Now, as the students have returned to in-person learning, it’s that sense of connection that many have lost – and administrators are trying to rebuild. Community college leaders hope that cultivating a sense of belonging can help counter a worrying increase in the number of students who drop out, who are lost in the midst of the shift to virtual learning, and who may be gone forever.
“They just want to know that people care,” said Chuck Phair, retired dean of Northern Essex Community College, who now teaches there as an assistant.
During the pandemic, leaders in Northern Essex, which has campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence and serves a 42% Hispanic and 46% low-income student body, have tried to find creative ways to make sure students feel that they are part of a community and – and most importantly – that they know who to turn to when they need help. The school had worked towards this goal even before the pandemic, but he felt even more important now.
Community college researchers and experts have long recognized that a sense of belonging is essential to academic success. A 2019 study published in the journal Education researcher found a correlation between belonging and the likelihood of students sticking to their studies. The study noted that a sense of belonging can improve the mental health of students, but indicated that often under-represented racial and ethnic groups as well as first-generation students tend to have greater uncertainty. as to their membership.
In Texas, leaders of Amarillo College, a community college, have reoriented much of the way they serve students around this idea of belonging, and it turned out to be a huge success.
“It’s fundamental, and the concept is what we’ve rebuilt ourselves on,” President Russell Lowery-Hart said, noting that over the years five years, retention rates fell from 19% to 60%.
Before the pandemic, North Essex built centers on its campuses designed to give students a place to feel at home on campus, a place to bond with classmates from the same academic program, as well as than with staff and teachers. The centers were physical places – dedicated rooms where students could study, take private lessons, use a printer, or make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
By nurturing that sense of belonging, the feeling that they were valued members of an academic community, with friends, ambitions, and something to contribute, administrators hoped they could help them stay in school.
There was good evidence that helping students get through tough times could pay big dividends for them, and for the institution: Research shows that students who stay enrolled for a second year in a row, rather than take leave, are more likely to graduate. And yet the pandemic was making it harder for students to stay in school. The number of students who remained enrolled for a second year increased from 62% in fall 2019 to 58% in fall 2020.
Determined to help, the staff pivoted and, with the help of the students, created a new virtual service to somehow make up for the lost connections of life before the pandemic. Administrators realized that the students weren’t sure who to turn to for help, so they hired students to serve as ambassadors, connecting struggling students to a variety of services offered by the school.
“I know I’ve helped a lot of the students who were thinking about dropping out,” said Mayerley Astacio of Lawrence, one of the first students hired to serve as an ambassador.
Astacio, who first completed the ESL program and is now three classes away from an engineering degree, found that she could help students solve small problems before they left. they don’t get big. Recently, for example, one of the students she had helped had to submit a video for a class assignment, but it was too big to attach to an email. The due date was approaching and she was worried about being late. The student texted Astacio for help. Astacio suggested uploading the video to a private channel on YouTube and sharing the link with the professor. It worked.
“We discovered that we discovered problems before they reached this catastrophic point,” said Audrey Ellis, director of institutional effectiveness at the college..
She designed the Ambassador Program, including employees are trained in all services offered by the college, from IT support to mental health counseling, financial aid, academic tutoring or career counseling. Like many community colleges, Northern Essex also offers food and clothing assistance and a means for students to get a free laptop.
“The last thing we want is for the students to feel lonely right now,” said Ambassador Emma Atwood, 20, who studies criminal justice. “We are all students and we understand what they are going through.
Early student surveys show that students who connected with an ambassador were twice as likely to feel part of the college community. Ellis also found that more than half of those who worked with an ambassador had at least one friend in college, compared to 32% of other students who said they had a friend.
Last semester in Northern Essex, Phair, the business professor, saw how this sense of belonging impacted one of his own students.
Last fall was the most difficult semester of his 20 years of teaching, Phair said. The students had missed months of face-to-face classes and high school graduation rituals. They weren’t academically prepared, and they were demotivated, listless and depressed, he said. Many did not even bother to buy books. It was as if the effects of all the chaos, upheaval and trauma of the past two years were playing out in her classroom.
In the first few weeks of his introductory business class, Phair noticed a floundering student. Abu Koroma looked brilliant, but he risked failing because he didn’t do his homework. Phair reported college administrators.
One day after school, Koroma received a call from another student. She said she was an ambassador and had heard he was behind in his business class. Could she do something to help? she wanted to know.
Koroma, 18, a first generation student whose parents are immigrants from Sierra Leone and Cameroon, had graduated from high school during the pandemic; the adjustment to university had been difficult.
The call from the student ambassador came as a shock, but Koroma said it was what he needed. He hadn’t expected someone to control him, but somehow, knowing that someone else knew about his struggles made him want to do better.
“It changed my mindset,” Koroma said. He thought, “I have to be more serious.”
Phair noticed an instant change. After school one day, Koroma approached him to discuss. They found out that they had grown up in the same neighborhood of Lowell. Their conversation went smoothly. He started to hand in his homework on time.
“All of a sudden his grades started to climb like a rocket,” he said. He succeeded with an A minus.
Recently, Koroma was hired to be an Ambassador himself. He plans to help other students while pursuing his ultimate dream of going to school in four years, earning a business degree, and then opening his own business.
“I feel pretty confident,” he said. “I think I can help others in a good way. “