Weaving Student Access and Success into the Fabric of the Community

March 9, 2009


Weaving Student Access and Success into the Fabric of the Community

Theme: Access & Success

Clea Andreadis
Division Dean
Middlesex Community College, MA
Constituent Group:
CAO / Administrators
Donna Killiam Duffy
Professor of Psychology
Middlesex Community College, MA
Constituent Group:

Dedicated to student success, the College provides excellence in teaching, personal attention, and extensive opportunities for exploration and growth. Closely linked to the fabric of the community, Middlesex’s partnerships with school, business and service organizations provide leadership in economic and community development and foster a culture of civic engagement and responsive workforce development.
Mission statement of Middlesex Community College

These words from the mission statement of Middlesex Community College (MCC) form the basis for access and success at the college. Yet, defining and measuring access and success at any college can be problematic. As Sylvia Hurtado has suggested, the pipeline metaphor for education should be replaced with a transit-system model: “Students get on the bus at one point, get off again, take the train to the next stop, walk for a while?and maybe get to their destination, eventually” (Miller, 2004, p. 4). Measuring success in this transit-system model can be challenging since results will be different depending upon students’ proximity to their final destination. As Miller (2004) states, “with each movement in and out of the system comes disengagement from the collegiate experience and discouragement that can diminish the chances of graduation” (p. 4). Therefore, a critical component to access and success requires addressing the disengagement and discouragement students can experience as they stop and take detours in their educational journeys.

The focus on excellence in teaching at MCC is one way to adapt to students on the move. Through a strong emphasis on active pedagogies in the Service-Learning Program, the Teaching, Learning, and Reflection Center, and the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, the culture at the college encourages faculty “to connect the dots between theory and practice, between one individual teaching strategy and the next” (Sperling, 2003, p. 596) as a way to deepen understanding of the diverse learners in our classrooms. In this essay we will provide an overview of approaches to student success at MCC and will use the case studies of Sara and George to discuss how a student’s unique needs are shaped by the context of different communities. We will suggest ways that the college’s mission of providing “personal attention and extensive opportunities for exploration and growth” is translated for each of them and show challenges and opportunities inherent in the translation process.

As open access institutions community colleges educate 45% of all undergraduates and 47% of black, 55% of Hispanic, 47% of Asian/Pacific Islander, and 57% of Native American undergraduate students (American Association of Community Colleges, 2006). In diverse classrooms one size does not fit all; professors need a toolbox of different strategies to connect with the specific needs of individual students. Programs at MCC’s Teaching, Learning, and Reflection Center provide pedagogical tools for faculty and small class sizes with extensive support from disability services and academic support centers create environments that invite student success. In the college’s Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, professors are given time to focus on questions about student learning, to research solutions and to share results in a supportive community of practice. Through this inquiry process, faculty construct knowledge that connects to broader educational issues; such connections provide important new insights for daily classroom practice.

Alexander Astin has commented that the problem in higher education is that “we value being smart much more than we do developing smartness” (Astin, 1998, p. 22), and Moore has echoed this in stating that we need to focus more on the value added by the college to the student than on the value added by the student to the college (Moore, 2004). Professors at community colleges care about teaching and strive to create classroom environments that value all learners. In his paper, “Reflections of a Community College Educator,” MCC Professor Bob Fera explains:

We may, as Astin suggests, broaden the notion of smartness. This may be accomplished in many ways, perhaps the most exciting coming from Gardner’s theory of intelligences and Goleman’s treatise on emotional intelligence. In a word, we may begin to see the value of many different talents, hidden or realized, that our students bring to class, regardless of the school’s stature. Secondly, we are invited to consider the importance of developing or unearthing the many talents that our students bring with them.
Bob Fera, 2006

Faculty at MCC approach access and success by “developing or unearthing the many talents that our students bring with them.” We focus on finding strategies for “helping underprepared students prepare, prepared students advance, and advanced students excel” (Motto of the National Association of Developmental Education). But, we need to use strategies that both fit with the context of our different local communities and are realistic for students in the transit-system model.

Like professors at colleges across the country, MCC faculty work with students who are facing a variety of obstacles to college access and success. At MCC, 61% of students are from low income and/or first generation immigrant families. Many are the first person in their family to attend college. While in school they are also raising children, caring for elderly relatives and working to help support their family and pay for their education. MCC has an additional challenge; addressing the unique needs of students on two very different campuses. In Bedford attractive brick buildings surround a traditional grassy quadrangle. The campus is located in a suburban, affluent town about 30 miles north of Boston. About fifteen miles north is City Campus, a series of multi-story buildings in downtown Lowell. With a population of slightly over 100,000, the City of Lowell has a large immigrant population with linguistic minorities comprising approximately 40% of the population. The average annual high school dropout rate in the city of Lowell is 32%; the rate is 1% in Bedford.

