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Education

Breaking Down Stereotypes

A mom of two young children, Alysha Putnam strives to be a mentor for women of all ages in the PVWIS.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs have historically been labeled careers for men. Those stereotypes, along with unfair treatment of women in STEM, have dissuaded many from beginning or furthering such careers. Luckily, women in STEM are becoming less of an exception, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of many colleges and organizations, women now have more resources than ever to follow their STEM dreams.

Wearing many hats is a common theme for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Parent, teacher, student, and scientist are only a few that Alysha Putnam can name off the top of her head.

When speaking about her journey, she recalls it was a bumpy road, and says several female mentors helped her become the successful woman she is today.

“It was because of various key people — particularly women, actually — who believed in me despite the life challenges that I was going through, that I was able to be successful despite all the chaos,” she said.

One of these women was her master’s adviser, Paulette Peckol, who, as Putnam recalls, was very accepting of the fact that she had two young children and was flexible with her schedule.

Now, as a teaching and research assistant at UMass Amherst in the organismic and evolutionary biology Ph.D. program, she teaches classes while pursuing her research-focused doctoral degree. Throughout this journey through education, Putnam said, she has developed a strong passion for giving back in the same way she was supported.

Unfortunately, women in STEM, including moms like Putnam, have historically faced backlash, oftentimes driving them away from pursuing a career in these fields or even discouraging them from continuing to climb the ladder once they are established. But Putnam and other women in Western Mass. are using their own personal experiences to try to improve the lives of other women who are hoping to make it in these fields.

That’s why Putnam wears yet another hat: co-founder of Pioneer Valley Women in STEM (PVWIS). She and fellow co-founders Melissa Paciulli, Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, and Michelle Rame dedicate much of their time to being a support system and connector to women either already in STEM fields or pursuing such a career. Putnam is an alumna of Holyoke Community College (HCC), Paciulli serves as the director of the STEM Starter Academy at HCC, and Rame is an HCC graduate and current engineering student at Western New England University.

One of their biggest goals is to squash many of the stereotypes that surround both women in STEM, at community colleges specifically. 

“Stereotypes in STEM as a whole exist,” Paciulli said. “I think it’s important to really recognize that all people belong in STEM — people of all abilities and all races and all sexual orientations. We at PVWIS really believe in inclusivity, and through the community colleges we can provide access to a wide, diverse population for STEM, and we can really tackle that issue of diversity in STEM through our work within the region and within the community colleges.”

And they are not the only women in the area making it their goal to help women pursue and excel in these fields.

Gina Semprebon, founding director for the Center for Excellence in Women in STEM (CEWS) at Bay Path University, notes that her own experiences inspired her to start this program to help women pursuing STEM careers.

“I had a really hard time trying to break into the STEM field when I did,” she said. “It was so clear, even as a student for my graduate work, that there was bias. The males were breezing through, and the few women that were in there were not getting the help or support they needed, or were actually being thwarted.”

Fortunately, programs like PVWIS and CEWS are providing access to resources and educational opportunities for these women to follow their passion and climb the STEM ladder.

Turning Experience Into Expertise

When Susanna Swanker walked into the first day of her college internship, the women’s restroom had to be cleaned out for her because it was being used for storage.

Susanne Swanker

At S.I. Group (formerly Schenectady International), she was a chemist working on a pilot project. Aside from the secretary (whom Swanker bonded with very well), she was the only woman in her area. She remembers going to work in a hardhat and jeans while her other friends in accounting or social-services positions were getting dressed in business professional attire.

“It’s a different field, so you have to be willing to do those things,” she said. “I think sometimes maybe that’s a little off-putting or it’s not so attractive for people. But if you love the work, and I think that’s maybe where the challenge is, you get past that.”

Now dean of the School of Business, Arts, and Sciences at American International College, she is working toward refining STEM programs at the university to better fit students’ interests.

Being the only woman in a STEM room is not limited to the workplace. McGinnis-Cavanaugh said it is not unusual for her to be the only woman in the room while she is teaching engineering courses at Springfield Technical Community College.

While the percentage of female faculty in STEM programs at STCC is healthy, she said, the female student population is not so great.

Melissa Paciulli says the events hosted by the PVWIS are intended to make connections and build relationships among fellow STEM women.

Being a woman who went to community college and experienced many of the same struggles her students now face is one of the main reasons why she co-founded PVWIS and continues to teach at STCC.

“I see myself in my students,” she said. “I don’t care what anybody says — community colleges still have that stigma attached to them. ‘Oh, you go to a community college, you couldn’t get into a real college,’ that type of thing. That really bothers me because I went to a community college, so that resonates with me in a big way.”

These stigmas, she said, are an issue of equity in the community-college world, and the everyday issues women in STEM often face come back to one word: access.

Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh

“There should be no difference between the opportunities that men and women have,” McGinnis-Cavanaugh argued. “We kept coming around to the same thing, that our students needed access. That was the word that we kept coming back to. We were trying to think of ways that we could expose them to professional women, to professional situations and professional networks.”

Bay Path’s Leadership Exploration Analysis Development program has similar goals. This 100% online initiative under the CEWS umbrella provides a certificate to early- to mid-career women in STEM fields, giving them the leadership skills they need to advance in their career.

Michele Heyward, founder of PositiveHire and CEO of Heyward Business Consulting, acts as an industry expert for the program, and says this certificate provides women with the tools they need to continue to move up the ladder in their career.

 

From left: Gina Semprebon, Michele Heyward, and Caron Hobin.

“Men are generally promoted based on potential, while women and people of color are promoted based on the proof that they know what they’re doing,” she said. “It is truly essential to have programs like this that are in place, active and engaging for students who are generally going to go out into a workplace where they may be the only one.”

Caron Hobin, vice president of Bay Path, partnered with Semprebon on CEWS and says stereotypes and stigmas faced by women in STEM made it a no-brainer to kick-start the program in 2013.

“I was moved by the statistics that would scream loud and clear that women were just not advancing at the same level as men,” she said. “You’re surrounded by really sharp women, and you look around and say, ‘why is this?’”

Toward a More Equal Future

The statistics speak for themselves.

According to Million Women Mentors, 75% of STEM workers are male. In addition, only three out of 12 women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field still work in a STEM career 10 years after graduation.

That is why programs and organizations like CEWS and PVWIS exist, and these stigmas are slowly being squashed.

“We see ourselves as being the connecting point of all these different women across the Valley and bringing them together to support each other, to share knowledge, to encourage, to uplift, to make connections, to empower,” Putnam said. “As we interact with our community-college students here in Western Mass., we are seeing incredible women of all ages coming through the community-college system who are very capable and smart and just need the support and encouragement to say, ‘yes, you can do it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Center of Attention

Nikki Burnett, seen here in one of the Educare center’s outdoor play areas, says the facility is a showcase of what early education should be — and what all young children deserve.

Nikki Burnett says Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood and those surrounding it certainly need the gleaming new $14 million Educare facility constructed next door to the Elias Brookings Elementary School on Walnut Street.

More to the point, though, she told BusinessWest, they deserve this facility, which can only be described with that phrase state-of-the-art when it comes to everything from its programs to its play areas to its bathrooms.

“Mason Square, Old Hill, McKnight, Bay, all those neighborhoods … they’re so rich in history, so they’re rich in great success stories that have come out of here and are still coming out of here,” said Burnett, the recently named executive director of the 27,000-square-foot facility, who should know; she grew up there herself. “People like Ruth Carter, who just won an Oscar for the costume design in the movie Black Panther — she’s from Springfield.

“We have to celebrate those things, and we have to model those things for our children so they can see that they have greatness in them,” she went on. “One of the very important things about Educare is that it aligns potential with opportunity. I believe all children are born with immense potential, but many do not have the same opportunity to realize that, so Educare will give them that push — it will help readjust their trajectory.”

That’s why this area of the city, traditionally among the poorest neighborhoods in the state, deserves this Educare facility, just the 24th of its kind in the country and the only one in Massachusetts, she continued, adding quickly that this building, and the Educare model itself, were designed to show decision makers and society in general what all young children deserve and what has to be done so that they can all enjoy a similar experience.

Mary Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, which spearheaded efforts to bring the Educare facility to fruition, agreed.

“The message being sent here is that it costs money to do this work well,” she said. “It costs money to fund quality at the level that children in this community and others deserve, and we can’t expect outcomes that we want from children if the investment is not there at the front end.”

Considering those comments, Educare is certainly much more than a building, and those who visit it — and many will in the weeks and months to come — will come to understand that.

Indeed, the facility set to open later this year, supported by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and to be operated in partnership with Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, is, for lack of a better term, a standard — or the new standard when it comes to early-childhood education.

And it is, as Burnett and Walachy noted, a model — hopefully to be emulated — that incorporates everything science says young children need to flourish. This includes data utilization, high-quality teaching practices (three teachers to a classroom instead of the traditional two), embedded professional development, and intensive family engagement.

All this and more will come together at the much-anticipated facility, which will provide 141 children up to age 5 (already enrolled at a Head Start facility in that neighborhood) and their families with a full-day, full-year program that Burnett projects will be a place to learn — and not just for the young children enrolled there.

The Educare facility in Springfield is just one of 24 in the country and the only one in Massachusetts.

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model,” she explained. “We understand that 141 children is not every child; however, what we learn here, we’re going to be able to send out — others can do what we’re doing. And on a policy level, it’s my hope that legislators can see the success of this and realize that, when they’re making out the budget, it needs to be funded so everyone can enjoy Educare quality.

“Educare is not going to be on every corner,” she went on. “But that doesn’t mean that the quality of Educare cannot be beneficial to all children.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the Educare facility and talked with Burnett and others about what this unique early-education center means for Springfield and especially those young people who walk through its doors.

New School of Thought

Janis Santos, the longtime director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, recalled that, when she toured the Educare facility recently as construction was winding down, she became quite emotional.

“I have to be honest, I started crying,” said Santos, honored roughly a year ago by BusinessWest as one of its Women of Impact for 2018. “One of the construction-crew members said, ‘why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘because I’m so happy.’

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model.”

“This is a dream come true,” she went on, adding that the facility provides dramatic evidence of how far early-childhood education has come during her career — it was considered babysitting when she got her start — and how important it is to the overall development of young people.

