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A Healthy Relationship

Springfield College’s recent visitors from China

Springfield College’s recent visitors from China included, from left, Wang Di, Dr. Huang Yizhuan, Cao Xiaojie, Wang Xinran, and Li Dehua.

One side of Sue Guyer’s business card bears the Springfield College logo, address, and website, and declares that she is a doctor of physical education (DPE), is athletic-trainer-certified (ATC), and a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS).

It also notes that she is chair of Exercise Science and Sport Studies and professor and clinical education coordinator of the Athletic Training Program at the college.

On the other side, it says all or most of that — in Chinese.

And she’s far from the only one at the 133-year-old college handing out business cards also printed in that language — one of the many visible signs of a relationship between the college and businesses, educational institutions, and civic leaders in that country that goes back decades and has only grown stronger in recent years.

Indeed, Guyer has handed out her card with the Chinese version facing up on countless occasions, including several visits there, including her first, in 2008, just before the Summer Olympics were staged in Beijing.

“We took 17 students over for an academic/cultural experience,” she recalled. “And China seemed to be the perfect place to go because we were looking at sports medicine — eastern and western approaches — and we were also looking at human performance, and we have relationships with multiple institutions in China.”

“We decided that, rather than go over there all the time, we would keep our expertise here and have them come to us.”

Many of those words and phrases — including ‘academic/cultural experience’ and ‘perfect place to go’ were no doubt uttered by those participating in the very latest example of this healthy relationship, one that wrapped up last week. Springfield College’s School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation hosted 16 Chinese educators for intensive instruction in sports performance and sports medicine.

The participants, who hailed from several different cities and represented a number of institutions and businesses, received instruction and insight into everything from concussions to sport nutrition to the principles of treatment and rehabilitation during a two-week program focused on fitness, management, and leadership. For their efforts, they earned a certificate and continuing-education credits.

Sue Guyer

One side of Sue Guyer’s business card bears the Springfield College logo, address, and website, and declares that she is a doctor of physical education (DPE), is athletic-trainer-certified (ATC), and a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS

And for those participants, this was an eye-opening, valuable experience.

Cao Xiaojie (Andre), a coach with the Saipu Fitness Institute, the largest fitness-training academy in China, spoke with BusinessWest near the start of the two-week program. He said the course of study was different from that in China (we’ll hear more about that later), and it was intriguing to compare western approaches and techniques with those learned in China.

“There will be a lot that we can take home with us from this experience,” he said, adding that Springfield College was one of several stops he and two colleagues from the institute made during a six-week visit to the U.S. “And we’re also looking at possible opportunities to work with Springfield College in the future.”

Guyer told BusinessWest that Springfield College, known nationally and internationally for its many sports- and fitness-related programs, has been fielding a growing number of requests from groups in China for its educators to visit that country and make presentations.

“We were getting four or five requests a year,” she explained. “And we decided that, rather than go over there all the time, we would keep our expertise here and have them come to us. That was the main impetus for putting this summer’s program together; we couldn’t meet all the requests to go there.”

The genesis of these requests is a heightened interest in sports performance, sports medicine, nutrition, and other subjects, and a desire to learn what would still be called ‘western’ practices, strategies, and methods for teaching and learning, especially as the country gears up for the 2020 Winter Olympics, said Maura Bergan, assistant professor of Exercise Science and Sports Studies, director of the summer program, and another of those providing instruction to the visiting delegation.

“The summer has always been a popular time for Chinese professionals to come over to learn a little more about sport medicine, human performance, and strength conditioning,” she explained. “So this summer we really worked hard to create a mainstream curriculum, a summer conference or seminar symposium.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Guyer, Bergan, and some of the participants (often with help from an interpreter) to get some perspective not just on this summer’s program, but also decades of collaboration and a relationship that is healthy in every respect.

Speaking Their Language

As noted earlier, Chinese delegations visiting Springfield College to observe and learn is not exactly a recent phenomenon. In fact, Chinese students and educators have been visiting, and studying at the college for more than a century.

Maura Bergan

Maura Bergan says the curriculum for the summer program featured both theory and hands-on learning, a departure from the teaching process in China.

The origins of the relationship trace back to John Ma, a member of the Springfield College class of 1920 and graduate class of 1924. He was the first international scholar from China to visit the school, and is the founder of modern physical education in China and founder of the Chinese Sports Federation.

“We’ve had a long-standing history and relationship,” said Guyer, adding that groups have been coming to the college regularly over the past several decades.

In recent years, the college has hosted the Beijing Sports Institution’s softball team; a number of visiting coaches and educators, who would often come over for a semester at a time; the developmental hockey team; and other constituencies. And, as she mentioned earlier, the college was getting all those requests to come there.

In response to all that demand, the college decided to put together an intensive two-week summer program, one that attracted the large and diverse delegation that arrived on July 23.

Participants represented a host of institutions, including the Saipu Fitness Institute, Chengdu Sport University, the Shanghai Research Institute, the Dessy Fitness School, and the national women’s softball team.

Together, the visitors kept to a packed schedule — but one that still left time to visit Harvard, MIT, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a fast-food restaurant, and other sites of interest (remember, this is an academic/cultural experience — with instruction representing a blend of sports medicine and injury prevention and human performance).

Specific courses included:

• “The Epidemiology of Athletic Injuries,” which focused on common injuries, contact versus non-contact injuries, and other subjects;

• ‘“An Introduction to Sport Performance,”taught by Bergan, featuring everything from a tour of facilities to instruction in training, to creation of a ‘performance plan’;

• “Components of a Warmup,” focusing on such matters as mobility, soft tissue, and preparation;

• “Introduction to Performance Testing”;

• A program on Plyometrics (jump training) and explosiveness;

• “Weight Lifting Instruction”;

• A program on conditioning focused on everything from programming to energy systems; and even

• “Music & Performance.”

