Monday, August 30, 2010

Characterizing the Freshman Class

Ever since serving as a Dean of Students 14 years ago, I've read the annual Beloit College "mindset list" that is intended to characterize the incoming college freshman student class across the country. Something has always troubled me about the list and I finally figured out what - the list is too narrow in scope to define community college freshmen.

Many years ago the list inspired a sociologist colleague of mine to survey his own Introduction to Sociology students with what he called "a cultural canon – things every college student should know." He would then report his findings to the College Senate with general summary results, along with his favorite answer to each question. I remember one of his favorite questions was,"What job does Clarence Thomas hold?" His favorite answer to that question was, "Linebacker."

The Beloit list is an annual ritual in higher education. It serves as a "back to school" marker for some. But, similar to my good friend's survey results, the Beloit list makes broad generalizations that limit its utility and application and, at times, it can be viewed as disrespectful to the students characterized therein. The list is produced by a four-year school and has been around for almost two decades but, with today's community colleges being what they are, we need to understand the differences between the distinctly different freshman classes entering these very different types of colleges.

More than ever, learning is for life - and I believe our community colleges reflect that fact clearly. Beyond the 6,000 individuals who will participate in one of MVCC's many non-credit offerings in the coming year, the freshman class is comprised of much more than recent high school graduates. When I think of a typical community college freshman class I think of:
  • Valedictorians and students who graduated in the top 10% of their class. Over 20% of Oneida County's top high school graduates are attending MVCC on Presidential scholarships this year;
  • Recent high school graduates who were not in the top 10% of their class;
  • GED recipients;
  • English language learners from refugee and immigrant populations;
  • Laid off workers who never thought they’d attend college;
  • First generation college students from families who have a limited understanding of the college experience;
  • Females returning to college to complete a degree or start a career that was interrupted by the most important job in the world – raising children;
  • Returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • Homeless individuals living in cars or shelters while somehow completing their studies as part of their journeys to self-sufficiency;
  • Underemployed adults holding down two and three jobs to get by while taking a full load of classes;
  • Single parents taking care of their children, themselves, and sometimes even their parents while trying to advance or change their careers;
  • High school senior Bridge students finishing graduation requirements by enrolling in classes at MVCC;
  • Formerly incarcerated individuals looking for a second chance;
  • Reverse transfer students who didn't find what they were looking for at their four-year college;
  • Professionals in a different type of “post-graduate study”- enrolled in classes or short-term certificates to complement their bachelor or graduate degree.
The "average" MVCC freshman class defies stereotypes and is worthy of our respect. Our freshman class cannot be characterized simply by the events of the past 18 years. It is a rich tapestry reflecting the very fabric of the communities we serve. The diversity of our students, and the ability of our faculty to facilitate active learning that builds on the talent and experience of all students, helps create the magic and wonder that is the community college experience at MVCC.

And while the Beloit list changes each year, we celebrate the list found above each and every day, as these students come to us all year long. If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Honoring the Past to Create the Future

The start of a new academic year always comes with a sense of great anticipation for me. This year’s MVCC Fall Convocation included a profound connection with our past, as we welcomed the return of MVCC’s first faculty member, Dr. Steve Eskow. I was fortunate to spend time with Steve and his wife, Sarah, prior to the program and the magic of those interactions has inspired a renewed sense of commitment for me, along with an unrelenting focus on the importance of, and manner by which, we deliver our work.

My time with the Eskows began Saturday night when I picked them up at the Syracuse Airport. What started like an ordinary scene from daily life in Central New York (a tight connection through Chicago, no time for a meal, and “your luggage will be on the next flight”, etc.) ended up as one of those dialogue-rich clips from a movie like “My Dinner with Andre.” After a full day of travel, and local dining options at 10:30 on a Saturday night being what they are around the Airport, they graciously accepted my offer to take them to the Fayetteville Service Plaza McDonald’s. Our conversation moved quickly from introductions and luggage to the future of education as we know it; their former company – the Electronic College Network (Steve and Sarah were into online education before there was online); the evolution of online and hybrid education; and, having recently returned from one of their many trips to Ghana, West Africa, the power of leveraging technology with service learning through international experiences. The conversation was so engaging and unexpected (I was expecting more “…back in ’46 we used to…”) it took me nearly an hour to finish my Wildberry Smoothie.

On Sunday, I picked them up from the hotel and provided a tour of Utica and our Utica Campus. It was a pleasure to collate all the information I’ve gained on various buildings, businesses, organizations and historical artifacts of this area – particularly the changes that occurred in the 20th Century. We continued our conversation from the night before regarding trends in education and new models that need to be explored in our global society. Steve would often ask pointed questions about organizational change, limitations, and frustrations with delivery structures of our current educational model. He asked other questions that peeled back layers of assumptions that many of us (and I’m including myself in this statement), carry around every day. Throughout the day he also shared stories about his first days at MVCC. He expected to get into educational theory and inspire his students… then realized that the most pressing need was to assemble the desks by the first day of class. He also retold early conversations with colleagues at MVCC, each knowing they were part of something special at this new institution.