Tears of joy have been a common emotional response among those who have toured the site, especially those involved in this initiative from the beginning, but there have been others as well. Indeed, Burnett told BusinessWest, when the staff members assigned to the Educare center visited the well-appointed teachers’ room, many of them started clapping.

These reactions provide ample evidence that the six-year journey to get the facility built and the doors open was certainly time and energy incredibly well-spent.

By now, most are familiar with the story of how an Educare facility — again, one of only 24 in the country — came to be in Springfield. It’s a story laced with serendipity and good fortune at a number of turns.

It begins back in 2014 when an early-childhood center on Katherine Street in Springfield closed down abruptly, leaving more than 100 children without classroom seats, said Walachy, adding that the Davis Foundation began looking at other options for early education in that building.

One of them was Educare, she went on, adding that officials with the Buffett Foundation and other agencies involved, as well as architects, came and looked at the property. They quickly determined that it was not up to the high standards for Educare centers.

“Their model is ‘make it a state-of-the-art, unbelievable building to send a strong message that this is what all kids deserve,’” said Walachy, adding that, after those inspections and being informed that a new facility would have to be built at a cost of more than $12 million, the Educare concept was essentially put on the shelf.

And it stayed there for the better part of two years until an anonymous donor from outside the Bay State who wanted to fund an Educare facility came into the picture.

“This individual pledged to pay for at least half the cost of building an Educare somewhere in the country, and she was willing to do it here in Springfield,” she said, adding that the donor has written checks totaling more than $9 million for both the construction and operation of the facility.

With this commitment, those involved went about raising the balance of the needed funds — the Davis Foundation and another donor committed $2 million each, and state grants as well as New Market Tax Credits were secured, bringing the total raised to more than $20 million — and then clearing what became another significant hurdle, finding a site on which to build.

Indeed, the Educare model is for these facilities to be built adjacent to elementary schools, and in Springfield, that proved a challenging mandate. But the tornado that ravaged the city, and especially the Old Hill area, in 2011, forcing the construction of a new Brookings School, actually provided an answer.

Indeed, land adjacent to the new school owned by Springfield College was heavily damaged by the tornado, making redevelopment a difficult proposition. Thus, the college became an important partner in the project by donating the needed land.

But while it’s been a long, hard fight to get this far, the journey is far from over, said both Burnett and Walachy, noting that another $500,000 must be raised to fund an endowment that will help cover operating expenses at the school.

And raising that money is just one of many responsibilities within Burnett’s lengthy job description, a list that also includes everything from becoming an expert on the Educare model to attending regular meetings of Educare facility directors — there’s one in New Orleans later this year, for example.

At the moment, one of the duties assuming much of her time is acting as a tour guide. She even joked that she hasn’t mastered the art of walking backward while talking with tour participants, but she’s working on it. To date, tours have been given to city officials, funders and potential funders, hired staff members, like those aforementioned teachers, and, yes, members of the media.

BusinessWest took its own tour, one that featured a number of stops, because items pointed out are certainly not typical of those found in traditional early-education centers.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment.”

Starting with what Burnett and others called the “outside-in” of the building’s design, which, as that phrase indicates, works to bring the outside environment into the school to provide continuity and the sense that the school is part of the larger world. Thus, green, grass-like carpeting was put down in the entranceways, and green carpet prevails pretty much throughout the facility. Meanwhile, the brick façade on the exterior is continued inside the building.

Throughout the building, there are generous amounts of light and state-of-the-art facilities throughout, from the well-equipped play areas inside and out to the two sinks in each of the classrooms — one for food preparation, the other for hand washing — to the restrooms designed especially for small people.

In addition, each classroom is equipped with small viewing areas with one-way mirrors so that so-called ‘master teachers’ and others can see and evaluate what’s happening.

In all, there are 12 classrooms, seven for infants and toddlers and five for preschool. As noted earlier, they will be places of learning, and not just for the students.

Model of Excellence

Returning to that emotional tour of the Educare facility she took a few weeks ago, Santos said that, as joyous and uplifting as it was, she’s looking forward to the next one even more.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment,” she told BusinessWest, putting almost a half-century of work in early childhood behind those words.

She can’t wait because students will be learning and playing in a facility that really was only a dream a few years ago — a dream that came true.

It’s a facility that those students truly need, but as Burnett and all the others we spoke said, it’s one they deserve — one that all students deserve.

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

Education

Breaking Barriers

Rose Egan was inspired to work at the CEP because she had a long and difficult journey to education and wants to be able to give the gift of learning to others.

For many people, going to school and preparing to enter the working world is the norm. Unfortunately, for many members of the Latino community in the city of Holyoke, this is easier said than done. The language barriers faced by those who do not speak English are often burdensome and prevent people from getting an education or finding a job. The Community Education Project provides classes to give individuals the tools they need to become successful and move forward with their lives.

Imagine that your one and only barrier to success was not speaking the language you need to speak in order to move forward in life.

This intimidating scenario is all too real for many people in the city of Holyoke. In the Paper City, 30% of the population age 18 and older does not have a high-school diploma, while 18.4% speak with limited English proficiency.

This language barrier creates setbacks for much of the Latino community, but the Community Education Project (CEP) is working to change that.

“The bottom line is, people want to better their lives, and they want better opportunities. A lot of them are doing it for their children so they have better opportunities as well.”

The CEP provides adult-literacy and language-education programs in an effort to achieve social and economic justice by contributing to the development of the Latino community in Holyoke. The organization offers two levels of native language literacy in Spanish to prepare students for HiSET and GED exams in Spanish, three levels of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), and adult basic education for transition to college and careers.

It is the only provider in the region that offers native language literacy, or GED preparation in Spanish, and all classes are provided for free to anyone who walks in the door.

Executive Director Rose Egan said most people come in because they desire a better quality of life and want to be more independent.

From left, Edith Rodriguez, and Sonia Girón Peña de Aponte take their first English class with Angelika Bay, lead instructor in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL).

“The bottom line is, people want to better their lives, and they want better opportunities,” she noted. “A lot of them are doing it for their children so they have better opportunities as well.”

People come to the CEP at all levels, including adult learners with grade-level equivalency of age 3 to high school. Some students haven’t stepped in a classroom in 20 years. Some must bring interpreters to doctors’ appointments. Some are parents who want to be able to talk to their kids’ teachers and other school personnel without having an outsider in the mix, because they feel like they cannot develop a solid relationship.

“They want to be able to advocate for themselves,” said Egan. “The issue we see is that people can get along in their daily life fine in this area because everyone around here speaks Spanish, but then when they try to step out of that zone, they find barriers due to their lack of English-language skills.”

CEP classes run throughout the day and at night, and summer classes are offered as well. Egan said about 110 students participate daily across all programs, and seven staff members make it all happen — a “small but mighty” team, as she calls it.

“I didn’t even know what college was — it could have been another planet. I knew no one that went to college in my entire life. My purpose here is to help open doors for students, but also help elevate the organization as a whole.”

One staff member in particular, Vida Zavala, made a positive impact on student Ingrid Arvelo’s life, and put her in the right direction to accomplish her goals.

Arvelo — an immigrant from Venezuela and a 40-year-old mother of two — has plenty on her hands, but still found time to take level three ESOL classes, including the hardest, most immersive class in the program.

“It worked for me because now I’m taking classes to go to college in January,” she said.

Arvelo is currently enrolled in the college-transition course with CEP, and wants to attend Holyoke Community College next year, hoping to study law or education to become a teacher. She is thankful to the CEP for helping give her the confidence to learn English.

From left, Maria Vasquez, Nydia Rodriguez, and Stephanie Trinidad take their first English class at the CEP.

“If they see that you are in trouble or struggling, they help,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the program.”

Broader Purpose

Putting on programs like this isn’t easy, but when things get tough, Egan says she remembers her journey through education and how much she wants to give that to others.

“I didn’t even know what college was — it could have been another planet. I knew no one that went to college in my entire life,” she said. “My purpose here is to help open doors for students, but also help elevate the organization as a whole.”

Egan is also a single mom and sent her daughter off to her first day of kindergarten recently. She recognizes — and is grateful — that her daughter will probably never experience what it’s like to not know what education is. Her job at the CEP is her way to make sure others can grow and learn every day.

“This is an opportunity for me to be able to come to work every day and feel like I’m not coming to work,” she said. “I’m doing what I love to do, which is sharing the gift of education with other people.”

And she has plans in motion to help support the classes the CEP offers.

The Community Education Project is a 501(c)(3) organization and is classified as a public charity. After attending an innovation accelerator program with Paul Silva, Egan came up with a few programs to expand its revenue streams.

The first is a document-translation service the CEP has been providing for 30 years, but recently opened up to nonprofit organizations in the area. She explained that document translation is very costly, and the CEP is able to come in about 20% below competitors, helping other local nonprofits get their documents translated into Spanish.

“It helps us because it provides us some unrestricted revenue so that we can focus on our core services, which are serving our students and providing them with native language literacy, English-language skills, transition to college and careers, things like that,” Egan said, adding that this is very difficult to do with a limited budget.

“We find the biggest barrier to people coming in our door is they didn’t know we existed,” she said, adding that conducting more outreach in the community and incorporating marketing strategies into the mix are also on her to-do list.

She’s also hoping to expand Spanish-language classes to both children and adult learners, such as those regularly tasked with interacting with Spanish-speaking employees.

“We’re targeting local employers so that we can train their staff to speak Spanish so they can develop a better relationship with people they are serving without having to have a middle person interpret,” Egan said. “Launching those classes will really help us worry less about how we’re going to fund our classes and our core program. We want to make sure we have the funds we need to continue providing the services that will better our community.”

Looking to the Future

With all these services, Egan is confident CEP will be able to help even more students like Arvelo reach their goals.

“This country gives you the opportunity to be a better person, a better professional, and a better worker,” Arvelo said. “But if you don’t speak English and if you don’t put in the effort, you can’t make it. So English is the first step.”

With that in mind, Egan and the staff at the CEP continue to look for new ways to support those who want a better quality of life and have big plans for the future, one step at a time.

