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If at First You Don’t Succeed ….

By Kathleen Mellen

gradgroupcapsThose managing the University Without Walls program at UMass Amherst are big believers in the phrase ‘giving credit where it’s due.’ Indeed, UWW awards college credits for experience garnered in the workplace, enabling non-traditional students to gain the degrees needed to advance their careers.

By his own account, Matthew Malo wasn’t much of a high-school student. But when he graduated in 1992 from Hampshire Regional High School, he set off for college anyway.

Big mistake.

Malo, 43, who is now a sergeant in the police department at UMass Amherst, said he matriculated at the Stockbridge School at UMass back then, thinking he would study landscaping. But, once there, he floundered.

“It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was a lot of designing and art, and I’m not an artist or a designer,” said the Southampton resident in a recent interview at the UMass police station. “I wanted to be the guy who was out there doing it — not in a classroom.”

He left the program after just one semester.

The next year, at the urging of his parents, he tried college again — this time enrolling at Holyoke Community College. That didn’t go any better.

“It was like high school, one year later,” he said. “A lot of my friends were there, and if I had a class I didn’t like, and a bunch of my friends were hanging out in the cafeteria, guess where I was?”

Strike two. But, as the saying goes, third time’s the charm.

Matthew Malo

Matthew Malo says he’s “kicking butt” in UWW after two unsuccessful attempts at a more traditional college experience.

In 2006, Malo’s father suggested his son look into UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls, a bachelor’s-degree-completion program for non-traditional students, many of whom, like Malo, have abandoned earlier efforts at college. By that time, Malo had been working for some time as a UMass police officer, had gone through the Western Massachusetts Regional Municipal Police Academy, and had even successfully completed a few courses in criminal justice at Greenfield Community College.

“I finally found something I liked,” Malo said.

So, he decided to give it the old college try — one more time. Today, Malo is a student at UWW, where’s he’s studying criminal justice — and, as he puts it, “kicking butt.” He expects to graduate in spring 2019.

UWW, established in 1971, is one of the oldest adult bachelor’s-degree-completion programs in the country. Its specialized services include flexibility in scheduling, options to accelerate the degree process, and the opportunity to receive college credit for work or life experience, including service in the military.

“We believe learning doesn’t have to take place in the classroom, so we take into account the experience they have — the training and learning they’ve had through a variety of experiences,” said UWW’s director, Ingrid Bracey. “We meet students where they are, and the students are amazed at the amount of learning they actually have. The best part of being at UWW is seeing that light go on.”

Degrees of Progress

In winter 2016, Malo met with an advisor at UWW, who explained that the program would allow him to design a major based on his personal interests, and could offer up to 75 transfer credits from previous college courses, no matter how long ago they were taken.

He also discovered that, upon the completion of an in-depth, written portfolio that explored his experiential learning, he would be eligible to receive up to 30 college credits for the work, and living, he’d already done.

Perhaps most important, he said, was that course delivery through UWW is available fully online. (Traditional classes are also available, as are classes that blend online and classroom learning.) That, he said, has been crucial to his success in the program.

“My biggest concern about going back to college was scheduling,” said Malo, who has two school-aged children and works part-time for a small-town police department, in addition to his full-time duties as a UMass cop. “When the adviser said I could do all my classwork online, on my own time, I thought, ‘they really get it. They understand what’s going on with people like me.’”

He’s not alone: online classes are a rising trend across the country. According to a 2014 report from the Babson Survey Research Group, 33% of college students in the U.S. are enrolled in at least one online course, and the rate of online course enrollment continues to far exceed the overall rate of college enrollment.

Judith Odindo’s path to UWW could not have been more different from Malo’s.

A native of Kenya, Odindo, 38, had come to the U.S. in 2001 to study as an international student at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She already had some college under her belt in Kenya, and was looking forward to her year of study abroad.

But then her mother, who was paying her tuition, fell ill back home, and Odindo’s financial support evaporated. So, after a single semester, she was forced to drop out. And because her family was struggling to make ends meet, she knew it would be a burden to them if she returned home.

That left Odindo stranded in a foreign country, on a student’s visa, but with no way to continue her schooling. She was heartbroken.

Nevertheless, she decided to stick it out in the U.S., which required changing her visa status to allow her to work — not an easy process, she said. Through a series of circumstances, and a move from New Jersey to Springfield, Odindo was able to find work with the Mass. Department of Developmental Services, but it was always her intention to return to college — someday, somehow.

Eventually, she began to take classes as a part-time student at Springfield Technical Community College, but, because of her schedule as a supervisor in a residential home in Springfield, it was a slow process, with no discernable end in sight.

Then, one day, she came across a flyer about UWW. She sent an e-mail inquiry to the program and described her predicament. The response was quick, and hopeful.

Judith Odindo

Judith Odindo says UWW fit her life and work responsibilities in a way other programs did not, allowing her to earn an elusive degree.

“They told me I would be a perfect fit for the program,” Odindo said in an interview at the UMass Center in Tower Square in Springfield. She learned she could transfer her credits from Montclair and STCC, and would likely receive additional credits for her work and life experience. “I said, ‘wow. It fits my life and my work schedule. This could be a way for me to finish my degree.’”

So she signed on, and two years later, in May, she received a bachelor’s degree, with a focus in business studies. Fortunately, her mother has since recovered, and now lives in Springfield as well.

“From a tough time, great things happened,” Odindo said.

Courses of Action

UWW is an academic major at UMass, with 12 full-time faculty and nine full-time administrative staff members, all with expertise in teaching and advising adult students. Students take core UWW departmental courses and then build their degree concentrations by taking courses throughout the university.

More than 4,000 adults have received bachelor’s degrees from the program since it’s inception more than 45 years ago, including NBA legend Julius Erving (Dr. J) and Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor. It enrolls about 1,000 to 1,200 students per semester and enjoys a 65% to 75% graduation rate, significantly higher than the rate of 35% to 40% seen in most degree-completion programs, Bracey said. And a significant number go on to receive higher degrees.

“The number-one thing they want is for you to succeed,” Odindo said.

Elizabeth Brinkerhoff knows from experience just how life-altering a degree from UWW can be. Brinkerhoff, 66, who lives in Shutesbury, is a 1981 graduate of the program, and also worked for many years as a faculty member and advisor in the program, retiring two years ago. She credits her time as a student there with providing the boost she needed to build a career.

Brinkerhoff says she followed four years as “half-assed high-school student” with a “lackadaisical stint” at GCC. “I was floundering,” she said. “I really had no idea what I wanted to do.”

So she dropped out, joined the workforce, moved around a bit, and finally landed back in Western Mass., where she found a job working with alternative-education programs for grades K-12. Then, in 1978, a friend encouraged her to look into the UWW.

Brinkerhoff’s employer at the time supported the idea and allowed her to adjust her work schedule to accommodate classes. (Unlike today’s students, who overwhelmingly choose to take online classes, students in Brinkerhoff’s day had to report to brick-and-mortar classrooms.) She enrolled in spring 1978, and went on to receive a master’s degree from Suffolk University in Boston and, later, a doctorate from the UMass School of Education.