Much of the instruction was hands-on, said Guyer, adding that participants were given both theory (in the morning sessions) and hands-on, practical application in the afternoon classes.

“They don’t do a lot of hands-on in China — a lot of is theory and lecture,” she explained. “So they like our approach to blending the theory with the hands-on, and that’s what makes our programs so exciting for them — they get to do what they’re learning, and that’s not a traditional learning style in China.”

As an example, she cited study of concussions. In China, these professionals would learn the textbook application of concussion with regard to what they would see and do. During this summer’s program, there was a lecture, but also work in the lab, where they practiced what they would see with a concussion, how they would evaluate one, and how they would treat it.

“We allow them to practice the skills they learn in the classroom rather than just the didactic, the theory,” she explained, adding, again, that this teaching method resonates with them.
Bergan called it a “holistic approach” to teaching sports medicine and human performance.

“We decided to combine the two together, and they get a little of both,” she explained. “They get the sports-medicine side, and they get the performance side, and that’s different and unique for them.”

Participants who spoke with BusinessWest at the start of the two program, such as Dr. Huang Yizhuan, a spinal surgeon and representative of the Chengdu Sport University, said they hoped to bring home with them new insights into sports medicine and human performance.

“It has been a learning experience,” he said through an interpreter. “This is a great opportunity for me to bring sports-medicine knowledge back to China.”

Course of Action

Bergan’s business card doesn’t have all of her information in Chinese on the reverse side — yet.

Indeed, she is planning to go visit that country this fall for still another of the many exchanges that have marked the past several decades. By then, she’ll have printing on both sides of her card.

And her visit will add another chapter to a decades-long relationship that has generated an exchange of ideas and yielded real learning experiences for people in both countries.

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

Education Sections

Art of the Matter

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Forty-two years ago, Enchanted Circle Theater was born as, true to its name, a touring theater company, but its interactions in school classrooms led to a dramatic evolution of its mission. Today, the nonprofit — which works not only in theater arts, but with a whole host of creative endeavors — partners with schools and other organizations on a concept known as arts integration, which uses creativity to make education more impactful — and more fun.

As Gabriela Micchia unfolded a series of multiplication tables in the form of brightly hand-colored diagrams, she explained how they’re much more than mere teaching tools.

“They use these almost like multiplication flash cards,” she said of the Morgan School fourth-graders who created them, pointing out how the numbers connect in straight lines to create a times table for the central digit. “I just made the dots, and they connected the dots, and we talked about how to put the triangles together.”

It’s undoubtedly a more entertaining way to learn math facts than simple recitation. But the real magic happened later, when the students visited another fourth-grade class and excitedly explained how to create the charts and use them to play a math game, said Micchia, a teaching artist with Enchanted Circle Theater in Holyoke. In short, the kids became the teachers.

“It goes back to the idea of the pride they have in the knowledge they gain,” Micchia said. “As much information as they retain from an adult showing them what to do, I think sometimes it’s easier for them to understand it from another student. They see each other doing it.”

That’s a typical story for Enchanted Circle Theater, a 42-year-old, Holyoke-based nonprofit that partners with schools and other organizations to educate through the creative arts.

“It’s an immersion into creative and critical thinking around math concepts,” said Priscilla Kane Hellweg, the long-time executive artistic director. “We hear students telling their friends what they’re working on, and they care about what they’ve created because it’s their creative process. It’s a sense of ownership, so seeing their work, being able to walk by it in the hallway and share it with others, there’s a pride in accomplishment, and a sense of joy.”

It’s a model applicable not just to math, but to all school subjects — with a focus at all times on English-language communication skills.

There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

For example, Hellweg said, “we do a lot of work in social studies, where our students will research and write and then perform an original play on the Trail of Tears or immigration or the Civil War or … well, I can give you 42 years worth of content.”

Science is a big focus as well, she added, citing a program for Holyoke fifth-graders called “Where Does Your Water Go?”

“They studied the water cycle, from falling down from the sky into a sewage system into our river right down the street,” she explained. “And then we turned it into an environmental advocacy program, where the students decided what they wanted people to stop and think about, and the impact that humans have on the environment and water.”

The kids then drew pictures — such as a fish swimming amid garbage, or a mallard whose feet are entangled in a plastic six-pack ring — and accompanying slogans, which were then turned into storm-drain art at eight downtown locations. “They created awareness of the water cycle and our role in keeping our world clean.”

Enchanted Circle has, from its beginning, been a working theater, but it has long embraced artistic endeavors of every kind — dance, music, visual arts, literature, even culinary arts — as teaching tools.

“We specialize in what’s called arts integration,” Hellweg said. “And there are three basic components to it. First, it’s about academic understanding — unpacking knowledge and learning concepts and deep critical thinking. The second channel is social-emotional learning and communication and collaboration and all those 21st-century learning skills that prepare us to be engaged in the world.”

The third element, quite simply, is artistry and creativity and examining the world through the filter of creative expression. “We work with people of all ages and all abilities, and it’s about inspiring and engaging and enhancing learning. It’s about connecting people to each other, people to information, people to the world around them, and people to themselves.”

Moment of Magic

Enchanted Circle was launched in 1976 as a touring theater company, but one that had a foothold in education from early on.

“We were traveling to schools, to museums, to fairs, to libraries, bringing folk tales from around the world to life,” Hellweg said. “I’ve been here for 38 of our 42 years, and I love the performing. There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

So the theater started developing workshops related to the performances, which evolved from one-off events to a regular partnership with schools — and an expansion of the organization’s work from drama to arts integration of all kinds.

