however, just a prelude to the grand finale this Friday, when hundreds of students walk across the stage to accept their diplomas.

“Homeless to Harvard’s” Liz Murray is joining us as our commencement speaker to share her inspiring story, putting an exclamation mark on what it means to break barriers and overcome obstacles. It will be a fantastic ceremony that helps make sense of the crazy schedules we keep and hard work we do helping bring MVCC’s mission of success, involvement, excellence, and service to life every day.

If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, May 10, 2010

More Than Just a Visit

As we ready our first cohort of graduates to complete the Diversity and Global View requirement, I've been thinking about DGV initiatives at the College and the positive influence of having a visiting professor from Vietnam with us this semester. I asked Dr. Sandy Engel, Director of International Education, if I could post the following as a "guest blog" and she agreed. My thanks to Dr. Engel and the many faculty and staff who have made Ms. Khahn's visit such a success. And my thanks to Ms. Khanh for her grace and humor in making all of us better for knowing her.

So Good So Far
A guest blog by Dr. Sandy Engel

It’s easier to say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” than it is to do so, but we manage when we travel, and once we get home we know how right Dorothy was:
 “There’s no place like home.” These days our home is a destination, a temporary home, for Ms. Nguyen Thi Phuong Khanh, a visiting professor from MVCC’s partner school, Kien Giang Community College in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. She is here for nine weeks, teaching Vietnamese, helping in ESL classes, and giving presentations to peace studies, health, business, education and culinary classes, among others.

She is bright and she is absolutely charming. What an ambassador.

She’s here to teach and she’s here to learn. She keeps a list of questions and it’s interesting to see our world through her eyes. In Vietnam, classrooms are filled with students with black hair and brown eyes, very different from the local diversity where nobody looks like anybody. She comes from a place where students stand up when the teacher enters the room, a place where student legs are covered even on the hottest days and where there is certainly no classroom cleavage. On one hot sunny day, she said to me, “The students can dress like that?” The students were more undressed than dressed, but yes, I said. When she sees an older person with a limp come into a room, her impulse is to get up and help, even if he is a stranger. She sees none of us even notice him. She took photos of dog obedience classes in Petsmart, and she has decided that the drugstore I go to is similar to a supermarket but without vegetables. Fair enough. She has done the math and has figured out that an $80 dress here takes a smaller proportion of our salary than a similar dress would in Vietnam. Her vocabulary grows hourly and now includes “girly”, “oops”, and—this is Utica—“fish fry”.

She arrived with three coats, two pairs of gloves, and new suits that are heavier than she would ever wear in the sweltering Mekong Delta. And she is still not always warm.

She’s our second multi-week visitor from KGCC. Last year Mr. Nguyen Duy Khang, the English Department Head, visited. When she and I drove into the MV parking lot for the first time, she said, “I saw the photos and Mr. Khang told me everything, but I could never have imagined this.” I have told her more than once that we are not a rich school or a rich area but that we are in many ways a representative American place and that people are friendly.

She agrees with the friendly part. One thing she wanted to do was learn to sing some American songs, and so some of us are teaching her although we may be hopeless with the Vietnamese song she is trying to teach us. She is learning “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” and someone suggested we show her The Wizard of Oz. I wonder what she might make of the munchkins and the witches. Flying monkeys? In order to develop the relationship between the two schools, she has left her husband, 10 year old daughter and twenty-month-old son for nine weeks. “There’s no place like home”? I’m sure she’d agree. Despite her success, though, phone calls home cannot be easy. Still, she tells me she’s smiling and laughing so much that she’s afraid her face will look different when she goes home.

At the suggestion of Mr. Khang, she brought ao dai, traditional Vietnamese dresses, for several of the faculty and staff. The dress features a tight bodice and loose skirt over long, flowing pants and which the recipients wore to a college wide reception for her. Every celebration in Vietnam features singing, and so we sang, as a group, “New York, New York”, and as we did so, an impromptu, in-the-spirit-of-the-moment chorus line formed around her. Later, fearless at the microphone, she sang a solo.

I have been at MV for more years than I would like to admit, and, aside from the annual student musical, I cannot remember the last time any faculty and staff sang—much less danced.

Her visit is a daily reminder that we are all dots in the matrix, that we have even more in common than we realize we do, and often the unplanned moments are the best. Someone once told me that the more ways you have to look at things, the better off you are. He was right.

If you have any comments on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Faculty for Today and Tomorrow

We are building the future of MVCC today. Between now and next fall we will have completed more than 20 national searches for tenure-track full-time faculty – roughly 15% of our full-time faculty ranks. The efforts of the screening committee members are greatly appreciated – for their thoughtfulness, energy and just plain hard work of identifying the very best candidates to join us.

The momentum of advancing important initiatives through our Strategic Plan and experiencing ten consecutive semesters of enrollment growth have brought focus to the type of qualified candidates we are looking to attract in these searches. While not all were specifically defined in the advertisements, the following characteristics come to mind as I think about what our students and College need for today and for tomorrow - faculty who have:
  • Solid knowledge/credentials in the discipline
  • Enthusiasm and understanding of our mission and vision
  • Eagerness to learn and grow
  • Passion to teach
  • Belief in truly supporting student learning with a deep understanding of the fundamental differences between teaching in a two-year and a four-year academic environment
  • Idealism and belief in our ability to change the world one student at a time
  • Understanding that we CAN keep standards high—AND work with our students to successfully achieve their academic and career goals – it doesn’t have to be one or the other
  • Vibrancy and energy for teaching and learning to help us continue building a vibrant organizational culture
  • An unwavering commitment to respect and civility – for both our colleagues as well as our students who are acting on their individual courage to pursue their educational dreams
  • A commitment to diversity and a global view and therefore, bring an interest in living in a global society and advancing our international education initiatives as well as those that personally add to the diversity of our faculty
  • An ability to work creatively and collaboratively with their colleagues and can help us advance our academic learning communities priorities
  • Interest and talent to appropriately use technology and enhance the student learning experience through active learning strategies.
To be sure, this is quite a list of characteristics. However, we know faculty with these characteristics exist –they’re already here teaching in our own classes at MVCC. The challenge is to find more candidates with these characteristics. If we make these characteristics the primary filters, age (young, old or in between) doesn’t matter. In addition, every one of us had a first job—many of us started here with no previous teaching experience. With the mentorship available here, we shouldn’t be afraid to hire on other sterling qualities. We have a wonderful New Faculty Institute, amazing senior faculty, and an institutional commitment to professional development and personal enrichment. With any search, it’s important to remember that we should never settle. If we find these characteristics illusive in a search, we can always re-open or extend the search – never settle. One of the smartest moves we can make is to hire smarter and brighter than we are. In fact, the smarter we hire, the smarter we look.

That’s my checklist, what’s yours? Let me know at presblog@mvcc.edu.