She had planned to become a high-school guidance counselor, but once she started classes at UWW, it didn’t take long for her to adjust her career goals.

“I realized there were a whole lot of people, like me, who were coming back to school, so I stayed in higher education, and with adult learners,” she said.

It’s a trend that has continued: with the demand for college-educated employees steadily increasing, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development has projected that 60% of workers in Massachusetts, and 40% nationally, will need to have an associate’s degree or higher to be competitive in the job market. And that’s sending older Americans back to college.

Today, three-quarters of U.S. undergraduate students are now considered ‘non-traditional,’ according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which has estimated that enrollment of 25- to 34-year-olds in undergraduate degree programs will increase 28% by 2019, while enrollment of students over 35 will go up 22%. That means that adult-learning, post-secondary models, like UWW, are likely to play an increasingly important role in preparing students for today’s workforce.

Indeed, thanks to her UWW education, Odindo says, she’s now eligible to apply for certain advancements in her workplace, and also plans to attend law school. And the UWW experience certainly set Brinkerhoff on her way to a long and successful career.

“The faculty and the students at University Without Walls are part of a learning culture — that thing that happens when people’s minds are at work. It taught me how to learn and how to think, and it helped define my career,” she said. “Then, knowing the program as well as I did, I could help students understand just what was possible there.”

Grade Expectations

As for Malo, he says he hopes his bachelor’s degree will make him “a little more marketable” for advancement on the police force, but that’s not why he’s attending UWW.

“It’s always bugged me that I never finished — there’s always been that weight on my shoulders,” he said. Plus, he added, he’s doing it for his children — Jonathan, 14, and Savanna, 10. “I want my kids to see me finish my degree. They’ll know if I can do it, they can do it, too.”

Thanks to UWW, a lot more people have been able to ‘do it.’

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To a Higher Degree

Carol Leary

Carol Leary says Bay Path University’s first doctorate continues the school’s long history of being innovative.

It’s been well-documented that Bay Path University President Carol Leary would prefer to interview every candidate for every position being filled at the 120-year-old institution.

There’s a reason for that — actually, several of them. For starters, she understands that people are the key to any organization’s success, and she wants to be part of the process of putting this team together.

Beyond that, though, Leary has told BusinessWest on more than a few occasions that she’s looking for certain things when she’s sitting across the desk or table from a job candidate. Beyond the obvious skill sets required of those in specific positions, she’s also looking for those who are energetic, innovative, and entrepreneurial.

Those qualities, usually detectable through certain questions she opted not to share, are largely responsible for the meteoric rise in size and prominence of Bay Path since Leary arrived at the Longmeadow campus in 1994. Indeed, individuals with these traits have driven growth that has manifested itself in everything from continued success and expansion of the Women’s Professional Leadership Conference to a host of new programs of study, such as a degree offering in cybersecurity; from creation of the American Women’s College, which offers a broad range of programs online and in the classroom, to the significant name change at the school, swapping the word ‘college’ for ‘university.’

And now, there is another milestone directly attributable to innovation and entrepreneurship — the university’s first doctoral degree offering, in occupational therapy.

Set to launch this fall — an open house for the program was staged late last week — this fully online offering, like many that have been developed over the course of the school’s history, was created in direct response to need within the community, said Leary.

“Since 1897, Bay Path has been a very innovative institution because it has always educated for the workforce,” she explained. “And that history is part of our DNA.”

Tracing some of that history, specifically the chapter that pertains to this latest milestone, Leary noted that, when she arrived at the school in 1994, it had just opened the box on a two-year program in occupational therapy to meet growing demand for such professionals. Just a few years later, as needs within that realm of healthcare changed, the program moved to the baccalaureate (four-year) level. And less than a decade later, the school added a master’s-level program, again to adjust to changing societal needs. And in a decade, that program has grown from 18 students to 136.

But as the population continues to age and the need for not only OT therapists but the individuals who will train the next generation of specialists grows, Bay Bath administrators knew the school needed to respond accordingly. That response is a doctoral program.

And while the new program is important for area communities and the individuals who have chosen OT as a career, it is also a step forward for the university, or another step forward, to be more precise.

Bay Path

The occupational therapy doctorate is another in a long list of milestones at Bay Path, which became a university earlier this decade.

“When you think about how far we’ve come, from Bay Path Institute (the name on the school in its early years) to becoming a university and now offering a doctorate in 2017, I’m very proud of our faculty,” she said. “This is an important milestone for us.”

And while she wasn’t ready to offer any details on what might come next, Leary made it clear that Bay Path’s first doctoral program certainly won’t be its only one for very long.

When you think about how far we’ve come, from Bay Path Institute (the name on the school in its early years) to becoming a university and now offering a doctorate in 2017, I’m very proud of our faculty. This is an important milestone for us.”

“We believe this is just the beginning,” she said. “And we already have things in the queue for our next doctorate; they’re in our vision.”

School of Thought

With that remark, Leary helped explain that a doctoral program doesn’t come about overnight. They are generally two or three or years in the making, with approval needed from the Board of Higher Education, she noted, and they result from a hard mix of strategic planning, listening to and consulting with the business community, and calculated risk taking.

In other words, they stem from a culture of entrepreneurship, which is one of the things Leary has put in place over her 23 years at the helm.

And one of the tenets of entrepreneurship, she said, is the ability to anticipate need and then meet it, and this is definitely the case with the new doctoral program in occupational therapy.

The need, in this case, is not only for more occupational therapists — a given as the population ages and people live longer — but also better-trained specialists within that field.

“In physical therapy, if you are now to be hired as a new college graduate, you need a doctorate,” Leary explained. “And the field of OT may go there by 2025 — it may become a profession that will go to a doctoral level as a requirement.”

In the meantime, there is greater need for individuals to train the occupational therapists who will provide care in the years and decades to come, she went on, adding that such educators will need a doctorate.

“We did this because it’s a natural progression for us,” said Leary. “But we primarily did it because the need for professors in the field to teach the future occupational therapists is great; this is probably one of the most critical shortages in our country. Having the doctorally prepared, post-professional OT is going to be a very good place for Bay Path to focus.”

But while being entrepreneurial in this endeavor to create its first doctorate, Bay Path is also being innovative, especially with the fully online nature of the program, said Leary, adding that this format was chosen and designed to make the offering accessible to those looking to advance their career, and may be particularly appealing to those in mid-career and raising a family.

And this thought brings her to one of those individuals she insisted on interviewing during the process of hiring someone to lead the program — Julie Watson, Ph.D., MHS, OTR/L, who eventually won the job.

Watson, who maintains ongoing clinical experience at Brooks Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Learning Center in St. Augustine, Fla., said the online format will be a critical component in the success of the program moving forward.

“Having experienced pursuing an advanced degree as a working parent, I understand just how important the online program design is for those living very busy lives, looking to improve their skills, and advance in the field of occupational therapy,” she said.

As for what might come next, Leary was understandably shy when it came to conjecture about what the next doctorate degrees (and master’s degrees, for that matter) might be. But there was certainty in her voice when she said there would be others.