“Education is such a gift, and without it, we don’t even know what we’re missing,” Egan said. “If I can be that conduit to just make education accessible to those who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity, then I’m more than happy to step into that role.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Doctors in Residence

Dr. Lauren Wagener

Dr. Lauren Wagener says she discovered roller derby before she enrolled in medical school, and continued to play while earning that degree.

She told BusinessWest she started playing in a league, taking shifts as both a ‘jammer’ and a ‘blocker,’ terms most Baby Boomers might remember — that’s might — from when they watched the sport on TV back in the ’70s.

Things are different now, said Wagener, noting that today’s game features less violence and fewer of the pro-wrestling-like antics that Boomers might remember.

“Roller derby has revamped into more of a fully realized team sport with rules and regulations and safety — we’re not allowed to trip, no punching, no hitting,” said Wagener, who did some extensive research on the scene well before she moved here and identified two leagues she might play in locally.

But she has a few problems.

The first is a completely torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, an injury suffered while playing the sport; she is scheduled to have surgery soon. The second is that she just started her residency at Baystate Medical Center.

“No one likes working on the computer, on the notes; it’s the patient care everyone enjoys. This is what internal medicine offers, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

And while residents don’t have the crazy schedules they did until a decade or so ago, they still put in 80 hours a week over six days, the equivalent of two full-time jobs. That won’t leave much time for roller derby, although Wagener is determined to make some — after the knee is healed, of course.

In the meantime, she plans to take some of the lessons she’s learned from roller derby about teamwork into her daily duties at Baystate’s Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center and myriad other settings she finds herself in. And there are many such lessons, as she will explain later.

Wagener is one of 90 new residents and fellows to arrive at Baystate this summer to begin the next chapter in their healthcare education. Each one has a different and compelling story.

Dr. Zoha Kahn is from Pakistan. But she was already quite familiar with Baystate and Western Mass. before starting her residency a few weeks ago because her sister is a cardiology fellow at the hospital, and her brother-in-law is a pulmonary and critical-care fellow.

Kahn is an internal-medicine resident who hasn’t quite figured out what she wants to a specialize in, and plans to spent at least the next year narrowing her focus.

“Internal medicine is very broad — you deal with everything,” she explained. “This gives you the opportunity to look at the full spectrum of diseases before choosing what you want to do; I get to find out what I truly like.”

Dr. Zoha Kahn

Dr. Tiago Martins, meanwhile, is from Ludlow. While attending Ludlow High School, he took part in a job-shadowing program that brought him to Baystate Medical Center, an experience that inspired him to choose healthcare as a career. Later, he did rotations at Baystate while attending the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Maine and was actually on a trauma-surgery rotation at the hospital when he learned he had matched there.

Today, he’s essentially starting his professional career there with the stated goal of becoming a hospitalist, a specialist who, as that name implies, cares for individuals while they are hospitalized.

“It provides a different type of challenge,” he said of the hospitalist role. “You see patients not on a long scale, like a primary-care physician does, but you deal with more healthcare needs, and you also get to work with them more on a social level; I really enjoy it.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with these residents and some of their supervisors about these intense experiences and how they help these newly minted doctors prepare for the careers in front of them.

Learning Curves

Kahn told BusinessWest there is certainly no shortage of poverty in Pakistan. She cared for that population while attending medical school in that country, and she said she’s generally aware of the myriad challenges that those living in poverty — there and here — face as they struggle to survive day to day.

But none of this prepared her for what’s known as ‘poverty simulation,’ an experience that seemingly every participant describes with the same adjective — eye-opening.

Kahn is no exception. She played the role of a young, single mother in this exercise, and over the course of the fast-moving, four-hour simulation, she learned first-hand all that life can throw at you — and take from you — when you’re living at a certain income level.

Dr. Tiago Martins

“When you’re in that place, it is so difficult,” she recalled. “I was a single mother with two kids, and I was going to school. The first week, I couldn’t pay my rent, my kid was taken away … it was really crazy. You don’t know how to handle all your expenses along with taking care of kids; it’s really eye-opening and gives you a better perspective on how to deal with the kind of patients you’re going to see.”

The poverty simulation is part of the orientation process for all new residents at Baystate, she explained, and, as she said, it’s designed to help ease residents into the community they’re going to serve and give them perspective into one of the larger populations they will serve.

Kahn said she knew more than a little about Springfield from visits to see her sister and brother-in-law, both of whom also did their residencies at Baystate. This familiarity, not to mention a host of positive reviews, put the hospital at or near the top of her wish list when it came to the matching process for her internal-medicine residency.

“When I came for the interview, it felt right,” she said, adding that feel is all-important when one is considering where to spend their next three years on their career journey.

In addition to the array of options it presents, she said she chose internal medicine for the high level of patient interaction.

“You get these long-term relationships — you’re following that one patient for a while, and you build a relationship with that patient, which is very important to me,” she said. “No one likes working on the computer, on the notes; it’s the patient care everyone enjoys. This is what internal medicine offers, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

“Some rotations are harder than others, so we try to pick the schedules carefully so the rotations are balanced in terms of the intensity of the number of hours they do.”

Since starting her residency, Kahn has been working mostly on the ‘floors,’ or wards within the hospital. The cardiac ward is coming up soon on the schedule, and she expects to be working with her sister. She described life so far as “crazy,” in part because she’s learning a new system.

“The way medicine is practiced in Pakistan is different from the way it’s practiced here,” she explained. “It’s a steep learning curve, even with something like the electronic system of documentation.”

Kahn said she’s managing to navigate all this change thanks to a solid support system, a sentiment echoed by all the residents we spoke with.

“Everyone is super helpful,” she explained, adding that it certainly helps to have family in the area — and at the same hospital. “I feel more confident in my ability to deal with patients, and things have gotten better with time, but in the first few days it was really tough; what’s helped has been all the support.”

Support System

Dr. Reham Shaaban is a big part of that support system that Kahn mentioned.

She’s program director of Internal Medicine Residency at Baystate and an academic hospitalist there. She also did her own residency at Baystate.

Each year, she told BusinessWest, a class of 18 new residents arrives at the Baystate system. The doctors come from across the region and around the world, she noted, adding that the class of 2019 is quite typical.

“They all have different backgrounds, different experiences, and different expectations,” she explained. “And knowing that, we start with a blank slate and put together a six-week orientation period for them to get them familiar with all of our resources, all of the help, to get to know them a little better, and ease them into understanding our system and what’s expected of them.

“And introduce them to our community,” she went on, adding that there is quite a bit that goes into that part of the equation.

Part of it involves work at Baystate’s various neighborhood clinics, like the one in Mason Square, she said, adding that the six-week orientation also involves rotations in various wards at the hospital. There are also shadowing programs with nurses and other healthcare professionals, and so-called boot camps, simulation-lab cases conducted with supervisors and chief residents to focus on some of what Shaaban called the “bread-and-butter medicine aspects we see in internal medicine to help them hit the ground running.”

The poverty-simulation program is another big part.

“This is the third year we’ve been doing it, and it’s a very powerful experience for our residents to understand our community and have a different perspective going into medicine,” she explained. “And we do it purposefully before they start seeing their first patients.”

When they do start seeing patients, they do so with large amounts of supervision and support from senior residents, who are two years ahead of them in training, she went on, adding that guidance is provided in everything from patient diagnosis and treatment to use of the computer system.

And the schedule is carefully choregraphed, she went on.

“Some rotations are harder than others, so we try to pick the schedules carefully so the rotations are balanced in terms of the intensity of the number of hours they do,” she explained. “We try to put easier rotations between harder rotations to give them some breathing room.”

Describing the sum of all this, both Shaaban and Marie Housey, administrator of the internal-medicine program, said it extremely rewarding work — and it’s a lot like parenting.

“It’s the best job I ever had,” said Shaaban, who devotes much of June and July to the new residents before shifting back to the second-and third-year doctors. “It’s like being a parent and seeing your kids go through and learn new things and grow each day until you let them out to real life.”

Housey agreed. She said she starts corresponding with residents soon after match day and continues to do so on a weekly basis, dealing with subjects ranging from the location of housing to how and when they get paid.

“It’s like having a lot of children and nurturing them and watching and helping them grow,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s very, very rewarding.”

At Home with the Idea

Flashing back to the job-shadowing experience nearly a decade ago, Martins said he was able to shadow a wide variety of professionals, including Emergency Department staffers, radiologists, physician assistants, nurses, and a variety of doctors.

The experience, as noted earlier, put his career path into focus.

“From that point, I knew that I wanted to go into medicine,” he told BusinessWest. “And, ideally, I knew that I wanted to work at Baystate.”

And today he is, with a badge that declares that he is a doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.

Martins said he has a number of connections to Baystate, and collectively they make the hospital feel like home.

Listing more of them, he said his mother works there as a housekeeper; he now rides to work with her most days. Also, he became familiar with the hospitalist and that unique role while visiting — and translating for — grandparents and parents when they were in the hospital.

“Coming from a first-generation family, I always had to interpret for my parents and grandparents,” he explained. “And I found myself always connecting very well with the hospitalist team that took care of them, one of them being my current advisor; she took care of my grandfather when he was here with cancer four years ago.”

This explains the wide range of emotions when he received the e-mail on match day informing him that he would be doing his residency at Baystate.

“It’s hard to describe,” he said. “It was a happy, emotional type of experience, but at the same time it was kind of surreal; I was very excited.”

When he spoke to BusinessWest, Martins was on rotation at the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) at the hospital, but, like Wagener, he’s also doing work in the clinics as well, specifically the one on High Street, another facility that serves a generally low-income population.

“We see a wide variety of conditions, and we also deal with some complex social backgrounds that are not unique to Springfield but are very common here,” he explained. “In a sense, we’re helping them with the social determinants of healthcare; many of these patients can’t afford some of their medications and have to make decisions about what they can afford and can’t afford.”

The clinic setting contrasts sharply with the CICU, he said, adding that those working in the latter setting are far less focused on social concerns than the immediate medical necessities; going from one world to the other is part of the residency experience.

“There are high points of stress and low points of stress,” he said, referring initially to the CICU, but also the clinic setting as well.

Like Kahn, he said the poverty simulation brought home the challenges facing many of his patients in a very powerful way.

“Even though we all knew it was a game,” he recalled, adding that he played the father and head of a household in his simulation, “it became very real.”