“I felt that working in the classroom with teachers and students would really bring learning to life,” she told BusinessWest. “So we are still a theater company, and we create original plays on subjects with both cultural and historical relevance. But we really became a teaching institution.”

The theater has a presence in public schools throughout Holyoke, Amherst, Northampton, and parts of Springfield, but also in affordable-housing developments, preschools, universities, and other, perhaps surprising venues.

“We work throughout the community — in the foster-care world, in the mental-health field, with adjudicated youth in detention, in homeless shelters, in housing developments — bringing arts-integrated learning to some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in the area,” Hellweg said.

Holyoke’s public schools represent Enchanted Circle’s longest-term and closest partner, as seen in offerings like the visual math programs at Morgan School and a dual-language arts-integration program with grades K-3 at Metcalf School every Friday, which touches on numerous academic subjects. “Whatever they’re working on, we are working on,” she said. “It’s hands-on, project-based, arts-integrated learning.”

And that hands-on element is critical, she noted. Typically, the ideas kids learn at school are stored in their visual memory. “But if we’re doing embodied math — where students become an isosceles triangle, or two people create a parallelogram with their arms — then it’s in your muscle memory. And it brings the joy back to learning because it’s fun, and the laughter in class is huge.”

Micchia agreed. “It becomes this whole-body experience, this holistic experience when we use the arts to create this visual math.”

And students who are having fun are more likely to want to learn, Hellweg added. “What we find is that attendance goes up because students want to be in school, and behavior issues go down because students are engaged.”

That applies even to young people who never considered themselves learners, she said, recalling a bittersweet conversation she had recently with a 15-year-old girl in juvenile detention.

“She said to us, ‘I never thought I would find joy in learning, and I’m loving learning with Enchanted Circle. I never would have dropped out of school had Enchanted Circle been in my classroom.’”

Now working on a poetry-into-performance program through the theater, funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, the girl has a new outlook on why learning can — and should — be so much more than rote memorization. “That engagement, both the physical engagement and the experience of working collaboratively and creatively, changes the learning environment.”

Micchia went further than that, saying Enchanted Circle cultivates an emotionally safe learning space.

“I feel like it creates an acceptance — you’re accepted here. You don’t have to be the best at something,” she said, adding that there’s no one set way to teach a student. “One of the beautiful things is, it’s kind of organic and flexible, and you meet the needs of the child as opposed to the other way around. It’s not a formula.”

Teaching the Teachers

Students aren’t the only ones in need of that confidence, Hellweg noted. Teachers are, too — at least when it comes to the often-unfamiliar territory of arts integration in their classrooms.

“We do a tremendous amount of training of teachers, who don’t necessarily think of themselves as artists, and often feel that they’re not creative. But, within moments of one of our professional-development programs, they realize they’re very creative, and they have a tremendous aptitude for bringing the creative process into the classroom,” she told BusinessWest. “So we’ve been working with teachers on large and small ways to integrate the arts into the classroom, and any time we’re in residence in a classroom, we’re working in partnership with the teacher and students to create something together.”

One innovative initiative, the Honors Arts Academy in Holyoke, is an afterschool program at Donahue School that focuses on rigorous arts training for students. The goal is to secure the funding to place it at Holyoke High School and bring in seventh- and eighth-graders from three city middle schools to work with freshmen at the high school.

“The ninth-grade dropout rate is a big challenge,” Hellweg said, “so it’s good to get seventh- and eighth-graders feeling not just at home in the high school, but that it’s their school, and able to use the resources at the high school, like the television studio and the theater. Most middle schools don’t have those resources.”

In all Enchanted Circle’s programs, she added, students are moving beyond passive learning and generating their own ideas, helping to craft curriculum that means something to them.

While the theater has evolved slowly over the years, Hellweg is excited about a new initiative called the Institute for Arts Integration, which will be a regional hub for training teachers, social-service case workers, administrators, and teaching artists.

“There are a couple programs around the country that are doing this, and because we’ve been pioneers in the field of arts integration, we want to create our own institute,” she said. “Our goal is to make arts integration the norm in every classroom.”

It’s a goal that gets her out of bed each morning, doing a job she has loved for almost four decades.

“You don’t stay in a job that long unless it moves you,” she said. “Every single day, I see that ‘a-ha’ moment where students are able to do something they didn’t think they could. It’s palpable — teachers are seeing their students differently, students are seeing their teachers differently. Learning comes alive, and the creative process means it’s never-ending. That’s where my inspiration comes from.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Course Correction

Even her military experience repairing jet engines — work she finds intriguing — hasn’t kept Stephanie Dalton from reaching her goal of becoming a nurse.

Even her military experience repairing jet engines — work she finds intriguing — hasn’t kept Stephanie Dalton from reaching her goal of becoming a nurse.

Stephanie Dalton has wanted to be a nurse since she was 7, though it took a few intriguing detours to get there.

“I’ve always wanted to do it, and I paid for school myself,” she said of her initial enrollment in American International College six years ago. That entailed working at a series of jobs, from waitressing and babysitting to working at a sandwich shop and a horse farm.

“I was living on my own, just trying to make it, and when I got into the nursing program here, I was so excited,” she recalled. “But I struggled. I was working four jobs, I was trying to keep a roof over my head, food on the table, and trying to pay for my education, and I realized I needed to do something different because I was not going to be successful trying to work and manage school and everything else.”

That’s when Dalton decided to join the Air Force, thinking she could train for something in the medical field, but that didn’t work out. Instead, she became a jet-engine mechanic.

“I work on F-15s over at Barnes, and it’s really fun. I like it a lot,” she said, adding that she’s long had an aptitude for mechanical work. “I knew how to turn a wrench, my dad taught me how to change my own oil, I could change a tire. So I knew the basics. And I’m willing to learn — whatever they could teach me, I was willing to just learn.”

