1- What are the benefits for the students who participate in the Pathways to the Arts and Humanities program?
H: Being a part of the Pathways to the Arts and Humanities Program gives students access to resources and a support system to enhance their academic success. It also gives them an opportunity to save money on tuition by taking classes at the community college that count towards their degree, their futures, and transfer. Our goal is to help John Tyler and Reynolds Community College students reach their goals of transferring to VCU and completing their Bachelor’s degree. There are other programs that share the goal of improving student success, but the Pathways Program’s focus on students in the arts and humanities is unique, as are some of the opportunities available to our students. For example, throughout their time at the community college, Pathways students have access to dedicated transfer coaches at Tyler and Reynolds and a transfer coordinator at VCU, all of whom offer guidance on course selection, transfer logistics, financial aid, and major or career exploration. Program participants are also invited to attend arts- and humanities-focused events and workshops at the colleges and around Richmond. Pathways students will be part of a supportive community of students, faculty, and administrators at their community colleges and at VCU, even before they transfer. Finally, one of the really exciting parts of the Pathways Program is the opportunity to become a Mellon Research Fellow. Guided by a community college faculty member and in consultation with VCU faculty, the Mellon Research Fellows research and present on a topic in their academic discipline, and receive a stipend for their participation in the program.
2- What was the genesis of the program?
H: The Virginia Community College System, and faculty and administrators at VCU, Tyler, and Reynolds, have all grappled with the fact that many students who intend to complete their associate’s degree and then Bachelor’s degree don’t realize this goal. Students who transfer from the community colleges to four-year schools are less likely to complete their Bachelor’s degrees than students who start at the four-year schools and, on average, it takes transfer students longer to complete their Bachelor’s degrees. We know that this isn’t because community college students are less academically capable, or less motivated, or because they want or need that Bachelor’s degree less than other students do. Clearly, there are other factors at play, and this grant allows us to consider those factors and offer support and resources that help address barriers to transfer and completion. Throughout the state, we’re paying more attention to transfer student success: Our program uniquely focuses on the experiences of students in the humanities and arts; at the same time, it’s a microcosm of a larger initiative, Transfer Virginia, which aims to improve the efficiency of transfer from the state’s community colleges to its four-year colleges for all students.
3- You mentioned that another important part of the grant is that cohorts of faculty at all three colleges are collaborating to develop the curricular pathways, extracurricular opportunities, and research topics. Can you elaborate?
H: One of the most inspiring parts of my job is seeing how dedicated the faculty and administrators are to improving the success of community college transfer students. Groups of faculty at all three colleges are creating curricular pathways for students, starting with their first semester at the community college and going through their transfer and upper level coursework at VCU. These curricular pathways will help ensure that students know which classes will transfer for their majors at VCU. In addition, faculty will be creating maps for students in each arts and humanities major that provide guidance on what students can be doing outside of their classes to best prepare for their post-baccalaureate goals. These maps are based on VCU’s recently developed Major Maps, which provide students with concrete milestones during all four years of college, in the areas of course and degree planning, connecting with community through VCU’s REAL initiative, building cultural competence, getting experience, and preparing for life after college. Community college students’ paths are different from those of students who are at VCU for all four years, and we want to make sure that our maps reflect that, and are relevant and useful to our students. And finally, students in the humanities and arts, and community college students in general, are unlikely to have undergraduate research opportunities, which is unfortunate because these research projects are an opportunity for mentorship and for intellectual exploration, and also look great on resumes. Students who become Mellon Research Fellows will have the chance to determine and delve into a research topic of interest, in partnership with a faculty member in the program.
4- The objective of the program is to improve transfer and graduation rates for students at JTCC and Reynolds who intend to transfer to VCU after receiving their associate degrees. How does one go about achieving that goal, given that a significant percentage of community college students never earn an associate degree?
H: The Pathways Program directly addresses some of the roadblocks that prevent students from earning the associate’s or Bachelor’s degree. At the community college, we have the transfer coaches, who will help students access academic, personal, and financial resources. We’re optimistic that this will allow students to work through and around some of the issues that can lead to their leaving school. Also, many students, upon successfully completing their associate’s degrees, find the transfer process to be intimidating or prohibitive, due to a variety of understandable—but preventable—factors, including frustration and financial strain over credits not transferring as expected, not having a sense of community at the university, or feeling out of place among students who have already completed a couple of years at the university. Our program addresses these factors by providing curricular pathways so that students have agency in their course selection, and know how their credits will transfer; providing maps that go beyond course selection, so that transferring students are in sync—in and out of the classroom—with their peers; and introducing participants to VCU and connecting them with faculty, students, and of course the transfer coordinator, long before they transfer, so that by the time they arrive at VCU, they know the campus and are already part of a community.
5- You have a keen interest in helping the under-represented student population. What, may I ask, brought that about?
H: Those seeds were planted early. I attended an urban public high school, where most of my friends were working class and would have been first generation college students, while I came from a middle class background, with parents who were teachers and well-acquainted with college. In school, my friends and I were in the same classes and were good students, yet they struggled more than I did when they got to college, which perplexed me at the time because they were smart and had done well in college-prep classes, yet many ultimately left four-year schools and enrolled in community colleges, or started in community colleges and stalled out. At the same time, as a tutor in the community college, I saw a different group of students, many of whom were older. These students were early in their college careers and were determined to get an associate’s then Bachelor’s degree, but for a lot of them, their academic preparation had been poor, or they hadn’t done well in high school, but were now ready to move ahead. So often, though, they weren’t sure how to get to their academic or professional goals, and I saw how shaken they could be by a single academic failure. As with my high school friends, this didn’t make sense to me, as these were certainly bright and motivated students, and were resilient in so many ways. Later, as a college instructor, I really started to notice see how some students seemed to know or intuit how to navigate the institution—from financial aid to professors’ office hours, and everything in between—and how to find answers and solutions to problems and setbacks, while others struggled to figure out where to start, and just never seemed comfortable on a college campus. That ultimately inspired my dissertation research on first-generation college students, which led me to better understand that my high school friends and the students I tutored in the community college math lab may have been motivated and smart, but their discomfort and their fear that they didn’t belong in college could be a really major impediment, and talent and desire for an education weren’t always enough to overcome that impediment. This inspires my passion for the Pathways Program, and this is what I hope we can do: Community college students have valuable abilities and experiences, and students in the arts and humanities have interests and skills that are sometimes underappreciated but are unquestionably crucial in the 21st century. The Pathways Program can help these students see how their varied experiences, backgrounds, and interests can be viewed as assets rather than deficits, and we can offer support that allows students to successfully navigate their journey through John Tyler or Reynolds, ultimately graduating from VCU.
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