Rolling with the Punches

Wagener told BusinessWest she had heart surgery as an infant and has vivid memories of some of the follow-up visits to the hospital.

She recalls having a temper tantrum upon being informed that she couldn’t keep an X-ray taken of her.

Overall, she said science and medicine are in her blood, and that’s why she took the healthcare fork along the career path. “I took an anatomy class in junior or senior year of high school, and that got me full into it,” she said, adding that further inspiration was provided by listening to the stories of some classmates diagnosed with cancer.

Dr. Lauren Wagener, seen here in her other uniform, will struggle to fit roller derby into her life — even after knee surgery.
Photo by Phantom Photographics

A native of the Pittsburgh area, she preferred to stay somewhat close to home for her residency, but she also read — and actually called up the quote on her phone to verify — that Baystate “has the happiest residents in the country.”

On match day, she got a text informing her that she would be one of them.

As noted, her residency is in what’s known as ‘med-peds,’ a combination of internal medicine and pediatrics, which means she has many career options to consider as her residency plays out over the next three years, both general and very specialized.

Early into her residency, she has spent considerable time at the clinic in Mason Square, where she’s taking care of patients and getting a first-hand look at the challenges facing a population that is, for the most part, living at or below the poverty line.

“At Mason Square, we have a very underserved population of patients,” she explained. “These are people not only with complicated medical issues, but also people who might struggle to get the resources that would help with their treatment. In the clinic, it’s not only learning the medicine, it’s also learning how to navigate the resources that we have for patients and helping them get what they need, not only medicine-wise, but with things in the home as well.”

Overall, it’s work that is in many ways different from medical school.

“It feels different when the decisions are yours and you’re not just recording for someone else,” she said, adding that she is new to such duties as ordering tests and prescribing medications. “There is a lot of responsibility that comes with that, and you want to do well by your patients.”

As for roller derby, she said it’s like medicine in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to teamwork.

“You have to have a good team and a strong sense of teamwork and collaboration,” she said, referring to both the roller-derby rink and a hospital or clinic. “Communication is the name of the game.

“You’ve got to put yourself out there,” she continued while expanding the analogy to her current work in residency. “In roller derby, one of the first things they teach us is falling and how to fall safely; they teach you how to fall so hopefully you can fall less in the future. If you make a mistake by falling, you know to get back up again and jump back into it — it’s in the same in this setting. And there’s a lot of encouragement as well; we pick each other up.”

Study in Determination

Wagener told BusinessWest she’s going to be very careful and patient when it comes to roller derby, and she wasn’t just talking about her knee.

“It’s a sport that can easily take over your life,” she said, while quickly noting that she’s already had her life taken over by something else — her med-peds residency.

It’s a three-year journey and a critical step in one’s career in healthcare. It’s a learning experience, but also a life-changing experience, as these residents, only a few weeks into the process, already know.

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

Education

Learning to See

Joy Baglio

When she arrived in the Pioneer Valley from New York City four years ago, Joy Baglio knew she wanted to write, and to connect with other writers. What she didn’t expect was to stumble upon a passion to teach the craft of writing, and to assemble a team to help her do that. Since its opening in 2016, the Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop has grown steadily, into a place both supportive and rigorous. And that’s an intriguing story in itself.

Joy Baglio likes sharing a quote by Flannery O’Connor, who wrote, “learning to see is the basis for learning all the arts.”

And there are many ways to see, Baglio said, including breaking apart written texts to examine the ‘how’ of writing — the craft, to employ a term Baglio uses often to describe what takes place at Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop (PVWW).

“I guess I have an inner engineer, someone who wants to understand how things work — but with stories,” she said during a candid conversation with BusinessWest, a few weeks after she was honored by the magazine as one of this year’s 40 Under Forty.

The problem is that the process of learning how to improve one’s writing requires vulnerability — and not every writer relishes that.

“People want to be recognized, they think they want to improve, but they don’t know how to take feedback,” she said. “We all have sense that what we produce is precious and sacred. That’s an earlier writer impulse — ‘this came out this way, this needs to be in this format, I’m protective of the way it is.’”

However, “there’s a moment when you emerge from that, when you really want to grow,” she went on, before hearkening back to the O’Connor quote. “Learning to see is also learning to see where your own work can grow. What can you learn from others? How can you learn those things? Taking feedback is one of the big challenges. It’s hard — it challenges our sense of self.”

But those who attend classes and workshops at PVWW quickly learn the value of feedback, of diving honestly into their work, and of honing their craft — just as Baglio does with the trusted writers to whom she sends her own manuscripts.

Joy Baglio (right) with PVWW Assistant Director Kate Senecal at the Easthampton Book Fest.

“If there’s anything not working, I want to know all of it. I want this thing to be as good as it can be,” she said of perhaps the greatest reason to take a class. “It requires deep self-honesty. What do you really want from your writing? Are you writing for yourself, in which case feedback is very threatening? Is it all about the ego, or is there something about the process of writing that you love? Do you want to be recognized and that’s all, or do you want to be the best writer you can be? If so, it requires a kind of surrendering.”

Writers — both seasoned and just starting out — have been happily surrendering, and growing, at PVWW since Baglio launched the school in 2016 as an informal Meetup.com group. It has since expanded to 13 instructors and a comprehensive curriculum that draws fiction writers, memoir writers, poets, even songwriters. One-day classes offer participants the opportunity to focus on specific elements such as dialogue, setting, and suspense, while multi-week series delve deeper into fiction fundamentals, story arc, revision, and more.

The organization also provides one-on-one consultations and writing-coach services, as well as hosting free writer gatherings and readings designed to cultivate and support the writing community at large.

It’s a collaborative environment where the instructors — who receive most of the proceeds the class fees generate — have plenty of say in what they’d like to bring to the table.

“We just slowly built it so we had more and more people teaching, and in order to sustain it, we started charging for classes, as low as we could, and it just kind of grew from sheer demand of people being interested and telling us how valuable they found it.”

“I might say, ‘it would be great if we had a class on sentence structure, creating flow on sentence level,’ and someone might fill that gap. But I want them to be passionate about what they’re teaching. We send out calls for class proposals, and I try to offer as many as we can,” Baglio said. “We offered 20 classes last spring — so it’s really kind of grown. I had no idea that it would grow like this.”

Settling Down

Baglio’s own story begins in Buffalo, N.Y. — “I grew up in blizzards and lake-effect snow” — after which she earned her undergraduate degree in English and creative writing from Bard College in New York, followed by an MFA in fiction from the New School in Manhattan.

She remained in the city for several years after that, but she and her partner were looking for a lifestyle change when they moved to the Pioneer Valley in 2015.

“My own writing started taking off when I moved here,” she recalled. “There must be something about leaving a place like New York City and coming to a place like this, a new place.”

Some early successes with published work and awards — her short stories have appeared in Tin House, Iowa Review, New Ohio Review, TriQuarterly, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, and many others — gave her a sense of momentum and possibility in her new home. In particular, a short story in Tin House called “Ron” — about a young woman who encounters a long series of lovers by that name — led to a film and TV option, and a film agent. Meanwhile, she’s working on a novel based loosely on her short story “How to Survive on Land,” the story of three half-mermaid siblings.

Much of Baglio’s work falls into the genre known as speculative fiction, a broad umbrella that includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian or futuristic fiction, and other imaginative themes. She started writing fantasy in high school, but as an undergrad, she was encouraged to write in a more realistic bent, although it wasn’t interesting to her. Inspired by the stories of Karen Russell and others, she felt she could uncover more meaning through more interesting, fantastic angles — and have fun doing it.

“It feels more playful, and I’m an advocate that writing is not drudgery,” she said. “My impulse was always that kind of story, but I got steered away from it — and then I refound it.”

A lot of her ideas lend themselves to “short exploration,” she said, which explains why she has about 20 pieces of flash fiction — very short stories — on her desktop. “I jump around and try to inch them all forward simultaneously, like an advancing army of stories. I like to work from start to finish through a piece and get that practice of what it means to begin and end something and develop it.”

That said, she’s making progress on her novel — writing much of it in a notebook instead of on a computer, which forces her to move the story forward, rather than get bogged down tweaking one section. She was awarded fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Speculative Literature Foundation for work and research on the novel, for which she has already received early interest from agents and publishers.

She also teaches at the Boston-based creative writing center GrubStreet, and is associate fiction editor of Bucknell University’s literary magazine, West Branch.

The school’s instructors bring a deep pool of writing and editing experience to their classes.

All that would seem to take a good deal of Baglio’s time, and it does. In fact, she never planned to start a writing school — just to move to an arts-friendly region with a writing community she could tap into. When she did, through the Meetup groups gathering at Commons Coworking in Williamsburg, she saw an opportunity for more.

“There are a lot of small writing groups around here, and I loved some of them. I just felt a need for something else — I felt people wanting and needing instruction and tools,” she said. “I refer to ‘the writer’s toolbox’ — all the techniques and tools and concrete stuff that can actually help people. Like point of view — it’s a very technical craft element, and when you understand point of view and narrative distance and how to move farther and closer to your characters, it can really improve your writing a lot.”

She was particularly inspired by writing conferences she attended after earning her MFA, especially Tin House’s summer workshop in Portland, Oregon, which was very craft-based in instruction.

“We learned about technical stuff that I feel wasn’t even taught in many of my MFA classes. It really approached writing from the point of view of how to technically learn different skills,” she said. So, once her Meetup sessions became well-attended, Baglio began to put the pieces together in an entrepreneurial way.

“Even at the beginning, I approached it as a class, so I had a whole lesson. I think the first-ever one I did was on creating and developing characters,” she said. “I was leading it; it wasn’t just a free-for-all meeting where we’d sit and write together. I was giving out a lot of craft instruction I had accumulated over years — a lot of stuff I thought was helpful. And people kept coming back.”

Preserving the Spark

The roster of classes and workshops gradually expanded as Baglio met more writers drawn to the experience — and more instructors as well.

“We just slowly built it so we had more and more people teaching, and in order to sustain it, we started charging for classes, as low as we could, and it just kind of grew from sheer demand of people being interested and telling us how valuable they found it,” she explained. “A lot of people told us this was the first of this kind of writing instruction in the Valley. There are a lot of literary offerings and writers, but there isn’t one cohesive craft school for writing. So I felt there was a need — and we kept expanding.”