But Dalton — through many twists and turns, as we’ll see later — did find her way back to nursing, graduating last month from AIC with her bachelor’s degree.

Lauren Bennett had no such early sights on nursing; instead, she worked in banking and insurance — including a role in sales at MassMutual — for a decade before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Several years later, when her kids were starting kindergarten and second grade, respectively, she decided to pursue a career again — this time in nursing.

“I knew I didn’t want to sit in an office,” said Bennett, who earned her associate degree in nursing at Greenfield Community College in May. “That was something that I didn’t feel was making enough of an impact. There were definitely things I enjoyed about it, but I wanted a career making a positive difference in people’s lives. And I’ve always been interested in anatomy and physiology and nutrition — different aspects of healthcare.”

With nurses once again in demand across the U.S., the field has become an attractive one not only for recent high-school graduates pursing a college path, but for established professionals in other fields looking for a change. For this issue’s focus on nursing education, BusinessWest sat down with a few such women to find out why they made the switch — and where they intend to take their careers from here.

Horse Sense

When Dalton was ready to return to school, she found she was better able to balance her military and academic roles, she explained.

“I was in the National Guard, so I would have drill weekends, go in and do all types of training. Sometimes it was stressful, and I really had to learn how to manage my time, but life was going well for me.”

But the following year, she broke her neck and back horseback riding, and was put into a brace, waist to chin. “I really wanted to come back, but the doctor wouldn’t allow me.”

Still, she was eventually able to return to Barnes, as well as her junior year at AIC. “It was kind of difficult, coming back after being out of the swing of things for a year. I had a lot of struggles, but I had some great supports — a wonderful boyfriend, awesome friends, and my mom, who is my cheerleader. So I struggled, but I made it through.”

Shamicka Jones

Shamicka Jones wants to make a difference the way medical professionals made a difference for her family during times of medical crisis and tragedy.

That year, a family member with mental illness became very ill, which impacted Dalton’s life greatly, and once again she was feeling stretched thin by her military duties, school, and family challenges. But her senior year was much smoother — not less stressful, necessarily, but she was figuring out how to manage the pressures of achieving the career she wanted.

“I feel like I’ve done a lot in the time I’ve been in school,” she told BusinessWest, in what can only be called an understatement.

Shamicka Jones has been through a lot as well, much of it tragic. A congenital heart condition runs in her family, claiming her two brothers at age 11 and her own young son in 2010. Needless to say, she has been exposed to the medical world and some exceptionally caring professionals within it — and found she had a desire to be one, too.

“I did auto insurance for seven years, but I’ve always had an interest in healthcare because of my family history — we had a lot of medical issues,” she said. “Every time I went to the hospital, I always used to see the nurses, and I thought, I want to do that; I want to help people.”

She tried medical assisting school but found the opportunities in that field lacking. After that, she worked at a group home, serving mentally challenged individuals, work she found fulfilling.

But Jones had her sights set on nursing, and was busy with her nursing-school prerequisite coursework when her son passed away, which threw her for a loop. “I started questioning, what am I going to do? Can I ever move forward from this?”

But she continued to attend school, and two years after that, her mother suffered a serious cardiac event “She dropped down in front of me and my daughter while we were out. I had to give her CPR for 10 minutes before the EMS even arrived. We went to the hospital, and they were able to get her back.”

She had to take a semester off to care for her mother, and began doubting her plans to be a nurse — doubts that returned when her daughter was diagnosed with the same genetic heart condition she and so many other family members have.

“I thought, ‘this is not the path,’ she recalled. “But everyone was like, ‘you need to keep going. You need to do this.’” Her daughter, in fact, was her biggest supporter in her quest to get a nursing degree, which she did last month at AIC.

Many Pathways

Jones’ experiences have shaped her career goals, as she is eyeing both cardiac intensive care and psychiatric nursing, helping people with mental-health challenges.

“As a new graduate, I do need to get some experience in so many different areas,” she said. “When I was younger, when I thought of nurses, I thought of hospitals and visiting nurse associations, but nurses are everywhere, in every aspect of society. It’s amazing to me to see all the different options we have.”

Dalton is in the same boat — well, jet, actually — as she considers her options, aiming to find work in a community hospital after taking her boards. She’s looked into being a flight nurse as well, but that plan — which would require copious amounts of specialized training — is on the back burner for now.

When you think of a nurse, the first thing you might think of is somebody in a hospital, at the bedside, but there are so many other possibilities.”

“I always thought I wanted to do some type of pediatric nursing,” she added. “But going through the program, I’ve really broadened my horizons, and now I feel like I want to do everything. Mental illness lies very near and dear to my heart because of my family member, and I see the lack of resources; I see the support that’s not there, the stigma that goes along with it, and I feel like that’s definitely an avenue of interest as well. I’m still interested in pediatrics, and I actually do enjoy working with the older adult population.”

One of her short-term goals is to get involved in community nursing. “In our community course, we actually did blood-pressure and blood-glucose screenings, and that’s something I’m interested in starting up in my town — going to the senior center and starting a little clinic so I can connect with the community and help people.”

Among her long-term goals is meshing her love for horses with her training to launch a therapeutic riding program for special-needs children.

If that sounds like a lot of interests and goals, it is — but it reflects the wide spectrum of roles available to nurses today.

“When you think of a nurse, the first thing you might think of is somebody in a hospital, at the bedside, but there are so many other possibilities,” she said. “That’s the great thing about nursing — you’re not just limited to just one spot, and if you don’t like your job, it doesn’t mean you have to leave nursing. You can maybe do administrative work, or you can do home care. The options are seemingly endless.”

Bennett told BusinessWest she originally wanted to go into labor and delivery. “Now I’ve seen so much more, and I really loved the emergency department, the ICU. I’m pretty open at this point.”