I was reminded of a few simple truths from our time together. They include:
- Never stop learning,
- Never stop looking for new ways of doing things and improving what you do for a living.
- The fact that sixty four years after starting his career this remarkable man continues to publish articles that push current educational models toward new ways of thinking clearly sets the bar high for us all.
- Remind ourselves daily about the importance of working at the community college - this community college in particular!
- The stories he told of working at MVCC in the early days, starting from scratch with nothing more than a general sense of mission, amplified the importance of what we do here, and how we do it, today.
- Teamwork and collegiality are important building blocks for success; if there is a problem, everyone owns it on behalf of the college and has a role to play in the solution.

These two principles were present at the founding MVCC. A team atmosphere and “we’re in this together” feel of the stories Dr. Eskow shared about the early days, made me think how easy it is for mature organizations like MVCC to hold themselves hostage to barriers and less than perfect processes and systems because, “that’s the way it’s been and I can only do my job.” We need to remember that excellence is founded on tradition, not mired in it.

When he took the stage at Convocation, I was more than thrilled to see him there before faculty and staff. What started from a brief conversation on this blog (he sent me an email after MVCC was featured in the New York Times) culminated in a standing ovation as he left the stage. As Dr. Eskow said, “a community college must continually change with the communities they serve.” Ours is changing in more ways than we can know. For us to continually change, we must adhere to these timeless messages from our first faculty member and our first dean of instruction, professor and dean emeritus, Dr. Seymour (Steve) Eskow. If you have any thoughts or comments on this blog, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lessons from a Rollercoaster

It's been more than a year since my family and I have been to a rollercoaster park. Recently however, we made it to Cedar Point on the way home from visiting family in Michigan. Our youngest daughter was tall enough to ride all but two rides (of which I wasn't interested in anyway), so we looked forward to a great day together. As we planned our approach - which rides would come first - my wife and I realized that they have added a number of new rides since we were last there in 1991.  We warmed up on a new one that could be ranked as a medium, so-so coaster, but one new ride was called a "giga-coaster".  I thought it was nothing more than a catchy gimmick, until we saw it from the base of the first hill with my daughter and me in the second row of the first car. Named "Millenium Force", the coaster started with a swift 308 feet drop at 80 degrees on the first hill that sent us at a speed of 93 miles an hour through a three minute wormhole of twists and turns that left us all asking, "why did we choose that as our second ride of the day?" It was a necessary part of an overarching geographic plan to make the most efficient use of our time around the very large park knowing that we would be spending much of our day standing in long lines.

In the past, my wife and I would ride every ride with our girls. That led to both of us eating snow cones and cotton candy by noon trying to get some kind of color to return to our faces and suppress the raging headaches and uneasiness in our bodies. So our new strategy seemed to work with both of us riding some of the new rides and then alternating on rides that didn't appeal to one of us (for example, I'm not a strong spinner, so she takes the swirly rides with the girls). As the day went on, we stuck to our strategy, for the most part, and had a successful day thanks to good planning. The day also required patience as we stood in lines that at times lasted more than an hour. In 90+ degree heat and 90% humidity, I found myself thinking periodically, "is this really worth it?" For example, waiting 75 minutes on the top-thrill dragster - a ride that only lasted 19 seconds (we knew this from counting the seconds as we watched the ride a few hundred times while standing in line) - seemed a little excessive. At the end of the ride however, after going 125 mph in 3.8 seconds following a 90 degree ascent of 406 feet, over a small arch (as close to an out-of-body experience as I'll ever have, thinking I might have been better off taking one of the swirly rides at that point), and back down at 90 degrees, the exhilaration from the acceleration left us all feeling that the wait was more than worthwhile. Drawing upon various levels of courage to conquer our fears throughout the day was a tremendous experience that provided us with some memorable experiences we'll cherish for some time.

The extended times standing in line gave my mind a chance to wander and wonder about how this day might apply to an organization like MVCC.  The notion of strategy and having good planning seems more important and relevant than ever in these complex times. The New York State budget will continue to be of great concern to us and holds the great possibility for fundamental changes in the next few years if they actually reduce the budget to the level that's structurally required. The number of high school graduates in Oneida County will decline 25% in the next decade making for an increasingly competitive recruiting environment and the ability to reach underserved populations will remain difficult and require creativity. All of these factors will require continued change on our part to continue responding to the needs and shifts in our community.  A critical tool in working through change is patience - just like standing in long lines at an amusement park. Knowing that no change is perfect or free from possible adjustments, patience is often key to success.

And finally, the theme of courage and fear certainly came to mind before, during, and after a number of coasters at Cedar Point. Courage and fear aren't often discussed in conversations about assessment, but they're very important. Assessment involves having the courage to ask the important questions - whether they be of ourselves, colleagues, students, or community members. And good assessment involves overcoming the fear of the answers those questions produce - what if we're not as good as we think we are? A different question to ask is "how can we get better at what we do?" That question reframes the issue and the experience from one of fear to one of challenge and excitement - just like a rollercoaster.

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