Statistically, the students who face the greatest challenges in acclimating to the university environment and often in choosing to remain are those who come from the most disproportionately impacted (DI) communities. Today more than ever before, universities have been taking a direct look at how their traditional structures may have been unconsciously biased against marginalized people’s success and trying to correct those issues.
GoodCourse spoke to Roberto Valadez, Vice President for Student Development at Joliet Junior College (JJC) about the steps his institution has taken to serve its DI students, as well as his own personal investment in the issue.
Prior to joining the community college system, I worked in a high school, a middle school, and an elementary school. I’ve been in Higher Education (HE) for over 20 years, including one year at the University of Chicago. What I love about the community college system is it’s an open-access institution. That means anybody who wants to can get a shot at an education, has the opportunity to do it. To me, being part of a student’s journey — especially for most DI student populations — continues to bring me joy. I’m a product of the community college system myself, and I see this an an it as a way not only to be of service but also to pay it forward.
In regards to trends, enrollment was linked to the economy up until 2020. When the economy was good, enrollment was down; when the economy was bad, enrollment was up. The major challenge that all HE institutions face is that, within the next five years, we have the impending Enrollment Cliff of 2026. Going back to the great recession of 2008, there was a huge birth rate decline that will result in thousands of fewer potential students seventeen years later, the year they would have begun enrolling in colleges. Demographically, eighteen-year-olds won’t be there in the needed numbers, so institutions such as ours are getting ready. We’ll be transitioning our efforts to the adult market and being more intentional with outreach. We’ll also be making a concentrated effort to keep the students we already have. So we’re viewing retention as enrollment. Generally, we retain 50% of our students, so we want to do an even better job at keeping them engaged so they’re less likely to choose to leave.
If you look at our data, students most likely to drop out are those who’ve historically been marginalized by the system, whether it be African Americans, Latinx people, women, veterans, students with disabilities, foster kids, children of single parents, etc. At JJC, we use that data to inform our initiatives. We have an executive director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), Dr. Escortina Ervin. She and I work in tandem to ensure we’re always intentional with our approach. This way we always make sure when we discuss the budget that all of our initiatives have a DEI focus or take it into account.
I’ve only been here six months, but there’s been great work at JJC before my coming here. We have a robust calendar of events for student life that celebrate things such as Black History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, National Native American History Month, etc. Furthermore, our college has begun institutionally recognizing that the majority of our students are Latinx. Our president would like us to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution. That’s an official designation from the Department of Education, and with that comes funds. So he’s set up committees working towards making sure we attain that. We also have affinity groups that come together every month to discuss important issues impacting our communities, such as Latinx, African American, and LGBTQIA+.
We have an emergency response team that meets regularly to make sure we assess any threats, whatever they might be. With regard to the student body, our community is the largest district in the Chicagoland area. We serve seven counties, including large rural and suburban communities. Within those demographics, there are vastly different viewpoints, and we always have to be mindful that we serve everybody.
Another thing we always keep in mind is student engagement. From what we’ve seen, the latest generation of students we’re serving is completely different than those we served before the pandemic. They’re not socialized to the degree people generally are in the last few years of high school. So organizationally, we’re intentionally providing students the resources and support they need. We currently have five full-time student wellness staff members, and we are currently looking to expand our Wellness and Health Center. We had one before the pandemic, but the number of students who need this has increased.
Make sure that you’re organizationally honoring the lived experience of each one of our students and affirming their identities. That’s one of our greatest challenges: making sure that we’re student-ready and putting the onus on the institution, not the student. This includes ensuring that their identities are affirmed by who’s working at the institution. That they see people who look like them in positions of power. As a Latino male, I’m honored to serve in this role.