Faculty and staff find that in many cases, students on the two campuses have different needs, motivations and challenges. Many come to college with a career goal and no sense of its plausibility or the realities of that profession. Others come with no plan for the future. In all cases students want to see the practical applications of what they are learning in the classroom. Students’ community engagement is an important way for students to make that connection. Ideally, through lessons taught both in the classroom and in the community students will become skilled professionals and engaged citizens. As evidenced by the examples below, the college’s internal and external collaborations are critical to student success. The case studies of Sara and George are hypothetical but represent the experiences of many actual MCC students. With 50% of new nurses and close to 80% of firefighters, law enforcement officers, and emergency medical technicians credentialed at community colleges (American Association of Community Colleges, 2006), Sara and George’s interests in criminal justice and nursing also reflect “typical” students at community colleges around the country.

Sara is a second-year student who is taking classes on the Bedford campus. She is 19-years-old and came to college directly from high school. She is a criminal justice major and wants to work with juveniles when she graduates. She has lived her entire life in Billerica, MA, a small, suburban community situated between the Bedford and Lowell campuses. Sara attended Billerica High School and works 25 hours a week as a waitress in Billerica. This semester Sara has decided to enroll in Introduction to Sociology and complete a service-learning project. One option for a service-learning placement is the Lowell Juvenile Court. Sara rejects this option because her father does not want her driving her car into Lowell. She instead chooses to perform her service-learning hours at a Boys and Girls Club because it is in Billerica and therefore closer to home. She also knows two people who work at the Club.

Sara is a typical Bedford student; she has limited real world experience and does not have a clear idea of the needs and challenges facing her community. Her first civic engagement choice is made based on convenience rather than true interest.

George walks from his apartment in Lowell to the City campus. He is 25 and works a full-time job in a warehouse while attending college. He came to the United States with his family from Haiti when he was ten. He graduated from Lowell High School and worked for a few years before returning to school. He has a wife and a 6-month-old baby. George is a liberal arts major doing a service-learning project for his cultural anthropology class at the homeless shelter within walking distance of the college. He thinks he would like to eventually attend nursing school and work in an urban hospital.

In contrast, George’s service-learning placement is connected to his career goals; he will start to get a sense of one of the populations he may be working with in an urban health career setting. George’s more focused experience is not unusual. In general, service-learning has been embraced more fully by the Lowell campus community. There seem to be a number of reasons for this difference; proximity to appropriate sites, average student age (older in Lowell) and a sense that Lowell students have a much clearer sense of the needs within their community. Community needs tend to be out in the open in a city and are often more hidden in suburban areas.

At MCC, student success is enhanced through civic engagement in at least four ways. First, as mentioned earlier, work in the community helps students make important connections between classroom learning and the real world. Service-learning helps to create a more permeable classroom, a place where “knowledge generated within it is extended beyond its boundaries” and “one into which outside knowledge is assimilated” (Sandy, 1998). Through her interactions at the Billerica Boys and Girls Club and study of sociology, Sara expanded her vision of community needs and became more open to multiple perspectives. She initially entered a service-learning site based on her comfort level; success for her was a willingness to try a less comfortable site in the next semester. In comparison, George discovered that his own multicultural background and bilingual skills were viewed as real assets at the homeless shelter; this awareness fostered increased perseverance to stay the course and manage challenges of balancing work, study, and family demands.

Second, civic engagement helps students explore potential career pathways. This is often achieved simply by the student’s first hand experience at a community placement. For example, MCC criminal justice students such as Sara have an opportunity to do their service-learning work in the courts, probation departments, battered women’s shelters and in local schools. These placements often help students see that there are a variety of career pathways that can be developed based on an interest in the field of criminal justice. Anecdotally, students tell us that their community work has opened their eyes to professional options they did not know were possible. Armed with a realistic career goal, students return to the classroom with added motivation. MCC takes this a step further by encouraging collaborations between faculty, Service-Learning, and the Career Services staff. Following her experience at the Boys and Girls Club Sara spent another semester at a preschool center for low income children. She realized that she loved working with young children and wondered about switching her major to early childhood education. She met with a career counselor to explore concrete options for early childhood jobs. The Career staff plans events specifically geared to students who may have developed a particular career interest through their community work. For example, this year, Service-Learning and Career Services co-sponsored two events; “Supporting Katrina Recovery” featuring women in public service who responded to Hurricane Katrina and “Foreign Service as a Career”.

Third, not all skills are best taught in the classroom; many are best learned in the community. Students who are engaged in the community develop stronger workplace skills which are critical to future success. Students working in the community learn how to listen and communicate more effectively both in writing and verbally. They also have opportunities to work in groups and on teams and be supervised and evaluated by professionals in the field. More importantly perhaps, the skills developed at service-learning sites are critical to the development of an articulate, compassionate and engaged democratic citizenry. Our student, George, moved forward with his planned nursing major. As part of his coursework he participated as a team serving veterans with serious mental illness at the Bedford Veterans’ Hospital. Marie Ryder, the course instructor, has collaborated with the hospital for many years. She and her students have engaged in studies to explore experiences for health care professionals that reduce stigmatizing attitudes toward those with mental illness (Sadow, Ryder, & Webster, 2002). As a member of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at MCC, Marie actively engages in research to explore how her students learn from the community and then modifies her teaching approaches based on results. This ongoing inquiry into teaching practice will benefit George and his classmates on a daily basis and it will serve as a model to them of the importance of reflective practice. Marie’s sustained partnership with staff at the VA Hospital demonstrates clearly the win-win results for college and community when professionals collaborate across institutional settings.