She recognizes that many nurses don’t immediately find the niche they love, and it’s good to keep an open mind, considering all the possible landing spots.

“I know nurses that are stressed by their jobs,” she said, “but I don’t know any nurses who would change careers or say they’d rather do something else. Maybe they’d like a different schedule, but they don’t regret going into nursing.”

Troubled Times

Dalton was experiencing some regrets during the toughest times during her long path to a degree.

“The first year back after I had my injury, I was struggling academically, and I had failed two exams, and I just wasn’t doing well,” she recalled. “An instructor sat down with me and asked me if I had a plan B and what else I would do, and I told her I didn’t.

“I’m extremely persistent,” she said with a laugh born of hard-earned wisdom. “No matter what got in my way, this is what I was meant to do. It was important to be a nurse. The things I’ve been through, that accident … I walked away from a broken neck and back, and the doctors told me I shouldn’t be able to walk right now. So I really believe that this is what I’m meant to do.”

Jones has a similar perspective on being in the right career, no matter where it leads.

“I hope I find my place,” she said. “It may not be where I think I’m going to be right now, but I just want to help people the way my family has been helped. We’ve gone through a lot, but always got amazing care. I want to make that kind of impact.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Piece by Piece

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

It’s hardly news that college costs have consistently risen over the past two decades, outpacing both inflation and incomes. But there are a host of resources families can access to help bring those costs down and reduce the initial sticker shock. Still, putting the pieces together takes a combination of hustle, clear communication, hard work, and often sacrifice, all in search of what students hope will be a life-changing degree.

 

Bryan Gross calls them “success stories” — incoming students who weren’t sure they could afford college, but somehow manage to make it happen.

“You’ll see a lot of media attention and articles about sticker shock, the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board, and it makes families very nervous,” said Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University (WNEU). “But we do work very hard to make college affordable for families, and the sticker price is not what they end up paying.”

But it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It is a lot of piecing things together,” said Kristin Hmieleski, Financial Aid director for Elms College. “We always tell students, ‘you’re not going to get this for free, so let’s look at the resources at hand. What can you get through federal and state aid? What has the institution already offered you by way of merit? What else can we offer based on need? Worst-case scenario, you may have to pay out of pocket or take on additional loans.’ It’s almost like a puzzle we put together.”’

It’s a puzzle that has become increasingly challenging over the past couple decades, as college costs have steadily risen, often outpacing inflation and average income. According to the College Board, which tracks these trends annually, tuition and fees at private, four-year instititions increased by 1.9% from 2016-17 to 2017-18, to an average of $34,740. Meanwhile, public, four-year institutions saw an average increase of 1.3%, to $9,970.

Those increases are substantially lower than the spikes seen during the Great Recession. In 2009-10, for example, private institutions raised tuition and fees by 5.9%, and public schools posted a 9.5% increase.

However, the College Board noted, students still shoulder a heavier burden this year, because even those modest price hikes outpaced grant aid and tax benefits. And that places more pressure on financial-aid officers to help families, well, assemble that puzzle.

The key, both Hmieleski and Gross said, is communication — and lots of it, starting early.

“We do open houses, and as prospective students are looking at Elms College, we talk about different resources they can look at,” Hmieleski said, noting that plenty of opportunities exist beyond the award package — based on academic merit and financial need — that the college puts together for each enrollee.

“They might not know every single website to look at, but we give them some hints about community resources they can look into,” she explained. “Do they belong to a church? Do the businesses their families work for offer scholarships? The students need to do some hunting themselves. Have they reached out to guidance counselors? They might know of some opportunities.”

It’s not an easy process, and it takes legwork and often sacrifice. But if the end result is a degree and a career pathway, families are more than willing to make the effort.

Knowledge Is Power

Gross said communicating with students starts well before they ever sit down in a classroom.

“Being a private institution, being well aware of the current state of the economic landscape, giving families direct and clear information regarding their financial-aid package is really important for us,” he said.

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross says communication with families — both early and often — is key to helping them forge a strategy to pay for college.

To that end, WNEU started a program three years ago called Culture of Financial Wellness, which includes several components, starting with financial-aid counseling, during which officers help families navigate the process of piecing together available resources. Meanwhile, during spring open houses, financial-aid workshops are offered to inform and educate parents about the financial-aid process to help them make the right decisions for their student.

Following those are SOAR, the university’s Summer Orientation and Registration sessions, featuring presentations by Peter Bielagus, known as “America’s Financial Educator,” who provides information to parents about financing their student’s education.

The final piece of Culture of Financial Wellness continues after the student has joined the campus. The Freshman Focus program offers programming and talks to help students successfully transition to college life, including an overview session each fall on finances and spending designed to teach students about credit-card debt and making sound financial decisions in college and beyond.

“We want to educate students and help them understand the importance of living within your means,” Gross said. “That’s the circle of life — we want to help students for the rest of their lives.”

But that help begins at the financial-aid office, where the allocation of resources has been subtly shifting. This year, the College Board reports, federal loans account for 32% of all student aid, followed by institutional grants (25%), federal Pell grants (15%), tax credits and deductions (9%), state grants (6%), private and employer grants (6%), and veteran and military grants (6%).

“We put together a strategy for each student based on their academic performance,” Gross said. “We offer them scholarships, and of course federal and state grants typically get offered, and after that we have need-based grants we offer depending on their circumstances, and typically at the bottom of all that is federal work studies.”

Hmieleski said some 80 to 100 Elms students benefit from federally funded work-study jobs, 7% of which must be targeted at community-service work, such as the America Reads program administered locally by Valley Opportunity Council, in which college students tutor children after school.