Becoming an entrepreneur was an education in itself, she added, and in many ways, running the school has taken time away from actual writing, but, on balance, she feels energized by the interactions.

“With writing, it’s always a balance of preserving your own creative spark and your own initial drive that led you to write in the first place with the practical side of how to teach others,” she told BusinessWest. “I really love teaching. I feel like I learn so much from the students and from other writers. I feel like I have this community of writers in the Valley.

Joy Baglio is seen here teaching the first-ever multi-week workshop (Intro to Fiction) at Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop — the first, as it turns out, of many more.

“It’s become this weird marriage of my own passion and the practical aspects of the business,” she went on. “Administrative work takes a lot of time. But it does give me creative energy. I just see what the other instructors are teaching, and I’m inspired by their topics, what they propose.”

The school — which draws writers of all ages and skill levels, from young people just starting out to retirees contemplating their memoirs — remains based at Common Coworking, which has been a positive symbiotic relationship; a number of current members at the space discovered it through a writing class.

Baglio also hosts free monthly community writing sessions and organizes free public literary readings and author panels at venues such as UMass Amherst, local libraries and bookstores, and other central locations in the Pioneer Valley. The school’s curriculum also includes workshops specifically geared to young creative writers, from middle through high school. On a related note, Baglio is currently teaching speculative fiction writing to high-school girls at Smith College’s summer writing program.

While her next goal is to get her novel into the world — which she feels would raise the profile of the PVWW as well as her own — she’s also looking at ways to expand the school, including online options and perhaps a residency program.

“I want to find really innovative ways to help people feel empowered creatively,” she said. “I feel like Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop can go in many different directions, but craft is always at the center of it. I want it to feel both rigorous and kind.”

She’s found plenty of both rigor and kindness through her development of a school she never planned to open when she left the urban environs of New York City.

“I remember moving here and reading some article saying this is the most densely populated area of writers in the country. So it isn’t surprising that this would emerge here,” she said. “I wasn’t dreaming of starting a writing school in New York, but I needed to get out of the city to do this. I feel like the Valley itself inspired this.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Pressing On

President-Elect Ed Wingenbach spoke at his first public press conference on Thursday, July 18 regarding the future of Hampshire College and the role he hopes to play in its success.

When asked whether he thought Hampshire College could not only maintain its accreditation but forge a long-term future, Ed Wingenbach, the recently named president of the beleaguered institution, didn’t hesitate in his response and spoke with a voice brimming with confidence.

“Yes; do you need me to say more?” he replied as the question was posed at a press conference to announce his appointment on July 18.

“I’m not at all worried about our ability to pull it off,” he went on, adding that, although he believes Hampshire College will overcome these obstacles, that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy. “There’s a lot of hard work to be done over the next two months, six months, three years, but it’s the work that Hampshire College should always be doing.”

His confidence, he said, results from what he called “extraordinary and dedicated students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members who all have the will to get the job done.”

Wingenbach will be the eighth president of the Amherst-based institution has appointed. An accomplished administrator, faculty leader, scholar, and proponent of liberal-arts education, he has served for the past six months as acting president of Ripon College in Wisconsin, a liberal-arts college where he has been vice president and dean of faculty and a professor of Politics and Government since 2015. Previously, he served for 15 years as an administrator and faculty leader at the University of Redlands in California.

“I’m coming to Hampshire College today and hopefully for a very long time because I think that it is the essential college in higher education,” he said at his welcoming press conference. “There is no place that has been more important to the success of the American college and university system over the last 50 years than Hampshire College.”

Hampshire’s board of trustees voted unanimously for Wingenbach’s appointment on July 12 after a formal recommendation from the presidential search committee chaired by trustee Ellen Sturgis and comprising faculty, students, staff, trustees, and alumni.

The board’s goal was to name a new president this summer to help guide the college in securing its operations, planning for its future, and preparing for the coming academic year, assignments that come as the school is literally fighting for its survival.

Indeed, the school recently received a letter from the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) stating that, absent evidence of substantial progress on a number of matters, ranging from hiring a new president to developing plans for achieving ambitious goals for fundraising and rebuilding enrollment, “the commission will, at its November 2019 meeting, take an action to place the college on probation or withdraw its accreditation.”

“I’m coming to Hampshire College today and hopefully for a very long time because I think that it is the essential college in higher education. There is no place that has been more important to the success of the American college and university system over the last 50 years than Hampshire College.”

This rather stern warning comes after roughly a year of turmoil and regional and national headlines concerning the college, thrusting it into the forefront of mounting problems for smaller, independent colleges dependent largely on high-school graduates at a time when graduating classes are getting smaller and projected to get smaller still.

In recent months, Hampshire announced it will not admit a full class for this fall — in fact, only about 15 students are expected to be in what will be known as the class of 2019. There have also been layoffs, the resignations of President Miriam Nelson and several board members, and departures among the current student body.

 

Grade Expectations

Despite this steady drumbeat of bad news, in recent writings to the Hampshire community, interim President Ken Rosenthal, one of Hampshire’s founders, has been using a decidedly optimistic tone. Last month, he wrote that the school was fully committed to enrolling a full class for 2020, was making progress with an aggressive bid to raise $20 million by June 2020 and an estimated $100 million over the next five years, and was filling several key positions, including president.

Ken Rosenthal

While acknowledging this optimistic tone and focus on the future at a time when many had — and perhaps still have — grave doubts that Hampshire has a future, Rosenthal told BusinessWest, “that certainly doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”

Wingenbach agrees, but he has a plan.

“I am confident that we can overcome those challenges by reinvigorating the mission to innovate and lead higher education,” he said. “By becoming distinctive again, and inventing, again, new ways to think about undergraduate education, and implementing them and doing them well, we’ll restore the rightful distinctiveness of Hampshire College.”

However, both his and Rosenthal’s sentiments about the task ahead certainly not being easy were echoed by Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, who said Hampshire faces what she called a “heavy lift,” given both the challenges facing all colleges reliant upon high-school graduates, and the relatively young age of Hampshire’s alumni.

Wingenbach told media, professors, students, and trustees that Hampshire College is a laboratory to how to make higher education better, and the hard work that will happen over the coming months and years will set the college up for success.

Indeed, like Rosenthal, she said Hampshire is challenged to raise money and thus grow its endowment because its oldest alums are barely 70 — and probably still living and thus not bequeathing money to the college — and most alums are at an age when they are paying for their children’s college, saving for retirement, or putting their money to other uses.

Thus, the school will have to look well beyond its alumni base for support, she said. And it will also have to attract more students, a task made more difficult by recent headlines and words and phrases such as ‘probation’ and ‘possible loss of accreditation.’

“Colleges rely a lot on donations from alumni, but they often get donations from friends, people who admire the mission,” said Brittingham, adding that Hampshire will need considerable help from such friends moving forward.

This, said Wingenbach, is part of the plan. In order to reinvigorate Hampshire College, reaching out to not only alumni, but also those who are interested in Hampshire’s mission, is crucial.

“We have all kinds of resources beyond this campus to make sure that our students have access to everything they need to be successful,” he said.

 

Course of Action

The college has certainly used those resources so far. Wingenbach praised Hampshire for raising more than $9 million since February of this year, adding that this is an impressive accomplishment with the challenges they’ve faced.
But the college will need to continue to raise money at this rate in order to make ends meet.

Because Hampshire will be a much smaller school this fall — it just graduated 295 students and will bring in only 15 freshmen in September — the resulting loss of tuition and fees will result in a huge budget deficit. The projected number is $20 million, said Rosenthal, but it may be smaller depending on just how many students return to the campus this fall; the school is budgeting for 600.

“We set out two months ago to raise that $20 million by June 30, 2020, and we’re a little ahead of schedule,” said Rosenthal, adding that this schedule called for having $7 million in cash in hand by August, another $7 million by the end of December, and the final $6 million by the end of the current fiscal year, ending next June 30.

Moving forward, and, again, thinking optimistically, as the college moves closer to what Rosenthal called ‘normal size,” meaning 1,200 to 1,400 students, the budget deficits will grow smaller. Still, he projects that roughly $60 million will be needed over the next five years. When necessary capital improvements are added, the number rises to $100 million.

As Brittingham noted — as Rosenthal did himself, only with different language — this is indeed a heavy lift for a college this size.

Wingenbach says the cost structure of the college must undergo a serious adjustment in order to accomplish this ambitious goal.

“As we’re currently constituted, we spend too much money, and we don’t raise enough. That’s a fundamental reality of almost all small colleges in the entire country; we’re no different. But we have to face that reality as well,” he said. “As we’re thinking about experimentation and innovation and new ideas, we have to think about that framework within a reasonable understanding of what our budget and resources will look like two and four years from now, and live within that framework.”

This, Wingenbach said, may include an increase in tuition.

“We have to be thinking really carefully about what our likely students are willing to pay for this kind of an education,” he said, adding that the average Hampshire student graduates with about $24,000 in debt, an extraordinarily low figure for a four-year education. “I think it’s likely that tuition goes up, but I don’t think it’s likely that it goes up a lot in any given year.”

 

Critical Crossroads

Whether all or any of this — from the early progress on fundraising to Hampshire’s relevance in a changing world — will have any impact on students’ decisions on whether to return to the campus, or on NECHE’s upcoming decision on accreditation, remain to be seen. And they will both go a long way toward determining the college’s future.

“I think we have a really good story to tell that I think is compelling to people,” Wingenbach said, adding that another critical part of reinventing the school is going to be reminding people why the school is so important in the first place.

“One of the big advantages Hampshire has is that the value of an education here is easy to articulate,” he went on. “Colleges struggle to attract students who can pay a slightly higher rate if they have no argument as to why you should do that. Hampshire has a great argument for why you should do that.”

Reminding not only those within the community, but also those inside Hampshire College, of all this is a critical step in maintaining the energy Wingenbach says is crucial to get the school back on top. This includes recognizing the hard times in order to get to the good.

“There has been a lot of trauma here,” he said. “This has been a very hard six months to a year. Part of engaging people is recognizing that, both within the college community and with the public. It doesn’t change the fact that this has been a really hard year, and people have struggled. We recognize that and say, ‘now we’re going to continue to struggle, but we’re going to do something productive about it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Closing the Skills Gap

Caron Hobin says Strategic Alliances can help fill skills gaps that exist in the region’s workforce.