“There are at least two others that I know our provost is looking at,” she explained. “Our provost is very forward-thinking, very creative, and with her faculty, they look two to five years out, and that’s how far out we’re looking, not just with doctorates, but other master’s degrees that we think are going to be absolutely critical.”

An Aggressive Course

There’s a sitting room off the main entrance at Deep Wood Hall, the main administration building at Bay Path. And on the coffee table in that sitting room is a collection of brochures highlighting a host of the school’s programs.

The marketing taglines are aimed at individuals thinking about their careers and what it might take to advance them. “Prepare to Take the Next Step” reads the brochure promoting the master of science degree in higher education administration. “There Is Work to Be Done’ is the headline on the promotional material for a host of graduate programs for business professionals.

While probably intended as such, those marketing lines also speak to the mindset of administrators and educators at the university. They know there’s work to be done, and, because they’re innovative and entrepreneurial, they’re prepared to take the next step — as is the institution they work for.

This explains why there have been so many milestones for this school over the past few decades, and why there is little, if any, doubt that there are many more to come.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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Learning Environment

Not long after arriving on the Hampshire College campus in 2011, President Jonathan Lash asked students how long they believed it would be before the school could accurately declare itself carbon neutral. Upon hearing that they thought it could be done in 25 years, he said, in essence, that this wasn’t nearly good enough. So the school set a new goal — 10 years — and with some dramatic recent developments, it is well on its way to meeting it, and in the process it is writing an exciting new chapter in a history long defined by progressiveness and unique approaches to learning.

President Jonathan Lash in the Kern Center

President Jonathan Lash in the Kern Center

Jonathan Lash noted that Hampshire College — that self-described “experiment” in higher education located on rolling farm land in South Amherst — has been operating for 46 years now.

That’s more than enough time to gather research, look at trends, and develop a composite, or profile, if you will, of the graduates of this small and in many ways unique institution.

And one has emerged, said Lash, the school’s president since 2011, noting quickly that individuality and independent thinking are perhaps the most common traits among students and alums, so it is impossible to paint them with one broad brush. But there are some common traits.

One of them is entrepreneurship. A quarter of the school’s graduates — an eclectic list that includes Stonyfield Farm chairman and former president and CEO President Gary Hirshberg, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, actor Liev Schreiber, and countless others involved in the arts and literature — have started their own business or organization, placing the college on Forbes’ short list of ‘most- entrepreneurial colleges.’

Another is a passion for learning; the school is in the top 1% of colleges nationwide in the percentage of graduates who go on to earn doctorates.

“Our students have such a good time learning that they don’t want to stop,” said Lash with a laugh, noting that the desire to create unique learning experiences for students was one important motivation for two recent sustainability initiatives on the campus — construction of a so-called ‘living building,’ the school’s R.W. Kern Center, which will use zero net energy, and the announcement that the institution would take a huge step toward becoming the first private college in the country to go 100% solar powered.

Hampshire College

Recent initiatives in sustainability have added another intriguing chapter to Hampshire College’s history of progressiveness.

Indeed, professors in several disciplines have incorporated the Kern Center into their curriculum, said Lash, noting also that for a course he was teaching last fall in sustainability, he assigned students the task of reviewing the contract for the solar installation and explaining why the initiative was a sound undertaking for the school and the company building it.

“One of the ideas behind this building is to make sure you learn something every time you walk into it,” Lash said of the Kern Center.

As for the exercise involving the solar installation, he borrowed an industry term of sorts. “You could see the lightbulbs going on,” he said while relating how the students eventually grasped the many aspects of the concept.

But creating such learning opportunities is only one motivating factor. Indeed, this school that has been seemingly defined by that adjective ‘alternative’ since it was first conceived nearly 60 years ago, is adding another dimension to that quality. And in the process, it is living up to its own core beliefs while also taking on the character (and the mission) of its president, hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of 25 “warriors and heroes fighting to stave off the planet-wide catastrophe.”

And it is a dimension that Lash believes will inspire other institutions — both inside and outside the realm of higher education — to follow suit.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest traveled to the Hampshire College campus to talk with Lash — in the Kern Center — about how that building and a broader drive to become carbon neutral is adding another intriguing chapter to the school’s brief but already remarkable history.

Alternative Course

Hampshire’s distinct philosophy and pedagogy assert that: Students learn best when they are given the independence to direct their own learning under the advisement of faculty, and education should not be imposed on students.

Courses are not the only sites of learning for our students; instead they engage in a variety of learning activities and environments that challenge their creativity, problem-solving, and discovery of ideas and meaning, through independent study, internships, community engagement, social action, lab work, and teaching assistantships. Hampshire was founded by the leaders of four venerable colleges in Western Massachusetts to re-examine the assumptions and practices of liberal arts education.

At Hampshire, all students are challenged to perform serious independent work under the mentorship of faculty. The college’s goal is to graduate students who can identify significant questions, devise interesting ways to approach them, and follow through to a solution … we have no majors, each student designs their own program of study, commonly examining questions through the lenses of several disciplines. The student negotiates their studies with faculty advisers in a rigorous environment that supports student intellectual growth. The student learns to be a creator of knowledge, engaging in substantial independent research and self-directed projects as they explore the questions that drive them.


List of Colleges in Western Massachusetts


This language, taken directly from the school’s own literature — a fact sheet describing and explaining its academic program — does an effective and fairly concise job of explaining what this school is, and more importantly, what it isn’t.

It isn’t a college in the traditional sense of that term — as made clear in that passage about majors, grades, and set programs of study, or the distinct lack of them, to be more precise.

These are the foundations upon which the school was founded, and Lash admits that he knew very little, if anything about all that when he came across an e-mail titled ‘Hampshire College’ from a headhunter, one that would eventually lead to the most recent line on a very intriguing resume dominated by work in the environment and sustainable development.

But first, back to that e-mail. Lash wasn’t going to open it; he opened very few of the many he received from search firms looking for candidates for a host of different positions. But something compelled him to click on this one.

“I cannot tell you why I opened it — I just don’t know; but instead of just clicking ‘delete,’ like I did with all the others, I opened it,” he told BusinessWest, adding that upon reading it, he recalled that a friend, Adele Simmons, had served as president of the school in the ’80s. He called her, and she eventually talked him into meeting with the search committee.

Lash needed such prodding, because he didn’t even know where the school was, and also because higher education was somewhat, but not entirely, off the career path he had eventually chosen, with the accent on eventually.

Indeed, Lash, a graduate who earned both his master’s in education and juris doctor from Catholic University, started his career as a federal prosecutor in Washington in the mid-70s.

“At a certain point, it began to be less and less rewarding for me to send people to jail, and I wanted to have a different kind of impact on society,” he explained, adding that he left the prosecutor’s office for the National Environmental Defense Fund, at what turned out to be a poignant time in its history — just as Ronald Reagan was entering the White House.

“There was a period during the Reagan administration when environmental organizations were filing lawsuit after lawsuit to stop things Reagan was doing,” he noted. “It was like shooting at a Budweiser truck — you just couldn’t miss; they just didn’t bother with the law.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Lash eventually left that organization to run environmental programs for the new governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin, and later became director of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont Law School.