“Unfortunately, federal funding has been so limited — it gets cut every year,” she said, noting that some students work at campus jobs funded by the college, while others secure part-time employment off campus.

Gross said certain enrollees benefit from special circumstances. “Veteran students are a population we work with; we help students directly apply for veterans benefits, and they might be eligible for ROTC as well.”

The bottom line, he told BusinessWest, is that students are given a full picture of what resources are available so they can figure out how to fill in the gaps, even if that means living at home.

“We want them to live on campus, but we want families to make an informed decision. It’s amazing how many families don’t even think about that,” he said. “We just don’t want families to be flat-footed when they receive their first bill.”

Beyond the Gloom and Doom

As Gross noted, he’s gratified by the success stories, but they’re not the whole story, unfortunately.

“To be honest with you, every college also has stories of families that fill out an application for federal aid, then come to us and say, ‘this is not our reality; we can’t afford to pay that.’ We work with families to come up with a plan, and it may work, but it may not work.”

In some cases, he said, students will instead opt to begin their education at a two-year community college. No matter what the outcome, though, he tries to make sure the decisions are made from a place of copious information.

“Families know that it’s not just a matter of crossing their fingers and closing their eyes, and somehow it comes together. You really have to have a plan, and you have to use college and community resources to help you through the process.”

No matter how much thought goes into a strategy, Hmieleski added, it’s impossible to de-stress the process of financial planning for college.

“No matter where you are in life, even if you have wealth, money is always stressful,” she said. “When some people hear about finances or anything involving money, their reaction is almost to shut down and not listen because they don’t feel like they’ll ever understand it.

“But we deal with a lot of first-generation, low-income students here at Elms; we are here to support those students,” she went on, noting that the college is invested not only in their ability to pay for school, but their academic success and keeping them enrolled. “OK, you’re here, you’re able to afford it — now let’s make sure you’re academically successful.”

But it begins with that first look at the unassembled puzzle, and all the decisions that go into putting it together. Hmieleski recalled one student — whose academic record was strong — that she worried about every fall, wondering if she’d be able to continue on, due to tight finances. But each year, the family somehow managed, and she graduated.

“I get goosebumps in so many situations when it looked like doom and gloom, like the student wouldn’t be able to come here, but we work on it,” she said. “And when they’re able to walk through that door, it’s a thrill.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Smart Strategy

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch was asked to explain why individuals who retain his services should look upon the fees they pay him as an investment, rather than merely an expense.

And he would spend the next several minutes answering that question in several different ways, using both words and numbers. They were all effective in getting the point home, but perhaps none more so than his simple comparison to buying a home.

“When you buy a house, there’s a mortgage broker, a Realtor, and a lawyer to ensure that the transaction goes through smoothly,” said Metsch, president of East Longmeadow-based the College Advisor of New England. “When people buy a college education, very often, it’s on the emotions of a teenager, because the parents are going through the same learning curve at the time the kid is. So there’s no way to protect their $250,000 investment or their $125,000 investment, whatever it might be.

“If you look at what someone might pay me in fees, that’s about one-fifth what someone would pay to the lawyer, for the Realtor’s commission, and the broker when they buy that house,” he went on. “And the investment is nearly as big; think about it.”

As noted, he had several other methods for answering that question, including a very powerful use of numbers. Indeed, 91% of what he called “College Advisor students” — those who arrived on campus through his assistance — stayed that their enrolled college for four years, compared to the national average rate of 51%, a huge consideration given the soaring sticker price of a college education today.

Metsch, who’s been helping students and parents make what he called “more scientific decisions” about which college to attend for more than two decades now, offers these words and numbers often, because even though his profession has grown considerably in recent years in terms of the numbers of people handling such work, many people are still not aware that such advisors exist and that they can make an extremely daunting process far less so.

Getting that message across is one of the items on Metsch’s do-list, but he’s far busier handling a client list involving parents and students across the region. He provides a wide array of services and coaching on everything from when students should take certain standardized tests to which schools would make the best fits, to how parents can go about paying for the school their child eventually settles on.

Slicing through it all, Metsch said he and his staff help “reduce the movement in a lot of moving targets.”

That’s a colorful phrase he used to describe how his company helps take time, complexity, confusion, and anxiety out of a process that might (maybe ‘would’ is the better word) otherwise involve much larger quantities of each.

When asked how it does this, Metsch would go on in great detail, and we’ll get to those of those thoughts later, but he summed most of it up by saying his company works very hard to get young students to take ownership of the college-selection process, a necessary quality given the high financial stakes involved, but also because many of them don’t take such ownership, and with often dire consequences, poor decision making, and missed opportunities.

For this issue and its focus on paying for college, BusinessWest talked at length with Metsch about his business, his profession, and the mindset students and parents should take as they approach one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make.

Schools of Thought

There’s a map on the wall in the lobby area of the College Advisor’s suite of offices. It identifies essentially every college and university in the country, and at a glance, it’s quite revealing.

Massachusetts has so many of these institutions, there isn’t room for all the names within the confines of the state’s borders, thus they’re placed out over the Atlantic Ocean. In Wyoming, by way of contrast, there are just a few lines for the entire state.

Knowing where the colleges are, however, is just a very small part of the equation when it comes to the process of choosing a school, and the many moving parts, or targets, as Metsch called them, now explain why this profession of college advising has grown considerably after the past quarter-century.

Back in the early ’90s, this was the domain of high-school guidance counselors and a few individuals (mostly women) with backgrounds in social work who often worked part-time out of their homes helping parents and students navigate school-selection matters and options for financing an education.

Over the years, as many of these issues became more complex and parents and students realized they could use some assistance, more of it became available, although there are still not many people doing this kind of work, said Metsch.

