Putting the Community back into the Community College

Four years ago, I made a post arguing that we should place a cafe in 102 in order to give more space to students and to build a better community space for our entire community college. Former President Laackman told me it was a good idea, but that we needed that space for other activities. In my view, there is nothing we need more than better community spaces. I believe the argument is still valid, and since we have had a change of leadership, and perhaps of priorities, I think it is a good idea to revisit the argument.

Here is the post in full (there were some great comments on the original post, so you may still want to go back and take a look at the original):

Putting the Community back into the Community College

The big talk around Reinvention is increasing retention and completion rates. Though there is controversy about the statistics, there seems to be agreement on one thing: it could be much better. And, as educators, we’re concerned not only with the numbers of completion, but the quality of the education itself. Lots of money has been spent, and I’m overjoyed to know that we’re confirmed to get 20 full-time faculty during the Fall and Spring semesters. But what else should we examine?

Perhaps we are overlooking the importance of community. For those of us who’ve been here for a few years, we’re liable to overlook this problem, because we feel and experience the HWC community.  But our target students here aren’t the ones who’ve been around for three or four years, of course: it’s the students who are in their first or second semester. We might be liable to forget that the social glue that keeps us here doesn’t even exist for our new students.

For our faculty and administrative readers, think back for a moment to your undergrad years. What was your experience? What kept you in school? What encouraged you to be successful? When I was an undergrad, I lived on or near campus for four years. During my first year I would wake up in my dorm room early, shower, and stop by the cafeteria every morning. The cafeteria didn’t offer the tastiest food, but it was quick, healthy and inexpensive. The cafeteria was spacious, and coffee was unlimited. I often sat with the same small group of students, and we would chat about any number of things. And although it wasn’t the only thing we talked about, our discussions frequently centered on the shared experience of our classes and our studies. Even when the subject was academic, the conversation was casual. Sometimes, heated debates about ideas formed, but it was generally fun and welcome. I would walk to campus, run into fellow students, occasionally see a professor grabbing a cup of coffee in the morning and have a quick chat about class. In between classes, I’d walk off to sit in the spacious student commons or sit by the lake. During that time, I’d reflect on my classes, chat with classmates, or do homework. But I was on campus and feeling like I belonged to the college and its community. After class, I’d go back to the dorm, eat dinner in the cafeteria, and get into discussions about classes and being a student. Sometimes, we’d go to the bar, but even then, huddled over our delicious pints, the conversations were frequently about school.

I would deign to guess that most of us faculty had a parallel experience. Our life, and our friends’ lives, revolved around school and its associated activities and people.

But contrast this with the experience of our students. For starters, not a single student lives on campus. They live throughout vast Chicago, often with family, partners, or roommates, most of whom are not sharing their college experience. Even those that support the idea of their loved one being in college don’t necessarily know how to support that life in practice. Our students often work fulltime, and many of their friends are non-college students and are constantly encouraging them to socialize in various healthy or unhealthy ways. And when they are with their friends or family, it is difficult to talk about school, because they are not speaking to people that are part of their college community. When they show up to campus, the places to hang out are few, and nothing is ideal. Your friends may be hanging out in one of the college’s lounges, but in all likelihood, you will not know it because the lounges are so disparate and isolated. You may find yourself in one of the lounges adjacent to an elevator, but the noise of traffic is too distracting to think and reflect. Perhaps you find a patch of floor somewhere to sit on. Perhaps you go to the basement, a veritable dungeon, and are lucky enough to find someone you know.

What affect does this have on retention rates? Student performance? Student completion?

I read something once, I can’t remember where, that students who involved themselves with student clubs were significantly less likely to drop out. I think it’s a relatively safe assumption that not being on campus is even more destructive to retention rates than not being in a student club. This feeling of community is critical to a college students’ success. Ironically, the community college lacks this feeling of community for most everybody, except for those faculty, staff, and students who have been around for multiple years—but our target here are those students who are in their first or second semester.

Yes, we have community areas at HWC. We have a small, dark, cramped “cafeteria” in the basement with overpriced sub-par food at a cafeteria that only caters to daytime students. The other alternative is a row of vending machines packed with over-priced poor-quality junk foods.  The faculty has a classroom on the 10thfloor.

The miniature skyscraper architecture of our building is a problem, though a necessary one so long as we fill our legacy as the Loop’s city college. The elevators, escalators and stairs are annoying, and it creates bottle-necks in our movements from place to place. For those of you brought up on large campuses, how often did you stroll around the buildings, run into acquaintances, and see posters for lectures, clubs, and presentations that had nothing to do with your discipline? At HWC, how often do you find yourself on one of your non-business floors, simply strolling and running into students and colleagues? My life is regulated to the 10thfloor, and occasionally the 11th to drop something off at reprographics, or the 2nd to turn in some roster. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been on the fourth floor. Have I ever even seen the sixth floor? I can’t recall. Maybe once. I’d imagine that your experience is similar to mine in this regard.

There is only one floor, one space, that every student, faculty, staff and administrator have in common. So here’s an idea: let’s create an accessible, open, welcoming place that breeds a community of ideas and learning. Room 102 and 103 are big, often empty spaces on the first floor. Everyone walks by and frequently glances in. What would it be like to have regular coffee house hours there, where the administration sets out catered coffee and cookies. Nothing too high-maintenance: something sustainable. Say, every day, setup a few coffee jugs, some fruits or cookies, and see what happens.  Set the time for 3pm to 5pm, so it is relatively accessible to morning and evening students (or ideally, all the time). Yes, it costs money, but if it increases the feeling of community, if professors are encouraged to hang out and even hold some office hours there, if we’re encouraged to engage each other and especially our students in casual conversations about the ideas they’re learning in class, it might very well increase retention rates and student enthusiasm. How much would this cost? How much does one of those CCC ads on the back of a CTA bus cost? Which would do more good? In the end, a small cost that could bring about great benefit.

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