The world of Higher Education (HE) changes every day, so it is up to industry leaders to make sure that the needs and wants of students are continuously met.
Rebecca Newell, Dean of Students at Middlesex Community College, sat down with GoodCourse to talk about how her approach to student experience evolves all the time, so it can retain relevancy to what students really need.
My role is an interesting one; I am the Dean of Students, Title IX Coordinator, IRB Chair, and Conduct Officer, so a lot is going on! There’s so much to be done in Community Colleges around student conduct and student advocacy, so I’m always walking that line. Middlesex is one of fifteen community colleges in Massachusetts, and we work very collaboratively but also have independent personalities. We have two campuses; an urban one and a suburban one, and we have around 6,000 students. We have 70 degree-seeking options for students and are entering the micro-credential world just now.
For me, it was back in my undergraduate degree when I was a psychology major with little idea of what I wanted to do. I met a career counselor at the career services office and immediately wanted his job! So I asked what I needed to do, and he helped me to figure out my path.
It’s changing every day. Everyone in Student Affairs and HE has to acknowledge how much this has changed, and the pandemic accelerated that change too. What we realized around the pandemic is that a lot of the changes it forced us to make should already have been done — with virtual services, for example. We are now back on campus, but 60% of our courses remain online, not because of the pandemic but because it’s what our students want.
What has really changed our work the most is the massive enrolment decline. In 2001 when I started here, we had around 15,000 students — it was a robust community environment, and now we have less than half of that. This changes everything from how we recruit to how we retain to where our funds go. We’re now putting our funding into high-flex classrooms and developing mini-mesters and micro-credentials to support the students we do have right now.
Our student orientation is critical to our retention efforts. Right at the beginning, we include students in our orientation journey, which has been credited by NASPA for rethinking orientation. It isn't a one-time event; if we want students to be successful in their first eight weeks of college, then we need to be very intentional in creating that sense of belonging.
We make it a primary goal to connect with faculty early and see how we can support their class outcomes with hands-on experience-focused opportunities for students. This means they are learning, but they are also engaging with one another.
Engagement is certainly challenging. Some students are very involved naturally, and others aren't — but there is a middle group that is on the fence, who will get involved when they understand why it's important and what it can do for them. One of the greatest things we do here is collaborating with academic affairs — the best-attended programs are those that relate to the curriculum. We make it a primary goal to connect with faculty early and see how we can support their class outcomes with hands-on experience-focused opportunities for students. This means they are learning, but they are also engaging with one another.
This is something we are all grappling with; we talk about college as the marketplace of ideas. Very early on, at orientation, we talk about what it's like to be offended, and how to handle that independently and express yourself when you are in a disagreement with someone. We’re all going to get offended, and of course I want students to tell me what’s going on, but I also want them to know how to handle these situations themselves with civility. At the same time, we work with faculty and public safety officers to understand that passion is not aggression; if someone is passionate and speaking loudly about something, that does not mean they are actively threatening you. If someone has a difference of opinion, you need to be able to handle that with civility.
I’ve been in the field a long time, so we’ve done a lot of important work. I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to get involved; sometimes, I think community colleges might even present more opportunities for this kind of work to take place than other kinds of HE institutions.
An essential part of our initiatives also centers around the fact that we aren’t just working toward our own goals but the state’s goals too. One thing I want to highlight is the state’s equity agenda. Four years ago, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education created an agenda to reach a place where race has nothing to do with the outcomes of public education in the state. Middlesex has taken that very seriously — working on cultural competency for both our students and faculty is a priority that flows throughout our strategic plan and mission statements. Proudly, Middlesex is one of 71 colleges nationwide to have a Healing and Transformation center on campus. It is remarkable work with a purpose to encourage our community to come together, explore biases and identity, look at privilege, and dig deep into these issues.
The courses out there for beginning a career in HE specifically are amazing, but I encourage people of all backgrounds to get involved if they are interested. Similarly, I’d encourage people not to feel they have to start in the traditional Residential Life area — you can start in any department, they are all impactful, and all contribute to our community goals.
I want to shout out to our legal counsel because they don’t get enough appreciation in HE. Our general counsel, Gina Yarbrough, is amazing; I think of her as a friend and a mentor, and she adapts to the fast-changing compliance culture in this industry seamlessly, yet really sees the importance of student success — that is critical.
A Little Life - the novel by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s an unforgettable, epic love story. Deep, dark, intense and emotional. I would recommend it to anyone, but be prepared to be emotional! I still think about the four main characters and the experiences of their lives; it follows them on a journey, delving into the deepest aspects of themselves and what they go through.