From there, he went on to lead the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental think tank focusing on issues ranging from low-carbon development to sustainable transportation. Under his leadership, WRI quadrupled its budget and globalized its work, with offices in eight countries and partners in more than 50 nations.

It would take something compelling to leave that for the Hampshire College campus, and he encountered it at his interview before the search committee, a panel of 26, dominated by students.

“They asked very aggressive questions, they argued with all my answers, and they were absolutely passionate about it all,” he recalled. “And about 45 minutes into it, I thought to myself ‘I’ve been working on these environmental issues all my life; I’ve been really successful, and the things I care about are getting worse. If anyone’s going to change that, it’s going to be kids like these, and I should probably help them.’”

Entrepreneurial Energy

Lash said he did some research before he came to Amherst for his interview, and gleaned a general understanding of the school and everything that made it unique. But it didn’t really prepare him for what he found.

And it was only a matter of weeks after arriving that he said he found himself saying, ‘I wish I could have learned this way,’ or words to that effect.

Still, four decades after its doors opened, Hampshire College was facing a number of challenges, especially those that apply to a small school with a tiny endowment — $40 million. In many ways, the school needed to make some kind of statement, a reaffirmation of its core values — social justice and environmental sustainability — and an even stronger commitment to live them.

ground-breaking ceremonies for solar installations

Officials gather for the ground-breaking ceremonies for solar installations expected to save the college $8 million over the next 20 years.

The Kern Center is part of that statement, Lash said, referring to a structure that was carefully designed to make its own energy, harvest its own water, and treat its own waste, and thus become truly carbon neutral.

But that’s just one building, said Lash, who then related a conversation with students concerning the school’s participation in the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, under which institutions commit to implementing a comprehensive plan to achieve a carbon-neutral campus.

“The committee that was working on it came to me and said ‘maybe we can do it in 25 years,’” Lash recalled. “And I said, “I don’t think you understand how urgent this matter is; if Hampshire College says ’25 years,’ what is the world supposed to say?’

“So we switched it to 10 years, and that kind of forced us to think radically,” he went on, adding that such thinking included exploration of solar power.

But at that time, such a proposition was still financially untenable, he went on, adding that since then, the cost of photovoltaic collectors has gone down so much, and the efficiency of units has increased to such a level, that the proposition was not only feasible, but the school would save up to $8 million in electricity costs over the 20-year life of the project.

After months of cost analysis and negotiations with project partner SolarCity, which will construct the PV arrays and sell the electricity back to the college, work began earlier this month on the 15,000 solar panels, an installation that represents the largest known on any campus in New England and one of the largest in the Northeast.

It’s a groundbreaking development in many respects — again, Hampshire is the first residential college in the U.S. to go 100% solar — but it has been, and will continue to be a learning experience on many levels, in keeping with the school’s mission.

“The whole experience of reviewing proposals, shaping the contract, choosing where on our campus we were willing to put solar collectors, affirming the size of it and the ambition to go 100% solar, challenging and re-challenging the question ‘can you really do this in snow country?’ — students were involved in every step of that,” Lash explained, adding that this experience will serve them well.

“Students who have participated in this process and done this analysis, are going to go into the world really well prepared for answering the questions that society will need answered,” he went on. “If you take a highly entrepreneurial group of students who are already independent-minded and you give them this experience, they’re in a very good place.”

And moving forward, the installation can, and should, become both a classroom and an inspiration to those outside the institution who want to learn from it, he went on.

“Over the next 20 years, this is going to become a compelling environmental, but also business and technological question,” he explained. “The question of how we organize ourselves to provide low-carbon electricity will be central to the country.”

Which means he expects even more visitors to find their way to the Amherst campus in the years to come.

Kern20160715_0232-copyAlready, many have come to take in the Kern Center, he explained, adding that he is one of many who will give tours to those representing institutions such as Yale Divinity School, which is contemplating a village of buildings with similar credentials.

“Three or four other universities have come to look, and other nonprofits that were thinking of building something but thought this was out of their reach have toured and realized it’s not out of their reach,” he explained. “You can watch when people come in the building and begin to look around and understand what it says and what it does — it influences them.”

And he expects the same will happen with the solar installations.

Study in Progressive Thinking

As one traverses the long driveway to the campus off Route 116, one sees meadows on both sides of the road — and for a reason; actually several of them.

“We don’t see why we should use the thousands of gallons of gasoline necessary to keep all that as lawn,” Lash explained. “But it also creates a habitat for an incredible number of birds and other creatures, and our science students study that.”

Thus, those meadows become yet another example of the school’s unique approach to learning, as stated earlier — that section in the fact sheet about ‘engaging in a variety of learning activities and environments that challenge their creativity, problem-solving, and discovery of ideas and meaning.’

Today, there are more such environments, with others, especially the solar installations, now taking shape on the campus. They both exemplify and inspire those traits for which the school’s students and alums are noted — entrepreneurship and a desire to not stop learning.

And they are textbook examples, in every sense of the word, of how this experiment in higher education is adding new dimensions to its mission, uniqueness, and commitment to sustainability.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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Life Lessons

Jean Pao Wilson

Jean Pao Wilson homeschooled her son Dillan for six years until he chose to enter public school, and still homeschools her 13-year-old daughter Amelia.

Jean Pao Wilson will never forget the moment she decided to homeschool her children.

“I can still see the picture in my head; my children were sitting on my husband’s knees on the riding mower as the sun set behind them,” the Easthampton mother said, adding that she had returned home from running errands, and although it was past their bedtime, her son and daughter ran and jumped into their father’s lap as soon as they saw him.

“It was a deciding moment; my son was in kindergarten and I had been thinking about the idea, but that did it,” Pao Wilson said, explaining that her husband worked six days a week, her children were in bed every night when he got home, and she knew homeschooling would allow them to spend more time together.

Other local parents who homeschool may not have experienced a similar epiphany, but those who have chosen this route say the benefits outweigh the challenges, and they and their children have no regrets.

Indeed, 16-year-old Dillan Wilson, who made the decision to switch to a brick-and-mortar school in seventh grade after years of homeschooling, found his experiences with learning very different than many of his peers.

“I saw so many kids who were just trying to get a (grade of) 60 to pass a test, rather than really wanting to understand the material,” he explained. “If I hadn’t been homeschooled for so many years, I might have been one of them.

“Homeschooling was a good experience,” he continued. “It wasn’t over-structured and I always wanted to learn more because there was never any pressure or testing.”

Statistician Sarah Grady from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics said the organization’s most recent study on homeschooling has yet to be released. But there was a 74% increase in homeschooling from 1999 to 2003, a 36% increase over the next nine years, and by 2012, 3.4% of students in the U.S. were homeschooled, including 31,000 to 41,000 children in Massachusetts.

Grady said the majority of parents cited concern about the environment in schools as the primary reason they decided to homeschool. However, the numbers reflect a limited population; 83% are white, and the income for most households is $50,000 to $100,000.

But local parents say the benefits are numerous: Homeschooling can be tailored to meet each child’s need; each child has a one-on-one-tutor; they can learn at their own pace without being labeled, which is especially important if they are ahead or behind in a subject area; they learn to think more independently than their peers; they are not bored by subjects they lack interest in or have already mastered; the environment is safe and devoid of bullying; and unusually close family relationships are forged due to a lifestyle that incorporates learning at every level.