The ever-changing workforce environment is a continuous challenge for employers seeking qualified people to fill their positions.

However, not all employers are looking for people with a college degree. In fact, the World Economic Forum reported recently that skills are in higher demand in the labor market than occupations and degrees.

This is one of the many reasons why Bay Path University started a new division on campus — Strategic Alliances, which provides customized training and learning experiences for area employees, as well as the latest online certifications and recertifications.

Caron Hobin, Bay Path’s vice president of Strategic Alliances, said the goal for this new division is a direct reflection of the overall mission of what was then Bay Path Institute when it was founded in 1897. And that is to always be attentive to the needs of the employers in the region and to make sure the university is preparing prospective employees to succeed in the workplace.

“That’s what I see our division doing here in an authentic way,” said Hobin, adding that this initiative strives to help employers target areas of recognized need through specialized training. Whether the focus is on cultivating emotional intelligence, working in teams, storytelling for success, or any other topic a company may need help with, Strategic Alliances uses carefully selected faculty from Bay Path as well as practitioners who have expertise in the topic to create programs that address these issues.

“Time is always of the essence, money is critical, so how do you provide training, and how do you help close the skills gap that employers say is definitely an issue out there?” said Hobin. “We do discovery sessions with companies and prospective clients, and we listen to what they are looking for, and then we create customized programs to meet their needs.”

She said these trainings may last anywhere from a few hours to weeks or months; however, she does her best to encourage companies to choose a lengthier program in order to get the most out of the experience, noting that, if the goal is changed behavior, employers aren’t going to get it with a one-hour training.

Longmeadow-based Glenmeadow, which provides of variety of senior-living options, is one of about a dozen clients of Strategic Alliances. It recently completed a six-month leadership academy for all its managers.

“They used a best-practice model for adult learning, which is learning something new and then putting it into practice,” said Hobin. “It’s not theory; it’s not just a couple of hours, then you’re done. You go through an intensive training.”

“We do discovery sessions with companies and prospective clients, and we listen to what they are looking for, and then we create customized programs to meet their needs.”

Anne Miller, Glenmeadow’s vice president of Operations, scheduled six training sessions with Strategic Alliances for 20 managers at the facility, with each three-hour session going into detail on specific topics, with the aim of improving overall leadership skills. After each training session, Miller put together breakout sessions held at Glenmeadow that helped her employees apply what they learned from the trainings.

“We wanted to do some things that reinforced some of the training or actually made it come to life a bit,” Miller told BusinessWest, adding that post-training sessions are important in order to help with retaining and applying what’s been learned.

These training sessions, conducted by a host of individuals from Bay Path, covered a wide array of topics ranging from how to de-stress to how to complete a good performance review, which Miller said are critically important for customer-service purposes within the many aspects of Glenmeadow’s broad business portfolio.

“I think it set a good base for us to continue the learning,” she said.

Interactive Approach

Glenmeadow’s case provides a perfect example of how Strategic Alliances works and why it was created, said Hobin, adding that, today, adult learners not only want to learn new information, but they want interactive, applied learning that goes along with it.

So, after the initial presentation session, Strategic Alliances hosts a practice session, where participants take the training they’ve received and apply it using strategies like role play in order to engage the employees.

Hobin said this training, coupled with ongoing work to determine specific needs among industry sectors and specific businesses, helps Strategic Alliances tweak its customized programs. And it also helps Bay Path when it comes to teaching students in its classrooms.

“We recognize that, with declining numbers of high-school graduates and with just a changing work environment going forward, we are going to need to find new markets,” she said, referring to the need to improve the skills of those already in the workplace and those seeking to advance within the workforce. “We can tell you very concretely that these are the skill sets that employers are looking for.”

Bay Path also partners with MindEdge, a provider of online continuing-education courses, to deliver various certifications and recertifications to any interested student or employee. When Bay Path launched its American Women’s College, its online degree program, Hobin said, she was hearing that more and more employers were not necessarily interested in people having a degree, but rather specific skill sets and certifications.

She hopes this will encourage students to get a professional certification before graduation, and she has a specific goal for the future — to have every Bay Path student complete a certification before they graduate.

For now, Hobin said Bay Path is implementing several strategies to reach out to the community, improve the visibility of Strategic Alliances, and build relationships with area business and economic-development-related agencies.

In addition to being a member of several local chambers of commerce, Strategic Alliances hosts virtual roundtables which provides viewers with a free, one-hour training course on various topics, which Hobin said have brought in many interested companies. These videos host a panel of professionals in the field and have focused on topics including using one’s power voice, having difficult conversations in the workplace, and diversity and inclusion.

Overall, Hobin wants Strategic Alliances to be a resource for the region, its business community, and individuals who want to be better-equipped to succeed in an ever-changing workplace.

“We’re here,” she said. “We’re interested in innovative approaches to professional development going forward.”

— Kayla Ebner

Education

Taking Center Stage

Frank DeMarinis stands in the balcony

Frank DeMarinis stands in the balcony overlooking the stage of the massive auditorium in what will soon be the new Springfield Conservatory of the Arts.

Frank DeMarinis understands that people frequently used the phrase ‘white elephant’ in association with the massive former Masonic temple on State Street.

What he could never understand is why.

Indeed, while many saw a property that was too big and too difficult to redevelop into something for the 21st century, he saw only potential.

“This is a piece of history — it is what you make of it,” said DeMarinis, owner of a number of businesses, with the lead being Westfield-based Sage Engineering & Contracting, adding that, when the property first came onto his radar screen and then into his possession (he acquired it for the bargain price of $100,000 from the church looking to unload it), he envisioned a boutique hotel to coincide with the arrival of MGM Springfield.

Those plans never materialized, but something different and with certainly greater implications for Springfield and its School Department did — conversion of the property into the new home of the Springfield Conservatory of the Arts, a magnet middle school and high school that, as the name suggests, offers an arts-infused curriculum and enables students to focus on their interest in the arts, whether they’re dancers, painters, musicians, or playwrights.

“The idea was to have a place for the kids who have an inclination for the performing arts to go to school,” said Conservatory of the Arts Principal Ryan Kelly, who arrived three years ago. “There’s now a place where singers and dancers and musicians can go to perform.”

At present, though, that ‘place’ — both schools are operating out of former Catholic schools, one in Indian Orchard (the middle school) and the other off Liberty Street — is limiting, and in all kinds of ways.

The middle-school students perform in the basement of a church, said Kelly, while the high-school students perform in an old gym that doubles as a music room.

“Everyone’s really excited to have a 21st-century arts building; this will be a tremendous showcase for the city.”

Things will change in a … well, dramatic way come September, when both schools move into what will be a state-of-the-art facility created out of the cavernous spaces within the old Masonic temple, including the huge, nearly 1,000-seat theater on its fifth floor, previously known as the ‘sanctuary,’ now undergoing a significant facelift.

“It’s an awesome facility — it’s going to be a great performance venue,” said Kelly, adding that the theater is just one of the facilities that represent a tremendous leap forward for the school and its students. Others include a black-box theater for drama classes, a large, modern dance studio on the same floor as the theater, a recording studio, a media center, a tech lab, state-of-the-art classrooms, and more.

Actually, there will be two of many of these facilities, one each for middle school and high school, said Kelly, adding that the former will be located on the first and second floors, and the latter on the third and fourth.

The much-anticipated opening this fall will put a bright spotlight not only on the Conservatory of the Arts, which has enjoyed steady enrollment but should get a significant boost with this new facility, but also on one of Springfield’s forgotten architectural gems.

The Masonic temple has been vacant and unused for years now, said DeMarinis, adding that it had fallen into a significant state of deterioration by the time he acquired it. The exterior has been preserved, but the interior has been largely gutted and significantly altered — entire floors have been added — to repurpose the landmark for its new use.

The Masonic temple on State Street

The Masonic temple on State Street has been mostly vacant and unused for many years, but it will now play a leading role in Springfield’s future.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the work in progress that is the new Conservatory for the Arts to get a feel for how a big piece of the city’s past will play a large and intriguing role — that’s another arts-industry term — in the future of the community and the students who come through the facility’s doors.

Development of Note

As his tour stopped in what will be the teacher’s lounge, located on one of the upper floors of the new Conservatory of the Arts, DeMarinis pointed out the recently added windows on the west wall and, more specifically, the view they provide.

“You can see all of downtown Springfield,” he said, pointing out several of the landmarks, including the MGM casino.

With that, he noted that his original idea for the Masonic temple, a boutique hotel targeted toward high rollers, would have been an intriguing addition to the business landscape and, in his view, an almost-certain success story. He said he had some regret that those plans never materialized, but not much, because of what has emerged instead.

Flashing back roughly five years, DeMarinis said he was looking for his “next project” when the Masonic temple caught his attention, primarily because of its proximity to downtown Springfield and the announced site of the MGM casino.

There were already several ventures in his portfolio, including everything from the various Roots facilities in Westfield — an aquatic and fitness center and indoor and outdoor soccer fields among them — to an independent-living facility in Suffield to several distribution centers, including one for Utz potato chips. The temple offered the promise of further diversification.

“I toured the facilities, and it was in absolute shambles,” he recalled. “That’s why I picked it up really cheap.”

More than $1 million in cleanup later, including remediation of an asbestos-laden boiler room, DeMarinis was ready to look at potential opportunities.

One came his way with a request for proposals from Springfield school officials who acknowledged that a new home was needed for the school for the arts. They desired a location downtown, in or close to the “theater district,” as DeMarinis called it, a facility that would have state-of-the-art facilities and ample room for the school to grow.

DeMarinis said he had all that in the Masonic temple, and he also had a pricetag that others couldn’t approach because of the bargain price he paid for the property.

“It was a change of plans, but you adjust accordingly,” he said of his vision of the property. “I felt it was a much safer investment to work with the city.”

But getting the 88,000-square-foot, century-old temple ready for prime time has been a two-year process laden with challenges, from creating parking where there was none — a three-story garage was built behind the facility with room for 50 cars — to gutting and rebuilding the massive auditorium at the top of the building, to adding more than 100 windows to let natural light in.