And there are tiers within this profession, he noted, adding that some financial advisors will add these services to their portfolios, often as a way to sell more annuities and related products. Parents should look for individuals who can put the letters CEP (certified educational planner) on their business card, said Metsch, adding that he has done so for years now.

As such an advisor, he said he provides counsel on a broad range of subjects, which, as noted earlier, include such things as tests and when they should be taken, colleges and which ones might make the right fit, timelines for decision making, and how to pay for an education.

He said that many parents and students are still of the belief that they can do all this themselves, perhaps with some help from the high-school guidance counselor, and often find out that they’re in over their head or that they’re wasting money and an equally precious commodity — time.

He offered an anecdote to get some of his points across.

“I got a call two months ago from a family that said they thought they could do this on their own,” he recalled. One of the parents said, ‘when we went to Northeastern University, we realized they didn’t have the major my daughter wants. She was interested in looking at the school, but she didn’t realize they didn’t have her major; that was half a day we didn’t need to spend.’”

Busy parents don’t have many half-days to waste, he went on, adding that this family may have been using outdated information or relying on word of mouth. In any case, the proper research wasn’t done before the student and parents gassed up the car and drove across the state.

That’s one very simplistic example of how unscientific many searches are, said Metsch, adding that his business specializes in removing the prefix from that word.

And it does so with every aspect of the process, he added, noting that his team, which has more than 90 years of combined experience, has visited more than 550 colleges and universities across the country and can offer first-hand insight into a broad range of schools.

Staying with that anecdote he offered earlier, Metsch said this was a case where the parent clearly wanted the student to take ownership of the process — and that student did, but wasn’t properly equipped, or properly motivated (or both), to carry out that assignment responsibly.

Which brings him back to that notion of moving targets.

“If you look at financial-aid eligibility, many parents have no idea what they can afford,” he explained. “They’re just looking at a $60,000 price tag, and that’s paralyzing them. Then you have the question about how this school figures out who gets scholarships or need-based aid, so that’s a moving target. The kid doesn’t know what he wants to study, so that’s a moving target. So where do you start the process?

“We’re able to come up with a plan that takes into account how much it’s going to cost at a variety of schools based on the different formulas schools use,” he went on. “We can do an eligibility analysis, and, like an accountant, can reduce your tax burden and increase your eligibility for financial aid.”

There is both an eligibility review and an affordability review, he went on, which really does a deep dive into just what parents can realistically afford, taking into account a host of factors including everything from how loans are paid back to how many children the couple has, to how much money the family will save when the child leaves the house for college.

“Some families may not be able to afford what the formulas say they have to pay,” Metsch went on. “So that means we have to look more at schools where the student can get academic scholarships. We may also say to a student, ‘here’s the threshold you want to get your test scores to, because if you just go up another 20 points, you’ll get another $10,000 from this particular school.’”

Grade Expectations

This is what Metsch means by a more scientific approach to this complex, time-consuming process.

And such science is obviously critical given the high stakes for all those involved and the long-term implications of the decisions being made.

“There are all these moving targets,” he said in conclusion. “And if you can’t freeze-frame them, it’s a complete crapshoot, and no parent wants that.”

And that’s probably the best reason, he went on, why people should look at his services as an investment, not an expense.

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

Education Sections

Piece by Piece

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

It’s hardly news that college costs have consistently risen over the past two decades, outpacing both inflation and incomes. But there are a host of resources families can access to help bring those costs down and reduce the initial sticker shock. Still, putting the pieces together takes a combination of hustle, clear communication, hard work, and often sacrifice, all in search of what students hope will be a life-changing degree.

 

Bryan Gross calls them “success stories” — incoming students who weren’t sure they could afford college, but somehow manage to make it happen.

“You’ll see a lot of media attention and articles about sticker shock, the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board, and it makes families very nervous,” said Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University (WNEU). “But we do work very hard to make college affordable for families, and the sticker price is not what they end up paying.”

But it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It is a lot of piecing things together,” said Kristin Hmieleski, Financial Aid director for Elms College. “We always tell students, ‘you’re not going to get this for free, so let’s look at the resources at hand. What can you get through federal and state aid? What has the institution already offered you by way of merit? What else can we offer based on need? Worst-case scenario, you may have to pay out of pocket or take on additional loans.’ It’s almost like a puzzle we put together.”’

It’s a puzzle that has become increasingly challenging over the past couple decades, as college costs have steadily risen, often outpacing inflation and average income. According to the College Board, which tracks these trends annually, tuition and fees at private, four-year instititions increased by 1.9% from 2016-17 to 2017-18, to an average of $34,740. Meanwhile, public, four-year institutions saw an average increase of 1.3%, to $9,970.

Those increases are substantially lower than the spikes seen during the Great Recession. In 2009-10, for example, private institutions raised tuition and fees by 5.9%, and public schools posted a 9.5% increase.

However, the College Board noted, students still shoulder a heavier burden this year, because even those modest price hikes outpaced grant aid and tax benefits. And that places more pressure on financial-aid officers to help families, well, assemble that puzzle.

The key, both Hmieleski and Gross said, is communication — and lots of it, starting early.

“We do open houses, and as prospective students are looking at Elms College, we talk about different resources they can look at,” Hmieleski said, noting that plenty of opportunities exist beyond the award package — based on academic merit and financial need — that the college puts together for each enrollee.

“They might not know every single website to look at, but we give them some hints about community resources they can look into,” she explained. “Do they belong to a church? Do the businesses their families work for offer scholarships? The students need to do some hunting themselves. Have they reached out to guidance counselors? They might know of some opportunities.”

It’s not an easy process, and it takes legwork and often sacrifice. But if the end result is a degree and a career pathway, families are more than willing to make the effort.

Knowledge Is Power

Gross said communicating with students starts well before they ever sit down in a classroom.