Which is not to say that parents never have doubts.

David Iacobucci of East Longmeadow is a middle-school vice principal, and when his wife Adriana told him she wanted to homeschool their children he was apprehensive because he lacked a true understanding of the possibilities.

But over the years, a series of small and consistent successes that began when he watched Adriana teach his children to read built a belief in homeschooling that exceeded anything he could have imagined.

It has involved a lot of lot of hard work; the couple has studied Massachusetts and Connecticut state standards, and David has provided Adriana with many resources gleaned from his own career. But ultimately, he discovered that what was taking place in his home was the ideal set for public schools: Student-centered learning with an unlimited opportunity for socialization through a full schedule of diverse activities.

But he admits he continued to have some reservations, although they diminished over time, until his oldest daughter, Lena, got her first report card in a brick-and-mortar high school.

Today, Lena is a senior and president of the National Honor Society in East Longmeadow High School; her younger sister Sofia, who entered public school in 7th grade, has also earned honors, including the Presidential Award for Academic Excellence in eighth grade; and 11-year-old Eliza and 8-year-old Luca are being homeschooled by Adriana.

For this edition and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes a look at homeschooling through the eyes of several local families who shared their fears, hopes, and dreams, and the challenges and rewards of this form of alternative education.

Unlimited Resources

Miranda Shannon of Amherst started homeschooling 16 years ago. Today, one of her children is in graduate school, two are in college, her 18-year-old just finished his high school homeschooling program, and her 14-year-old son is still being homeschooled.

“Homeschooling is a viable way to educate children that can be done successfully because it allows parents to take their children’s personalities and learning styles into account; the ultimate goal is to produce an educated, self-confident young person,” Shannon told BusinessWest, noting that it’s more accepted today than when she started more than a decade ago.

Shannon is the moderator for the Pioneer Valley Homeschoolers Group, an inclusive, eclectic, online support group started in 2000 by a handful of families in a playgroup who shared the same goals.

It’s a place where people can find resources, ask questions, get advice and support, and post events, classes, and other activities. The group also offers help on tasks that include how to turn in paperwork required by local school departments as well as other practical information.

“There are things that every family must do, but when it comes to actual teaching we all do things very differently,” Shannon said, noting that PVHG provides support at all stages of schooling, from preschool/kindergarten through high school, which is important; veteran homeschoolers, who schooled their teens through high school give advice to families who wish to do the same.

The help ranges from information about existing options to advice on how to create high school transcripts, and personal experiences with the college application process.

Adrianna Iacobucci

Adrianna Iacobucci helps 11-year-old Eliza and 8-year-old Luca with their studies.

Indeed, so many groups exist in which homeschoolers and parents collaborate that it’s not difficult for parents to find one with like-minded people; they include cooperatives where group learning and projects are the primary focus; clubs formed by parents; support groups; and a growing number of field trips, classes, and educational sessions.

Sophia Sayigh is on the board of directors for Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts; the statewide nonprofit is based in the Boston area and designed to educate and support parents in the Commonwealth who want to homeschool their children.

She says each town or city is responsible for overseeing residents who are homeschooled, and parents must submit an annual plan for each child. However, there is considerable room for flexibility because homeschoolers are not required to take standardized tests, although they can take an exam similar to the GED if they want a traditional diploma.

But experts say that is not necessary for entrance to college, especially at private schools, and an article in the Journal of College Admission notes that homeschoolers’ ACT and SAT scores are higher than those of public school students, and home-educated college students perform as well as or better than traditionally educated students.

Although some parents use curriculums they purchase to help guide their daily lessons, many create their own based on state standards. The Internet also provides an unlimited trove of resources: Lena Iacobucci took a free college course in psychology when she was in 8th grade, and her sister Sofia took a college course in International Law while she in 6th grade, thanks to offerings on the website www.coursera.org.

Sayigh tells parents to consider their child’s interests and how they learn best and include that in their education plan, and notes that being able to cater to their individual needs is one of the benefits of homeschooling.

“Everything is interdisciplinary,” she said, explaining that although schools divide their day into periods with designated times for different subjects, taking a child who is fascinated by marine biology to an aquarium can lead to extensive reading, research, writing, and math exercises that the child finds interesting. And since children learn best when they are enthusiastic about a subject, it can result in advanced learning.

In fact, homeschooling is an experience far removed from what most people imagine.

“You do not have to recreate school at home; there is no school bus to catch, and if something isn’t working, you change it,” Sayigh said. “Plus, your child doesn’t ever have to struggle because their learning is not dictated by an outside institution.

“Although you need to be able show progress, they don’t have to be at grade level in every subject,” she continued, citing the example of learning to read; there is a continuum of normal, and if parents read to their children every day and take other measures that hold their interest, they attain competence in their own timeframe.

Shattering Misconceptions

Homeschooling parents agree that although it can be a lifesaver for some children, it is definitely not for everyone, and is unlikely to be successful if the parent’s and children’s personalities do not mesh well, or for those unwilling to make the effort required to ensure their children have a multitude of opportunities to interact socially with their peers.

“If the parent is on the quiet or shy side, it may be hard to provide enough socialization for their children,” said Pao-Wilson, a licensed clinical psychologist. “It takes energy and time to network and establish and build the relationships and support that you and your children need.”

Local homeschooling parents say they don’t sit at the kitchen table for six hours a day, and their schedules are much different than one would find in a traditional school setting. Most tackle academic subjects such as math and language arts in the morning, because children learn best when they are not tired.

But their afternoons vary; children meet and do projects or learn lessons with co-op groups, take field trips, do volunteer work, research, read, take part in organized sports, and participate in the many programs that have sprung up in recent years at local museums, nature centers, and other facilities offering programs expressly for home-schooled students.

Gary Pao Wilson and his son Dillan

Gary Pao Wilson and his son Dillan share a close relationship and many interests, which was the intent behind Jean Pao Wilson’s decision to homeschool their children.

For example, Springfield College started a free physical education program last year for homeschoolers that divides them by age and meets on Friday mornings.

“All aspects of the program are directly supervised by Springfield College faculty members,” said Springfield College PEHE Chairman Stephen C. Coulon. “The physical education instruction is offered in a supportive environment with the emphasis on achievement and enjoyment.”

Parents also start their own groups. Pao Wilson and another homeschooling mother received a STEM grant from 4-H to start a Science Club, and was helped by two friends; a molecular cellular biologist and a friend with a degree in astrophysics.

“I know it’s incumbent on me to find programs that will interest my children, and if something doesn’t exist, I need to create it or find resources that will help me,” she said.

Most children’s schedules are filled with activities and trips to places that interest them, and they also belong to Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, local sports teams, and more.

Social skills are formed as they work on projects in homeschool cooperatives and through the many group activities they take part in. In fact, parents and children say that being in a classroom doesn’t mean you will make friends with the people around you, and that it’s easy for them to form friendships in a homeschooling environment.

