Stelfanie Williams: The Community’s Colleges

Community colleges historically have been touted for their ability to respond to changing economic and workforce needs. Community colleges have blended their access missions with completion outcomes. They provide an open door for opportunities to learners from local communities. They also work to ensure these students are prepared for a diverse, global economy. Community colleges are vital partners in economic and workforce development, but these colleges’ roles in fostering a sense of community are just as important.

Access, Completion, and Equity Are Supported by a Sense of Community

Community colleges are open to all students — from those seeking to transfer to universities to those preparing for a job, from high school dual enrollment students to older adults. They enroll learners at various levels of college preparation and serve the majority of black and Hispanic college students. With this diverse student body, it is critical for colleges to ensure the success of students from a variety of backgrounds. Colleges familiar with their constituents can design efforts and take steps to create a campus climate and surrounding environment supportive of student access and success.

Student engagement and inclusion are necessary foundations for learners to connect and persist. Achievement gaps exist and completion outcomes remain disproportionate among student groups, so colleges must emphasize community-building and intentional efforts to improve success for underserved populations. A sense of community is not the solution certainly, but it creates an atmosphere for discourse and action regarding equity. By understanding students’ attributes, experiences, and needs, colleges can foster a sense of community through the classroom, within campus life, and in the broader community.

Defining Community

To best understand how to advance community, colleges must know their students. While community may be inherent to community colleges, today’s students may be less interactive with one another. Community college students are more likely to attend part-time, take classes online, and engage in social networking as their primary means of communication. The world is more globally and technologically connected today than when community colleges began over a century ago, but some would argue that people – students included – are less connected on a human level.

Data analysis allows colleges to identify who their specific students are, whom they are reaching (or not), and whom they are serving successfully (or not). In enrollment efforts, colleges can consider whether their practices are effective at attracting students from all areas within their service plan. Colleges must also probe whether completion rates, policies, and activities reflect student success for all students. While focusing on technology to prepare and reach students in a global world, colleges must also develop strategies that create space, dialogue, resources, and activities to promote inclusion, civility, and achievement for students across socioeconomic spectra. 

Strategies for Community-building

Student Connections: Community colleges can develop practices to ensure faculty, staff, mentors, and others connect with students. These connections help students integrate into the campus and increase the likelihood of academic success. Learning communities that involve faculty and students can serve as platforms for integration of curricula and community.

Community-building in the Classroom: In the classroom, the nucleus of activity for community college students, faculty can incorporate intentional activities that build community, from cooperative learning to experiential activities. Instructional activities that embed community-building practices into course competencies and also incorporate listening skills, sensitivity, and constructive critical thinking prepare students to contribute productively to community.

Service Learning and Outreach: In partnership with the broader community, colleges can magnify community by forming opportunities for students to learn and serve through volunteerism, special projects, travel, and internships. Students gain course credit or career skills while developing their own neighborhoods, giving to and learning from others. The same holds true for employees; when they are actively a part of the broader community, there are additional opportunities for them to engage with students, community issues, and to make connections among constituent groups.

Inclusivity in the Campus Experience: Furthermore, colleges can cultivate campus community by ensuring that opportunities exist for students to acquaint constructively with others of varied backgrounds. Student activities focused on bringing diverse students together, and campus facilities master planning with an eye to communal spaces, are among the approaches that can facilitate community orientation. Colleges may also undertake a community narrative approach through institutional statements, images, and foci on the success stories of a variety of students and groups of students working collectively to help create the fabric of community.

‘Community’ as Policy Priority: Policymakers must prioritize creating community as essential to the student experience. Particularly as most community colleges are not residential and are attended part-time by many students, policies must intentionally support community development. Community college funders can provide resources to build engagement and student life. It is vital for policymakers to understand that, while instructional time is key to preparing students for work or higher education, other college activities that build community may improve academic outcomes for students as well as enhance basic life skills.

The community college is a touchpoint of diverse students coalescing around the common goal of learning. While community colleges must continue to focus on access and completion, prominence should be provided to community-building. While recognizing that community development involves much more than can be accomplished in the hours students spend at college, community colleges serve as vital sites of community. They possess the power, perhaps like no other form of higher education, to blur the lines between college and community toward more positive change economically and socially.

Stelfanie Williams is President of Vance-Granville Community College (Henderson, NC).

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