Peer learning, coaching, and partnerships to build up rural communities

This week, Achieving the Dream (ATD) hosted the Building Resiliency in Rural Communities for the Future of Work 2021 Summer Convening, the first event of its kind held by ATD. The virtual convening was designed to support a cohort of seven rural colleges as they develop plans focused on capacity building, transforming the student experience, and preparing students and colleges for the future of work.

Over two days, more than 120 registrants heard from ATD Network leaders, shared findings with their peer colleges, and learned about resources and tools, including the Institutional Capacity Assessment Tool (ICAT), that will help inform each college’s Student Success Action Plan.

“Given that in many rural areas, community colleges remain the closest, most accessible, and most practical postsecondary opportunity, our institutions must be at the center of this work… to promote economic mobility in these communities,” said Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream.

The Building Resiliency in Rural Communities for the Future of Work cohort includes Berkshire Community College, Clovis Community College, Columbia-Greene Community College, Halifax Community College, Louisiana State University-Eunice, Northwest Mississippi Community College, and Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.

Launching their learning in January and February 2021 at DREAM, the institutions are engaging in foundational work. Cohort colleges are transforming students’ experiences, so they are best prepared to succeed in the digital economy.

The cohort’s collaborative sharing of information and peer learning will benefit the entire ATD Network, Dr. Stout said.

“This initiative will provide the opportunity for us at ATD and the colleges across our network to learn from your work to improve the academic and economic success of under-resourced populations in your communities and help students achieve pathways to sustainable careers in the digital economy,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic challenges significantly impacted rural communities, creating increased access challenges for students, with record numbers stopping out or delaying their education, Dr. Stout added, making the rural cohort’s work all the more critical for rural communities’ recovery.

ATD Network college leaders shared examples of how they transformed their campuses. Dr. Dorey Diab, president of North Central State College shared how the ATD Leader College of Distinction led the rural Ohio college through a data-informed process to better serve students and strengthen collaboration with community partners. Dr. Diab noted students were in an economically under-resourced area, with many students who are first generation, working, and caregiving while also going to college.

Dr. Diab described the internal reforms the college underwent in realigning student services, academic services, and with the region’s workforce.

For the student journey, the college realigned advising so that it remained the same year over year. Additionally, a student’s major is identified before a student starts, and a student needs to work with an advisor in order to change it. Financial aid is given first priority and other processes, such as issuing degrees, were automated.

Academic services were grouped as much as possible so that most programs have the same set of required courses during the first semester, so students who switch would not lost credit. General education courses were structured to meet employer needs, including soft skills. The college placed a substantial emphasis on information technology upgrades, including cyber security upgrades, updated digital systems, new computers, and renovations so more than 50 classrooms have the latest technological learning and teaching tools.

To meet the needs of local employers, the college worked closely with businesses under the guiding principle of student career readiness having the combination of technical skills, soft skills, and experience through a robust internship program.

Amarillo College’s president, Dr. Russell D. Lowery-Hart, shared how the ATD Leader College of Distinction and 2019 Leah Meyer Austin Award winner developed high-impact partnerships in the rural Texas community and fostered a culture or entrepreneurship to set students up for success with careers in the digital economy.

“The case really starts with acknowledging what it means to be a rural institution. And instead of seeing it as a deficit and something to apologize for — overcome — we have got to own it and the amazing opportunities we have as a result of being rural communities,” he said.

Dr. Lowery-Hart said as the college reimagined Amarillo as a tech hub, it was critical to reimagine roles, and to lead the community forward into a new economic reality. This included creating a local CEO council with three local employers in different sectors, and shifting the role typically played by advisory boards. A nimble process that looked at bootcamps or shortened academies that could stand alone or articulate into a two-year program was essential.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a unique moment of opportunity for rural community colleges: “We’ve learned that in this space of Zoom meetings that things that weren’t possible two years ago … should be the norm. Let’s be the sector of higher ed that actually leverages these tools to grow beyond our rural community while lifting up our rural communities at the same time,” Dr. Lowery-Hart said.

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