“You don’t need to be with 30 kids a day to develop as a normal, happy person, and homeschooled children are often more comfortable with adults because they don’t view them as someone who is trying to keep them in order,” Sayigh noted, adding that she successfully homeschooled her two children.

Different Styles

Pao Wilson does not think of homeschooling as simply another way to master academics; instead she views it as a place to learn lessons about life; develop critical thinking skills; and share her personal values.

And since most homeschoolers engage in a wide variety of activities related to their schooling, that’s exactly what has occurred with her children.

Her daughter Amelia, has earned ribbons for science-related projects in 4-H; taken photography classes, and pursued other things that interest her.

And although Dillan chose to leave homeschooling for a traditional education, 13-year-old Amelia tried an English class, then decided she wants to continue learning at home.

“I can do things at my own pace at home. It’s easier than having a schedule,” she said, adding that she likes the flexibility of being able to take a break when she gets tired.

Her outside activities include horseback riding, but she says she is very self-motivated when it comes to schoolwork.

“My mom is always there if I have questions, and I don’t have to wait for an e-mail or a phone call to get the answer,” she continued, citing the benefits. “Some of my friends wish they were homeschooled.”

Pao Wilson and other parents say they were initially apprehensive about their ability to teach their children, but when doubt arises, she recognizes it’s something she has to make peace with.

But it quickly became clear that she had to spend time on her relationship with her children and their relationships with each other; they had to learn to negotiate and resolve conflicts with each other, express their emotions, and get along.

“I had to change my style of parenting, and by the time they were 10 and 8, I was talking to them like they were teenagers,” she said. “But they were able to develop their own thoughts about things without worrying about conforming to the norm or being subjected to the pressure of how others perceive them.”

Adriana Iacobucci, who has homeschooled for 13 years, said she and her husband David gave their children choices from the time they were toddlers, and the decision to homeschool evolved after their oldest daughter Lena returned from preschool and announced she could learn the same things at home.

“We wanted them to be self-directed learners,” she said, adding that homeschooling families learn quickly to respect and support one another even if their teaching styles are very different.

Like other parents, she has moments of doubt, but she also views it as a challenge that must be overcome. But she has been part of many co-op groups, and continues to make a concerted effort to involve her children in as many activities as possible.

“They have been in many situations with diverse families, so they’re open minded about other people and really accept them,” she noted. “Our children are also extremely independent; making decisions about their own academic studies has spilled over into how they spend their time and who they spend it with.”

She has enjoyed watching them learn, and says it’s a luxury to allow them the time and space they need to master subjects they find challenging.

Eliza is still at home, and the 11-year-old enjoys her lifestyle. “I like being homeschooled, although I definitely do want to go to high school,” she said.

Her 8-year-old brother Luca also likes being homeschooled. “You don’t have to be in class as long,” he said, reciting subjects he enjoys, including science and math.

Difficult Lessons

Pao Wilson says homeschooling requires parents to learn how to learn themselves, have a desire to examine their beliefs, and be willing to change.

It also requires personal and financial sacrifices, because one parent is home instead of working. “But whether you’re home or making money in the workforce depends on your values and whether your definition of success is measured in dollars,” she noted.

Her initial goal of giving her children more time to spend with their father has been met, and today they all enjoy close relationships.

“Any endeavor worth pursuing will have its share of challenges, and there will be good days and bad days,” she explained. “But in the end, even with the kids squabbling, the uncertainty and worry about whether I’m doing the right thing or if I’m doing enough; and the sacrifices in health, time, energy, money, and sometimes my sanity … I still believe that homeschooling is worth the sacrifice.”

Teen Sofia Iacobucci agrees. “I left homeschooling because I wanted to try something new, and a lot of homeschool friends were going to public school,” she said. “But it was a big change. I liked the freedom we had at home. We had a say in what we wanted to learn instead of being told what we had to do and it allowed me to take my education into my own hands and become independent.”

Which is indeed the goal of every parent; to raise a well-rounded, happy and independent child.

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New Programs Prepare People for Careers in Manufacturing

Several weeks ago, Bob LePage met with a fourth-generation manufacturer who is having problems finding new employees with the right skills to fuel his company’s growth.

“He told me his competitors were also having a difficult time and he gained new customers when another fourth-generation manufacturing company went out of business because they could not find enough talent,” said Springfield Technical Community College’s vice president of Foundation & Workforce Training.

In response to the growing need for skilled workers in the manufacturing sector, STCC launched several new programs this summer and expanded existing programs that provide training and retraining for careers in the field.

Specifically, STCC’s associate-degree program in precision machining doubled in size last September from 40 to 80 students, thanks to a $2 million upgrade of the school’s Smith & Wesson Technology Applications Center. “We have all new CNC machines, computers, high-end computer workstations, and software. We also hired two new faculty members as well as technicians,” said STCC President Ira Rubenzahl, adding that there will be a total of about 250 students in non-credit and for-credit manufacturing-related programs this fall.

From left, West Springfield High School students Lexi Pastore, Jared Schelb, and Chris Brown prepare to make key fobs under the direction of STCC Professor John LaFrancis.

From left, West Springfield High School students Lexi Pastore, Jared Schelb, and Chris Brown prepare to make key fobs under the direction of STCC Professor John LaFrancis.

And on Aug. 28, a class of 15 students who were carefully honed from a field of 60 applicants will graduate from a free, 10-week, intensive accelerated manufacturing technician production program. It was created collaboratively by STCC and Holyoke Community College, with input from more than 50 manufacturers. Participants range from recent high-school graduates to an individual in his 50s returning to the field after years away from the industry.

The accelerated program includes a combination of classroom and hands-on training in machining, and will continue this fall, with a class at STCC’s Smith & Wesson Center and another sponsored by HCC. The latter will consist of evening sessions held at Dean Vocational Technical High School, with hands-on training there and in the Smith & Wesson Center.

“The program provides students with production, foundational machining, and fabrication skills,” said LePage. It includes classes on machinery, instrumentation, LEAN production, blueprint reading, teamwork, and manufacturing math. Students are also given exposure to the industry via speakers and field trips.

When the first class graduates later this month, members will receive certificates of completion, OSHA 10-hour cards, and mechanical-aptitude certificates. Companies have already interviewed them in anticipation of the upcoming commencement, and LePage said starting salaries should between average between $35,000 and $40,000.

The program was funded by the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, MassMutual, Suffolk Construction, and Smith & Wesson.

LePage said the college has weekly meetings with administrators at Smith & Wesson, who invested more than $200,000 in the center five years ago and continue to support it.
“Our plan is to expand the program; we want to offer it at UMass Amherst and in two other communities in addition to Holyoke,” he explained. “We need to grow capacity so we can meet the volume needs for the region.”

Other measures to fill the gap include an increase in the number of training sessions for employees of manufacturing companies, accomplished through a partnership with the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County (REB). It allows individuals and small groups working in the field to update their skills at the Smith & Wesson Center. Larger manufacturers with six or more employees have the option of sending them to the center or having instructors from the college conduct on-site trainings in their locations.

Credit and certificate programs are also part of the mix, and STCC offers a CNC certificate in design, a CAD-CAM certificate, and an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering technology. Classes are held four nights a week to meet the needs of people already employed who want to step up their careers, as well as those in traditional degree programs.

