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2014 October 28 - 05:15 am

On the First Day of School, Thinking About the Last

Resilience — the Intangible but Powerful Quality that Enables Some Individuals to Persevere in the Face of Obstacles

This year, when speaking to Montgomery County Community College’s faculty and staff during convocation, I chose to focus on resilience — the intangible but powerful quality that enables some individuals to persevere in the face of obstacles while others are defeated.

Our student body is rich with stories of resilience: the young man who overcame the stigma of incarceration to earn an associate degree before transferring to an Ivy League institution; the mother of five who returned to the classroom to earn a GED and is now on her way to becoming a chef; the military veteran who started his own company after earning a certificate in entrepreneurship.

Indeed, as we start the school year, graduation is by no means a given, and we need to focus on the supports we can put in place to ensure student success.

According to “Reclaiming the American Dream, A Report from the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges” (published by the American Association of Community Colleges in April, 2012), the United States, which for generations led the world in college degree completion, now ranks 16th in the world in college completion rates for 25-34 year-olds. Among other things, the report called for an increase of 50 percent in community college completion rates by 2020 to reverse income inequality and the decline of the middle class.

Similarly, a June 2013 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that of the more than 70 percent of Americans who matriculate at a four-year college, fewer than two-thirds end up graduating. The reasons are among those you might expect: financial challenges, family and work responsibilities, and the personal impediments that get in the way.

But at Montgomery County Community College this fall, our new students will benefit from carefully developed programming on three major fronts, designed to support their own efforts at resilience:

1. A mentor to show the way. Some students lack an anchor in their lives— that vital person who believes in their educational goals and won’t let them quit. The presence of an anchor is necessary for resilience, particularly for students who are the first in their family to attend college or who haven’t observed someone balance school, work, and family together. We make sure students find these anchors at the college to build confidence and adhere to their goals and aspirations.

A Minority Student Mentoring Initiative has helped us to improve persistence rates among minority students. Originally launched in 2009 as the Minority Male Mentoring Program, the program has expanded to include African-American male and African- American and Latina female students. It connects students with caring mentors for guidance and support while providing opportunities for civic engagement, academic advisement, personal development and leadership development. Between 2009 and 2013, participants showed a term-to-term persistence rate of close to 80 percent—significantly higher than the 63 percent for non-participants. The program is starting to move the needle on academic success, with participants’ cumulative GPA at 2.45, up from 2.15 three years ago.

2. An advising program that creates a community around the student. Building a holistic community of teachers, advisors, and support staff around students makes it more likely that their academic problems will be caught early on and won’t fall through the cracks. We launched a pilot Student Success Network in March that includes college-wide midterm reporting, which garnered a 96 percent faculty participation rate and positive student and faculty feedback. The network also employs Starfish Retention and Connect software, through which students are able to see and connect with members of their student success team—including advisors, faculty and staff from other support programs such as veterans’ resources and disability services. Faculty can refer students to tutoring and can address concerns and reinforce positive academic behaviors throughout the semester.

3. Instruction in financial literacy and realistic expectations. Statistics from a 2012 OECD assessment reveal that almost 18 percent of American teenagers can’t perform basic financial literacy tasks, including making decisions about everyday spending. To ensure that students have both a realistic expectation of college costs and a coherent plan for achieving a degree within their budget, Montgomery assembled a team of content, media, technology and design experts who developed an online prototype, “Montco Money Matters.” The 30-minute, self-guided pilot program, funded through a Next Generation Learning Challenges EDUCAUSE grant, introduces students to the concept of paying for college through topics such as financial aid, loans, grants, scholarships and the long-term implications of current and future debt. Some 95 percent of the 425 students who actively engaged in the pilot program said they would recommend the online resources to others, and 80 percent said the course will influence their future academic decisions.

In addition, those high school graduates from 16 regional districts who participated in our Gateway to College program for at-risk youth entered this school year having already completed a foundational semester in reading, writing and math. Armed with mentors, college credits and confidence, they bypass developmental courses and are already on their way to a degree.

It’s fortunate be born with a resilient personality, but educators can make a difference for everyone. It’s critical that we continually develop, test and assess new programs and interventions to help students attain their goals. Some efforts will work; others won’t. As I promised faculty and staff on opening day, we’re going to make mistakes, but we’ll acknowledge them and adjust. Improvement won’t look like a straight line; rather resilience is about using disruption and the knowledge gained for everyone’s benefit. It’s hard work to boost enrollment and completion rates, but there’s no more worthy endeavor. When we need inspiration and models of resilience, all we need do is look to our students.

Karen A. Stout is president of Montgomery County Community College, with campuses in Blue Bell and Pottstown, Pa. The college received Achieving the Dream’s 2014 Leah Meyer Austin Award for working effectively to help every student achieve his or her education goals.

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