The new facilities represent a quantum leap forward for the arts school, said Kelly, adding that he expects the new home to spark a rise in enrollment — the middle school is at or near capacity, but the high school is not — and also create much better learning and performance opportunities.

Ryan Kelly, principal of the Springfield Conservatory of the Arts

Ryan Kelly, principal of the Springfield Conservatory of the Arts, says the new facility will provide state-of-the-art learning experiences for students.

“It’s a real step forward,” he told BusinessWest. “The students will have real performance space, and we’re going to have full science labs, the auditorium for shows, a sound and recording room, a room with a greenscreen so we can make videos and newscasts … the facilities allow the teachers and the students to be more creative and express themselves more.

“We’re very much limited where we are,” he went on. “And now, the limitations will mostly be gone, so I’m really excited to see what the students can do with all this.”

To showcase the new school and reach full capacity (420 students, with current enrollment at roughly 350), Kelly said he’s forging plans to have fifth-graders, and perhaps parents as well, attend performances starting in the fall.

He believes the new building, and the learning experiences it creates, will inspire arts-oriented students to think about careers in that broad field and give themselves the best opportunity to pursue them.

“We figure that, if we bring them into the school, put on a show, and let them see the place, that should increase enrollment,” he said. “Everyone’s really excited to have a 21st-century arts building; this will be a tremendous showcase for the city.”

Show of Force

Referencing the current performance venues — the church basement and old gym — Kelly said they are woefully inadequate for what the school for the arts is trying to do with and for its students.

And that’s why the new facility is so important.

“It will enable them to be completely creative and just be released, and we’re really looking forward to that,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the Masonic temple is also being released. For decades now, it has been relegated to being a part of the city’s past, and, yes a white elephant.

Now, it has a starring role in the future of this intriguing school.

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

Education

Building a Pipeline

Joe Marcelino with some of the 90 devices on the machining floor of the center’s 2017 expansion

Joe Marcelino with some of the 90 devices on the machining floor of the center’s 2017 expansion.

With much of the manufacturing workforce starting to age out and a dearth of young people entering the field, companies have been struggling for some time to find the skilled employees they need to grow. One successful model changing the equation is the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at Asnuntuck Community College, which is placing students with a one-year certificate to work in good-paying careers — while meeting area companies’ critical talent needs. It is, in short, a true win-win.

When Joe Marcelino spoke to a group of Hartford Public High School students recently, he came armed with some numbers — and a common-sense pitch.

Among the numbers was the starting salary for students who earn a one-year certificate at Asnuntuck Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center (AMTC): typically, in the $45,000 to $50,000 range, and sometimes higher.

The pitch involved the country’s student debt crisis.

“I stressed to them that the opportunity coming through our program is priceless because a lot of the manufacturers actually pay for their continued education,” said Marcelino, an instructor at the center. “So not only do you come out of our program with a decent income, but you have the opportunity to go to school at night without debt — and student debt really follows you.”

The main pitch, of course, is the job itself, and how the center has partnered with manufacturers — in both Connecticut and Massachusetts — to create work opportunities for both young people and career changers, and address what has been a persistent lack of qualified employees these companies need to grow.

“We can almost promise you a job coming out of our program,” Marcelino said, “while if you get a four-year degree in, say, English, you might not have a job coming out — but you’ll have all that debt.”

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has been around for 20 years, but it received a major overhaul two years ago with the opening of a 27,000-square-foot addition, more than doubling its space. It includes an 11,000-square-foot machining lab with 90 computerized numeric control (CNC) and manual machines, an additive-manufacturing lab equipped for both plastic and metal 3D printing, a metrology lab featuring computerized measuring machines, and state-of-the-art computer labs — and a whole lot more.

“I stressed to them that the opportunity coming through our program is priceless because a lot of the manufacturers actually pay for their continued education.”

But the center’s most impressive offering may be those partnerships with area manufacturers, who have guided ACC in crafting the certificate program as a way to get skilled workers in their doors.

“With manufacturing booming in Connecticut again and all over the world, demand for skilled labor right now is really high,” Marcelino said during a recent tour of the facility with BusinessWest. “When I was in high school 25 years ago, a lot of the counselors and teachers were deterring us from getting into the trades. That’s partly why there’s such a shortage now in the industry.

“A lot of contracts are being signed by some of our largest manufacturers, like Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, and Electric Boat,” he went on, “but because of what was happening 25 years ago, there’s a shortage now because a lot of people are leaving the industry and there’s nobody qualified to fill these positions.”

Normally, advanced manufacturers are looking for people with three to five years of experience. But ACC students are interning during their second semester and being hired for jobs immediately after, at good salaries. The reason is that the curriculum is customized according to industry needs.

Mary Bidwell

Mary Bidwell said the national conversation is changing around student debt and careers — like many in manufacturing — that don’t require massive loads of it.

And that foundation, he explained, is something companies can build on, hiring certificate holders, further training them up, and often providing additional education opportunities along with that full-time paycheck.

“A lot of the companies we partner with pay tuition reimbursement, so it’s a real win-win,” said Mary Bidwell, interim dean of the AMTC. “You can get a certificate, start working, and chip away at a degree.”

That makes sense at a time when exploding college debt has become a worrisome economic drain, and a national story.

“The conversations are changing,” she said. “You don’t need all that debt. You can do this and still get that engineering degree later; a great engineer still needs the hands-on training in how a part is made and what the machines can do. In fact, engineers come here to take classes.”

And that certificate doesn’t even need to result in a job on a manufacturing floor, she added, noting that some have used the training, and continued education, as a springboard into manufacturing sales, teaching, and management, to name a few pathways. “We give them a good, rounded foundation where they can get a career and then grow from there.”

A Different Floor

While perceptions are changing about today’s manufacturing floor, Bidwell said, there’s still some work to be done to get young people — and their parents, who grew up with different ideas — interested.

“A lot of parents, when they think of manufacturing, think of a dark, dingy, dirty environment, so when they hear their kids want to go into that, they say, ‘no, don’t do that.’ They haven’t seen manufacturing as it is today. It’s very clean and technology-driven. And from where you start to where you can advance is unbelievable.”

That’s the message ACC is sharing not only with parents, but with guidance counselors and teachers, some of whom are invited in during the summer to see the facility and learn about career opportunities. “It’s about educating the people who educate the students,” she explained.

Those efforts are working. While student ages can range from 18 to 65, the average age at the center during the Great Recession, when many more people were looking to switch careers, was around 45. Today, it’s 28.

The center’s mechatronics lab

The center’s mechatronics lab gives students experience in the growing world of robotics.

“We give them a great foundation to build upon,” Bidwell said, “and the pathway is there to do whatever they like.”

That foundation begins with a hands-on approach to learning the machinery and techniques — from 3D printers, lathes, and surface grinders to welding and robotics labs, Marcelino said. And it’s a healthy mix of manual and CNC machines.

“The companies tell us the students still need to know the old-school skills; they need that foundation in order to make the transition into the CNC world, which are machines you write a program for in a computer, and then set up the machine to run the part for you. You need to know both ways.

“There’s no such thing as close enough in this industry,” he added. “The parts have to be made right. Precision is precision. I like to call this a work-ready program because our job is to get them the skills to get them a job.”

Those skills include — actually, the center emphasizes — ‘soft skills,’ especially punctuality.

“We’re really high on attendance and punctuality because that’s what the employers say is the biggest issue they have,” he said. “The other big issue we’ve been encountering is cell phones. Cell phones are a big distraction. We don’t allow them in class or in the shop. Some employees don’t even want them in the building, so we implement that here.”

Those second-semester internship opportunities — two days a week, with the other three days spent back at Asnuntuck — are based partly on grades, but mostly on attendance.

“The employer gets to feel out the student, and the student gets to feel out the company, and they’re getting a real training in what they’ll be doing,” Marcelino said. “Ninety percent of the time, that ends in a job offer. So we’re doing a lot of the training for the companies, and that’s what the companies are looking for. When they hire off the streets, the employees don’t always get it.”

Even in a healthy economy, the AMTC still attracts a good number of mid-life career changers who see opportunities they don’t have in their current jobs. Meanwhile, high-school students can take classes at ACC to gain manufacturing credits before they enroll, and a second-chance program gives incarcerated individuals hands-on experience to secure employment once they’re eligible for parole.

It all adds up to a manufacturing resource — and, thus, an economic driver — that has attracted plenty of public funding from the state and from Aerospace Components Manufacturers, a regional nonprofit network of aerospace companies that has long supported the center’s mission, most recently with a $170,632 donation on May 15. The investment arrives, Marcelino said, because the results of the program are evident.

“Students aren’t going to learn everything, but they’re going to have that foundation they need to make an impact right away in the industry,” he explained. “They’re getting the basic skills. There are programs out there that specialize in this or specialize in that. But in our program, we’re giving them a little bit of everything.”

Demand Continues

From what he hears from companies that partner with ACC’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center, Marcelino doesn’t expect any dip in opportunity for students — young and old — who want to explore the modern manufacturing world.

“We can’t keep up with the demand employers have, which is a good problem to have,” he told BusinessWest. “We just need to keep getting the word out about the opportunities in manufacturing. People think, ‘manufacturing, oh, it’s dirty, oily, stinky,’ but times have changed. Technology has changed. And as technology changes, more doors open. The medical industry for machining is booming right now.”

That said, it’s not an easy job, although, for the right candidate, it is a rewarding one.

“They have to want to be here. It’s not for everybody, and you’ll get out of it what you put in,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that the program works, but you have to want it. But the ones that do, they take off. It’s phenomenal what they do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

The Face of a Changing Landscape

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

As high-school graduating classes continue to get smaller and the competition for those intensifies, many smaller independent colleges are finding themselves fighting for their very survival. One of them is Hampshire College in Amherst, which, because of its unique mission, alternative style, and famous alums (including Ken Burns), has in many ways become the face of a growing crisis.

Miriam Nelson says she became a candidate to become the seventh president of Hampshire College — and accepted the job when it was offered to her last April — with her eyes wide open, fully aware of the challenges facing that Amherst-based institution and others like it — not that there are many quite like Hampshire.