Early Exposure

STCC and its partners are also looking to the future, and this summer, the REB paid for a group of 10 students from West Springfield High School to attend a new, two-week summer session called “Pathways to Prosperity” at the Smith & Wesson Center.

The teens, who will be entering their sophomore year this fall, were selected by the school and were among a group of 60 students who toured the center in the spring. “The program gave us the opportunity to expose students from a non-vocational high school to manufacturing,” said John LaFrancis, professor of Mechanical Engineering.

The students learned how to design parts using computer software programs, then took the design for a small bottle-style container with four sides to a rapid prototyping machine.

LaFrancis said they worked as a group to decide what to emblazon on two sides of the container, and chose their high-school Terrier logo for one side and put their names and/or a quotation on the other.

“This was an additive process which required them to add material to manufacture their bottles,” said LaFrancis. “Each student got to keep their container, and they will make good holders for pens and pencils.”

The students also chose a design for a brass key fob, and emblazoned ‘STCC’ on one side and their name or something else on the flip side. “The key fob was a subtractive process in which they removed material to reveal their individual designs,” LaFrancis explained. “The program has been a real success, and we would like to hold it again. But we want to expand it to two campuses so we can expose more students to manufacturing.”

STCC and its partners are doing all they can to meet that goal and interest young people in manufacturing. “The program was part of a strategy to build awareness about career opportunities,” LePage said.
Rubenzahl added that exposure to opportunities in manufacturing should start in middle school. “Students can have careers as engineers, run CNC machines, do design work, programming, quality control, or go into sales and marketing,” he noted. “Manufacturing is a hot field for employment in the Pioneer Valley, and, given the economy, it’s important for people to understand this and take advantage of it, because if there are not enough new employees, companies won’t survive.”

One reason for the shortage of skilled workers is the number of Baby Boomers who are retiring. “We believe the region will need 300 to 400 workers in the next few years,” said LePage. “One company that recently partnered with us told me they expect to lose two-thirds of their staff to retirement.”

The need has echoed throughout the Valley, and the new programs have been created through proactive collaborations with the REB, Holyoke Community College, and high schools with vocational technical programs, as well as information elicited from local manufacturers.

“We’ve been working to improve our ability to educate students for the manufacturing sector for 10 years, and people are wowed by what we are doing,” said Rubenzahl. “Manufacturing is the most important sector for revitalization in the Pioneer Valley; the area was a center for manufacturing during the 19th century, and there are many legacy companies, new companies, and a lot of skill in terms of business acumen to build on. An expansion of manufacturing will be the basis for building a robust economy here. Plus, these jobs pay well, and the college wants to provide the education students need to get good-paying positions.”

He added that STCC’s partnerships with manufacturers are growing in number, which heightens the school’s ability to link graduates to jobs while raising awareness about career opportunities through tours and informational sessions.

Solid Foundation

LePage said many people are unaware of the number of small manufacturers in the region who provide specialized products for the medical, auto, and aerospace industries. Pay for entry-level positions averages from $12 to $17 an hour; people with a one-year certificate earn between $40,000 and $50,000, and those with an associate degree gross about $50,000, or $70,000 with overtime.

Bob LePage, left, and John LaFrancis show off one of the new machines in the Smith & Wesson Technology Application Center at STCC.

Bob LePage, left, and John LaFrancis show off one of the new machines in the Smith & Wesson Technology Application Center at STCC.

“Machinists, highly skilled machine operators, and those who support the process are in demand, and we now have training for all three levels,” LePage said.

Although STCC and HCC have created new programs, Rubenzahl said economic-development agencies and department heads need to place more emphasis on manufacturing. “I believe they need to make it an important priority because there is a huge potential future in terms of jobs and industry growth if we can all get on the same page,” he told BusinessWest.

He cited, as one example, the $1.5 billion appropriated by the Legislature to replace rail cars on the Mass. Bay Transit Authority Orange and Red lines, since it has been mandated that they must be manufactured in the state.

“We would like Western Mass. to become so prominent in the manufacturing sector that it would be the logical and most cost-effective place to do this work,” LePage said. “But we need to raise our game to be able to attract that type of business.”

This requires an educated workforce, especially since the manufacturing sector is very dynamic and large capital investments are required for companies to be successful. “We can’t compete with Mexico and India in terms of labor, but we can compete by making high-end devices, which are some of the key products which companies in this region specialize in,” Rubenzahl said, adding that he spoke to a manufacturer who showed him a $1 million machine and said he would be happy to pay someone $50,000 to $60,000 a year to run it.

“Companies have made huge investments in order to be successful, but they need highly educated people,” he went on. “And there are a lot of small, local companies here doing tremendously sophisticated work.”

Future Outlook

LePage argues that long-term planning has been critical in developing the new programs. “No one institution can solve the problem — it takes a collaborative regional approach,” he said. “But we plan to continue to add new components to our program at STCC meet the region’s needs.”

Gary Masciadrelli, chair of the Mechanical Engineering Technology Department, agreed.

“STCC is fully supportive of supplying the manufacturing industry with current and future workers today, evidenced by our programs in the high schools and for adult learners,” he said. “We look forward to continuing them in the future to meet demand.”

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Five Colleges Inc. Forges Partnerships Between Schools

Neil Abraham

Neil Abraham says the five colleges have been collaborating as long as they’ve existed, but they’re finding new ways to work together.

The knot of Hampshire County schools known as the Five Colleges — Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and UMass Amherst — boast tens of thousands of students who share much more than a region.

They’re also able to attend courses on each other’s campuses, access free buses between schools, share library and dining services, attend open theater auditions, and much more, thanks to Five Colleges Inc., the Amherst-based consortium that has been dedicated, since its inception almost 50 years ago, to fostering partnerships and shared resources among the five institutions.

But even at the consortium’s inception, the concept of cooperation was nothing new at the colleges.

“The campuses have been collaborating almost as long as they have existed, sharing one thing or another,” said Neil Abraham, executive director of Five Colleges Inc. “The consortium is a separate corporation, founded in 1965, but that’s not when collaboration started. There were major collaborative efforts prior to that, ranging from intercampus buses to students being able to take courses at each other’s campus to library purchasing collaboratives.”

The organization began life as Four Colleges Inc. — Hampshire College would be chartered a year later, spurring a name change — focusing initially on library collaboration and course cross-registration among the campuses. At first, Abraham said, the college presidents assigned faculty members to the consortium, taking time away from the classroom to think about opportunities for collaboration, but the effort eventually evolved into a quasi-independent organization with 38 full-time employees and a $10 million endowment — but still requires heavy involvement from the individual colleges.

“These employees help grease the collaborative endeavors,” Abraham said, “but there’s far more energy put in by people employed by the campuses than even those 38 who work for the consortium enterprise.”

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy says the economic impact of the Five College Schools Partnership is significant, and far-reaching.