Fourth, not all students shine in the classroom; some have language issues that make class participation challenging, others have disabilities that present barriers to traditional college success, for many older students it has been several years since they opened a textbook. Civic engagement is an opportunity for those students to find a place where learning comes more easily and where they can be successful. The confidence developed in the community is then brought back to the classroom. The college is taking service work a step further by creating an Engaged Scholar distinction for students who perform a significant amount of service in a number of courses and includes a mention of this honor on student transcripts and at graduation. Such acknowledgement provides an opportunity for MCC to publicly honor students who have distinguished themselves through service in some of the same ways we honor academic success.

The case studies of Sara and George help to show that fostering success in students does require “excellence in teaching, personal attention, and extensive opportunities for exploration and growth.” Student success however is not the result of the college’s efforts alone; it also requires partnerships between the college, and its larger community. Student learning and by extension student success is enhanced through the relationships that develop when a college sees itself as part of the fabric of the local community. A natural and productive collaboration occurs when members of the college community are engaged in the community and the community has needs this vital and creative group can meet. These collaborations inevitably lead to deeper and more meaningful learning which itself represents student success. During the past three years, MCC has participated in a Learn and Serve grant, The Lowell Civic Collaborative which involves a unique civic engagement partnership between MCC and two outstanding community resources, the Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell and Minute Man National Historical Park in Lexington, a suburban area near Bedford. Since 2003, thirty-one Liberal Arts and Science faculty from a variety of disciplines have incorporated civic engagement topics into their courses. These projects have ranged from biology students assisting staff to assess water quality and to determine invasive plant growth in a sheep grazing project at Minute Man National Historical Park to students in a Math Connections course gathering data from Lowell National Historical Park on immigration and tourism to graph, chart and share with the LNHP staff. Read more examples.

Through participating with the National Parks, faculty have gained a deeper understanding of the two campuses and their local communities and have begun to see more ways to use the distinct resources of both campuses. As part of The Lowell Civic Collaborative and MacNeil/Lehrer’s By the People Project the college hosted a civic dialogue in October 2005 focusing on MCC’s educational question of the year: “What skills or knowledge will students need most to be effective citizens in our world in the future?” A total of 268 students, faculty, community members, and campus staff participated (96 in Lowell and 172 in Bedford) in lively dialogue. The discussion was extended by postings on the COPPER blog, a weblog created as part of MCC’s work as a cluster group with the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. The dialogues and blog help unite the campuses around a central issue of importance and have provided a valuable way to chronicle views from a wide range of participants from the president of the college to students in a sociology class to experts on civic engagement to elected officials. These exchanges help to define what is needed for access and success at the college from a variety of perspectives and generate new ways to “foster a culture of civic engagement and responsive workforce development.”

As we plan for the future a number of important goals emerge. First, while civic engagement is utilized through some programs’ curricula there are others that have not incorporated civic engagement in a meaningful way. While this situation is improving, students would benefit from an increase in the number of civic engagement opportunities in some academic areas. We have also found that service-learning has taken hold in Lowell more quickly and easily than in Bedford. While this development may certainly be attributable to the different student demographic and the opportunities available close to campus it is an imbalance that must be addressed. Finally, as the number of engaged students increases the need for a consistent, meaningful process for assessing their experiences grows. MCC is in the midst of a college-wide assessment project and civic engagement opportunities will be investigated both as a whole and within individual courses.

In analyzing the dilemma of students on the move, Miller (2004) suggests that we need to help students create their own intellectual coherence. She recommends that “in every course, the major focus should be the development of the motivation, understanding, and intellectual skills that will make auto-didacts of them, owners of their own education” (p. 4). Students have open access at community colleges, but they typically take many forms of transportation and detours in their travels through the educational transit system. Many will reach a final destination of graduation, but others may stop along the way and find success without a formal degree. Being “owners of their own education” means that students can define for themselves what success means.


American Association of Community Colleges. Community college fact sheet. Retrieved July 18, 2006

Astin, A. (1998). Higher education and civic responsibility. National Society for Experiential Education Quarterly, Winter, 18-26.

Fera, R. (2006). Reflections of a community college educator. Explorations from a Community of Practice: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at Middlesex Community College, Fall 2006.

Miller, M. A. (2004, March/April). Students on the move. Change, 36(2), 4.

Moore, R. (2004). Do colleges identify or develop intelligence? Journal of Developmental Education, 28(1), 28-34.

Sadow, D., Ryder, M., & Webster, D. (2002). Is education of health professionals encouraging stigma towards the mentally ill? Journal of Mental Health, 11(6), 657-665.

Sandy, L. R. (1998). The permeable classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 9(3), 47-60.

Sperling, C. (2003). How community colleges understand the scholarship of teaching and learning. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 27, 593-601.

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