Then she clarified those comments a little. She said she knew the school was struggling with enrollment and therefore facing financial challenges — again, as many smaller independent schools were and still are. But she didn’t know just how bad things were going to get — and how soon.

She became aware through a phone call on May 2 from the man she would succeed as president of the school, Jonathan Lash.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned,” she recalled, with a discernable amount of understatement in her voice.

Indeed, with that phone call — and the ensuing fight for its very survival — Hampshire became, in many ways, the face of a changing landscape in higher education, at least in the Northeast.

That’s partly because of the school’s unique mission, alternative style, and notable alums such as documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. But also because of heavy media coverage — the New York Times visited the campus earlier this month, one of many outlets to make the trip to South Amherst — and the fact that the school is really the first to carry on such a fight in an open, transparent way.

In some ways, Hampshire is unique; again, it has a high profile, and it has had some national and even international news-making controversies in recent years, including a decision by school leaders to take down the American flag on campus shortly after the 2016 election, while students and faculty members at the college discussed and confronted “deeply held beliefs about what the flag represents to the members of our campus community,” a move that led veterans’ groups to protest, some Hampshire students to transfer out, and prospective students to look elsewhere.

But in most respects, Hampshire is typical of the schools now facing an uncertain future, said Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), adding that those fitting the profile are smaller independent schools with high price tags (tuition, room, and board at Hampshire is $65,000), comparatively small endowments, and student bodies made up largely, if not exclusively, of recent high-school graduates.

That’s because high-school graduating classes have been getting smaller over the past several years, and the trend will only continue and even worsen, said Brittingham, citing a number of recent demographic reports.

Meanwhile, all schools are confronting an environment where there is rising concern about student debt and an increased focus on career-oriented degrees, another extreme challenge at Hampshire, where traditional majors do not exist.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned.”

None of these changes to the landscape came about suddenly or without warning, said Brittingham, noting that the storm clouds could be seen on the horizon years ago. Proactive schools have taken a variety of steps, from a greater emphasis on student success to hiring consultants to help with recruiting and enrollment management.

But for some, including several schools in New England, continued independence and survival in their original state was simply not possible. Some have closed — perhaps the most notable being Mount Ida College in Newton, which shut down abruptly two months before commencement last spring — while others have entered into partnerships, a loose term that can have a number of meanings.

In some cases, it has meant an effective merger, as has been the case with Wheelock College and Boston University and also the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music, but in others, it was much more of a real-estate acquisition, as it was with Mount Ida, bought by UMass Amherst.

What lies ahead for Hampshire College is not known, and skepticism abounds, especially after the school made the hard decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019. But Nelson remains optimistic.

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus, which has been in the national media spotlight since it was announced that the school was looking to forge a partnership with another school in order to continue operations.

“Hampshire has always been innovative, and we’re going to do this the ‘Hampshire way,’” she said during an interview in the president’s off-campus residence because her office on the campus was occupied by protesting students. “We’re thinking about our future and making sure that we’re as innovative as we were founded to be. We need to make sure that our financial model matches our educational model.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Nelson and Brittingham about the situation at Hampshire and the changing environment in higher education, and how the school in South Amherst has become the face of an ongoing problem.

New-school Thinking

Those looking for signs indicating just how serious the situation is getting within the higher-education universe saw another one earlier this month when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation to strengthen the state’s ability to monitor the financial health of private colleges.

“Our legislation will strengthen this crucial component of our economy, but most importantly, it will help protect students and their families from an abrupt closure that could significantly impact their lives,” Baker said in a statement that was a clear reference to the Mount Ida fiasco.

The bill applies to any college in Massachusetts that “has any known liabilities or risks which may result in imminent closure of the institution or jeopardize the institution’s ability to fulfill its obligations to current and admitted students.”

And that’s a constituency that could get larger in the years and decades to come, said Brittingham, adding that demographic trends, as she noted, certainly do not bode well for small, independent schools populated by recent high-school graduates.

She cited research conducted by Nathan Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, which shows that, in the wake of the Great Recession that started roughly 11 years ago, many families made a conscious decision to have fewer children, which means the high-school graduating classes in the middle and end of the next decade will be smaller.

“Things are going to get worse around 2026,” she said. “The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

As noted earlier, Nelson understood the landscape in higher education was changing when she decided to pursue a college presidency, and eventually the one at Hampshire, after a lengthy stint at Tufts and then at the University of New Hampshire as director of its Sustainability Institute.

She told BusinessWest that Hampshire offered the setting — and the challenge — she was looking for.

“Hampshire was the one where I thought there was the most opportunity, and the school that was most aligned with more core values and my interests,” she explained, adding that she was recruited by Lash for the post. “This school has always been inquiry-based, and I always like to start with a question mark. To be at Hampshire means you have to have imagination and you have to be able to handle ambiguity when you have an uncertain future; that’s one of the hallmarks here at Hampshire.”

Imagination is just one of the qualities that will be needed to help secure a solid future for the school, she acknowledged, adding that, while the current situation would be considered an extreme, the college has been operating in challenging fiscal conditions almost from the day it opened in 1970 — and even before that.

“We started out under-resourced, and we’ve had different moments during almost every president’s tenure where there were serious concerns about whether the college could continue,” she said. “We’ve always been lean, but we’ve managed.”

Barbara Brittingham

Barbara Brittingham

“Things are going to get worse around 2026. The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

However, this relatively thin ice that the college has operated on became even thinner with the changing environment over the past several years, a climate Nelson put in its proper perspective.

“Higher education is witnessing one of the most disruptive times in history, with decreasing demographics, increased competition for lower-priced educational offerings, and families demanding return on investment in a college education in a short period of time,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of factors involved with this; it is a crisis point.”

A crisis that has forced the college to reach several difficult decisions, ranging from layoffs — several, effective April 19, were announced last month involving employees in the Admissions and Advancement offices — to the size and nature of the incoming class.

Indeed, due to the school’s precarious financial situation — and perhaps in anticipation of the governor’s press for greater safeguards against another Mount Ida-like closing, Hampshire has decided to admit only those students who accepted the school’s offer to enroll via early admission and those who accepted Hampshire’s offer to enroll last year but chose to take a gap year and matriculate in the fall of 2019.

Nelson explained why, again, in her most recent update to the Hampshire community, posted on the school’s website, writing that “our projected deficit is so great as we look out over the next few years, we couldn’t ethically admit a full class because we weren’t confident we could teach them through to graduation. Not only would we leave those students stranded — without the potential for the undergraduate degree they were promised when they accepted Hampshire — we would also be at risk of going on probation with our accreditors.”

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools challenged by shrinking high-school graduating classes and escalating competition for those students.

While reaching those decisions, leaders at the college have also been working toward a workable solution, a partnership of some kind that will enable the school to maintain its mission and character.

Ongoing work to reach that goal has been rewarding on some levels, but quite difficult on all others because of the very public nature of this exercise, said Nelson, adding that her first eight months on the job have obviously been challenging personally.

She said the campus community never really got to know her before she was essentially forced into crisis management.

And now, the already-tenuous situation has been compounded by negativism, criticism (Nelson has reportedly been threatened with a vote of no confidence from the faculty), and rumors.

“There’s a lot of chaos and false narratives out there,” she explained. “So I’ve been working really hard both in print and in many assemblies and meetings to get accurate information out. This is a world with lots of false narratives and conspiracy theories; we heard another one yesterday — they’re really creative and interesting. I don’t know how people think them up.”

Textbook Case?

As she talked about the ongoing process of finding a partnership and some kind of future for Hampshire College, Nelson said she’s received a number of phone calls offering suggestions, support, and forms of encouragement as she goes about her work in a very public way.

One such call was from a representative of the Mellon Foundation.

“He said he’s never seen a college do this in a transparent way like we are,” she said. “He’s right, and when you’re doing it in real time, and transparently, it’s going to be clunky; it’s not like you’ve got every detail worked out and figured out right at the very beginning. We’re doing the figuring out in a public way and engaging with the community and our alums and the broader community and the higher-ed community as we do this.

“It’s a very different way to do it, and no one has ever done it; it is a very Hampshire way,” she went on. “But that makes it really hard, and I can see why every other president who has been in this place has not done this in an open way. I understand it.”

Miriam Nelson

Miriam Nelson says Hampshire College is determining the next stage in its history in real time, which means the process will be “clunky.”

Elaborating, she said there are no textbooks that show schools and their leaders how to navigate a situation like this, and thus she’s relying heavily on her board (in the past, it met every quarter; now it meets every week), the faculty, students, and other college presidents as she goes about trying to find a workable solution.

And there are some to be found, said Brittingham, adding that several effective partnerships have been forged in recent years that have enabled both private and public schools to remain open.

Perhaps the most noted recent example is Wheelock and Boston University, although it came about before matters reached a crisis level.

“Wheelock looked ahead and felt that, while they were OK at that moment, given the trends, given their resources, and given their mission, over time, they were going to be increasingly challenged,” she explained. “So they decided that sooner, rather than later, they should look for a partner, which turned out to be Boston University, which Wheelock essentially merged into.

“That’s seen as a good arrangement, it was handled well, and they were able to preserve the name of the founder in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University,” she went on. “They were able to transition a large number of faculty and staff to Boston University, it was geographically close … it’s been a smooth transition.”

Another partnership that fits that description is the one between two small public colleges in Vermont — Johnson State College and Lyndon State College.

“They had compatible missions — one of them was more liberal-arts-oriented, and the other was more focused on career programs — so they merged and became Northern Vermont University,” she said, adding that the merger allows them to share central services and thus gain efficiencies in overall administration.

Whether Hampshire can find such an effective working arrangement remains to be seen, but Nelson takes a positive, yet realistic outlook.

“I continue to be optimistic because Hampshire is an exceptional place with a great reputation,” she said. “But it’s not easy facing layoffs and things like that. But I believe this year, 2019, will be the toughest year, and then things will get better.”

Charting a New Course

Time will tell whether this projection comes to pass.

The decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019 is seen by some as a perhaps fateful step, one that will make it that much harder to put the college on firmer financial ground moving forward.

But Nelson, as noted, is optimistic that the ‘Hampshire way’ will yield what could become a model for other schools to follow in the years and decades to come, as the higher-education landscape continues to evolve.

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