Kevin Kennedy, communications director for Five Colleges Inc., said that “it’s important to keep in mind the tremendous value our member campuses themselves receive by collaborating.” He cited several examples, including:

• Nearly 40 joint faculty appointments, individuals who teach on multiple campuses and allow campuses to cover curricular areas that they might not otherwise be able to afford if they had to pay the full expenses of a tenure-track faculty member;

• A course interchange that allows students to take most courses offered on any member campus at no additional cost. “Thus our campuses are able to offer a richer, more varied curriculum to prospective and current students,” Kennedy said, noting that almost 6,000 courses are taken through the interchange each year;

• Open borrowing through the libraries, making 9 million volumes available to students, many more than they could access in one library alone; and

• A combined compliance and risk-management office that saves the four liberal-arts colleges hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

The consortium serves 35,000 students and 2,500 faculty members, also supporting two joint departments and a joint major, 15 interdisciplinary certificate programs, and those aforementioned cross-registrations.

That’s remarkable, considering the fact that these schools are also in competition with each other, Abraham said.

“Over the years, in the heat of the moment, there have probably been jealousies and competitive juices flowing in equal measure,” he said, but there’s also a shared recognition that some things can be accomplished — or, at least, achieved at a reasonable cost — only by working together.

 

It’s Academic

Take, for example, the Center for the Study of World Languages. Launched by Five Colleges Inc. in 1991, the program coordinates campus offerings in languages beyond the 15 or so commonly taught at the schools — 41 additional languages and dialects, in fact, not available at any of the colleges, from Afrikaans, Tagalog, and Zulu to Creole, Mongolian, and Xhosa.

“The interest level is too small for any college to hire a faculty member, but our center has developed curricula for students to have opportunities to study these languages,” Abraham said.

“Often, there’s a minimum cost to do something, such as a full-time salary,” he went on, but not enough interest on one campus to justify that salary. By creating and funding a program to meet that need, the consortium creates economies of scale. “Sometimes the best way to do things is to build larger communities where otherwise they would be painfully small, and that’s good for both faculty members and students.”

A similar program is the Five College Center for East Asian Studies, founded in 1976 and based at Smith. “This program is intended to improve how East Asian cultures are taught in our region’s middle and secondary schools,” Kennedy said, and does so by maintaining a resource library, publishing a monthly e-newsletter, and, most notably, conducting seminars, institutes, conferences, and workshops for college and pre-college educators.

The consortium also provides benefits to the community beyond the five colleges, he said. Take, for example, the Five College Schools Partnership, which has for several decades provided professional-development opportunities to K-12 teachers across the Pioneer Valley by pairing them with college faculty for real-world learning experiences.

“The Schools Partnership has led field trips to South Africa and Asia, to Civil War battlefields and Civil Rights battlegrounds,” Kennedy noted. “The program just completed a three-week institute on the Native Americans of New England that brought classroom teachers from as far afield as American Samoa — which I think is about as far afield as one can be and still be in America.”

The economic impact of the Schools Partnership is significant, Kennedy noted; in fact, the program has attracted some $6 million in funding over the years, which is mainly used to pay local teachers to participate in these activities.

Speaking of financials, each college contributes $1 million annually, and together, they provide another $1.4 million to fund the 40 joint faculty appointments. Five Colleges Inc. also takes in an additional $2 million in external grants each year, and typically spends close to $600,000 from its endowment, bringing its annual cash outlay to around $9 million.

In its annual report, the consortium’s board of directors praised the value proposition of the organization. “Through collaboration and cooperation, there are greater academic and intellectual opportunities for students and faculty members than could be offered at any single campus, greater efficiency in operations and administration, and greater opportunities for innovation. We should take advantage of these opportunities while remaining mindful and respectful of the differences that create the separate identity of each campus.”

As higher-education budgets come under increasing pressure, the board noted, the advantages of collaboration are more apparent than ever. “Five Colleges Inc. has a leadership role to play in demonstrating a model for higher education that is both pedagogically and financially sustainable.”

 

Moving Along

Because taking courses across campuses has become so popular at the colleges, the consortium had to come up with a strategy to transport students who don’t own cars. To that end, it has forged a relationship with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority to facilitate that, Abraham said.

“For awhile, we had a private express bus service in the ’90s,” he explained. “A few years after the PVTA formed, we negotiated with them, and now we provide the additional funding needed for them to run buses frequently enough so there would be better regional transport that met the needs of students to get reasonably quickly from one campus to another.”

That partnership — and its promotion of public transit — is one example of how Five Colleges Inc. supports sustainability efforts on the campuses. In fact, that was the theme of the consortium’s efforts last year, with the colleges encouraged to contribute in various ways. To wit:

• Amherst College hosted the Thoreau Foundation-funded Workshop in Environmental Leadership, a course open to all Five College students;

• Hampshire College formalized its Sustainability Initiative, exploring opportunities for change in all aspects of campus life, and initiated the Food, Farm, and Sustainability Institute as a summer program for students;

• Mount Holyoke College established five environmental indicators to measure energy use, greenhouse-gas emissions, recycling rate, campus land use, and stormwater management, which will be presented to the trustees annually;

• Smith College unveiled the Building Dashboard, an interactive technology that enables students, faculty members, and alumni to view, from any computer, the level of energy and water use in campus houses and buildings; and

• UMass Amherst expanded its permaculture gardens project, winner of the White House Campus Champions of Change Challenge, to serve all four dining commons. Meanwhile, the UMass Student Farming Enterprise opened a farmers’ market in the Campus Center.

Other consortium initiatives are technology-related, such as the Five College Fiber Optic Network, financed by all five campuses and coordinated through Five Colleges Inc. Fifty-four miles long, reaching from Springfield up around the campuses and back down, the project was completed in 2007 at a cost of just under $4 million.

There are economic benefits to the initiative, Abraham said. In addition to providing several towns in the Pioneer Valley with high-speed access, Five Colleges Inc. recently signed contracts with Cooley Dickinson Hospital to provide Internet access to two of its facilities, and with Crocker Communications to provide access to some of its clients, including HitPoint Studios, the game company that recently moved to Amherst. “We have a little subsidiary company that leases the fiber we don’t need to others,” he explained.

Meanwhile, even in today’s increasingly wired — and wireless — world, the colleges’ library collaboration remains just as important as ever, emphasizing the continuing value of books on paper.

“Libraries coordinate on buying, so they think twice before buying an extra copy of something if they can borrow it from another library,” Abraham said. “They’ll also think twice before they get rid of something.”

That applies not only to books, but to academic journals. “Professional journals are now available electronically, so people can find the latest and earlier research on their computers, but it’s nice to keep a print copy in case the electronic copy has a bad photograph or you need a higher-resolution version of something.”

 

New Opportunities

Five Colleges Inc. has its hands in many other initiatives, from Museums10 — a marketing and programming partnership among the art museums at the colleges and five other regional museums — to multi-cultural initiatives and mentoring programs.

Abraham cited the instinctive nature of how such programs come to life. They often begin, he noted, with one or more people saying, “boy, if we had a little help we could do better.”

As he told BusinessWest, “many of these things happen from that level of interest, rather than from some visionary saying, ‘there ought to be a program; let’s do this.’ Instead, it comes from people who want it and will put some sweat equity into making it happen. ‘Organic’ is the right word for how it all comes about.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]