“Being a private institution, being well aware of the current state of the economic landscape, giving families direct and clear information regarding their financial-aid package is really important for us,” he said.

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross says communication with families — both early and often — is key to helping them forge a strategy to pay for college.

To that end, WNEU started a program three years ago called Culture of Financial Wellness, which includes several components, starting with financial-aid counseling, during which officers help families navigate the process of piecing together available resources. Meanwhile, during spring open houses, financial-aid workshops are offered to inform and educate parents about the financial-aid process to help them make the right decisions for their student.

Following those are SOAR, the university’s Summer Orientation and Registration sessions, featuring presentations by Peter Bielagus, known as “America’s Financial Educator,” who provides information to parents about financing their student’s education.

The final piece of Culture of Financial Wellness continues after the student has joined the campus. The Freshman Focus program offers programming and talks to help students successfully transition to college life, including an overview session each fall on finances and spending designed to teach students about credit-card debt and making sound financial decisions in college and beyond.

“We want to educate students and help them understand the importance of living within your means,” Gross said. “That’s the circle of life — we want to help students for the rest of their lives.”

But that help begins at the financial-aid office, where the allocation of resources has been subtly shifting. This year, the College Board reports, federal loans account for 32% of all student aid, followed by institutional grants (25%), federal Pell grants (15%), tax credits and deductions (9%), state grants (6%), private and employer grants (6%), and veteran and military grants (6%).

“We put together a strategy for each student based on their academic performance,” Gross said. “We offer them scholarships, and of course federal and state grants typically get offered, and after that we have need-based grants we offer depending on their circumstances, and typically at the bottom of all that is federal work studies.”

Hmieleski said some 80 to 100 Elms students benefit from federally funded work-study jobs, 7% of which must be targeted at community-service work, such as the America Reads program administered locally by Valley Opportunity Council, in which college students tutor children after school.

“Unfortunately, federal funding has been so limited — it gets cut every year,” she said, noting that some students work at campus jobs funded by the college, while others secure part-time employment off campus.

Gross said certain enrollees benefit from special circumstances. “Veteran students are a population we work with; we help students directly apply for veterans benefits, and they might be eligible for ROTC as well.”

The bottom line, he told BusinessWest, is that students are given a full picture of what resources are available so they can figure out how to fill in the gaps, even if that means living at home.

“We want them to live on campus, but we want families to make an informed decision. It’s amazing how many families don’t even think about that,” he said. “We just don’t want families to be flat-footed when they receive their first bill.”

Beyond the Gloom and Doom

As Gross noted, he’s gratified by the success stories, but they’re not the whole story, unfortunately.

“To be honest with you, every college also has stories of families that fill out an application for federal aid, then come to us and say, ‘this is not our reality; we can’t afford to pay that.’ We work with families to come up with a plan, and it may work, but it may not work.”

In some cases, he said, students will instead opt to begin their education at a two-year community college. No matter what the outcome, though, he tries to make sure the decisions are made from a place of copious information.

“Families know that it’s not just a matter of crossing their fingers and closing their eyes, and somehow it comes together. You really have to have a plan, and you have to use college and community resources to help you through the process.”

No matter how much thought goes into a strategy, Hmieleski added, it’s impossible to de-stress the process of financial planning for college.

“No matter where you are in life, even if you have wealth, money is always stressful,” she said. “When some people hear about finances or anything involving money, their reaction is almost to shut down and not listen because they don’t feel like they’ll ever understand it.

“But we deal with a lot of first-generation, low-income students here at Elms; we are here to support those students,” she went on, noting that the college is invested not only in their ability to pay for school, but their academic success and keeping them enrolled. “OK, you’re here, you’re able to afford it — now let’s make sure you’re academically successful.”

But it begins with that first look at the unassembled puzzle, and all the decisions that go into putting it together. Hmieleski recalled one student — whose academic record was strong — that she worried about every fall, wondering if she’d be able to continue on, due to tight finances. But each year, the family somehow managed, and she graduated.

“I get goosebumps in so many situations when it looked like doom and gloom, like the student wouldn’t be able to come here, but we work on it,” she said. “And when they’re able to walk through that door, it’s a thrill.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Smart Strategy

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch was asked to explain why individuals who retain his services should look upon the fees they pay him as an investment, rather than merely an expense.

And he would spend the next several minutes answering that question in several different ways, using both words and numbers. They were all effective in getting the point home, but perhaps none more so than his simple comparison to buying a home.

“When you buy a house, there’s a mortgage broker, a Realtor, and a lawyer to ensure that the transaction goes through smoothly,” said Metsch, president of East Longmeadow-based the College Advisor of New England. “When people buy a college education, very often, it’s on the emotions of a teenager, because the parents are going through the same learning curve at the time the kid is. So there’s no way to protect their $250,000 investment or their $125,000 investment, whatever it might be.

“If you look at what someone might pay me in fees, that’s about one-fifth what someone would pay to the lawyer, for the Realtor’s commission, and the broker when they buy that house,” he went on. “And the investment is nearly as big; think about it.”

As noted, he had several other methods for answering that question, including a very powerful use of numbers. Indeed, 91% of what he called “College Advisor students” — those who arrived on campus through his assistance — stayed that their enrolled college for four years, compared to the national average rate of 51%, a huge consideration given the soaring sticker price of a college education today.

Metsch, who’s been helping students and parents make what he called “more scientific decisions” about which college to attend for more than two decades now, offers these words and numbers often, because even though his profession has grown considerably in recent years in terms of the numbers of people handling such work, many people are still not aware that such advisors exist and that they can make an extremely daunting process far less so.

Getting that message across is one of the items on Metsch’s do-list, but he’s far busier handling a client list involving parents and students across the region. He provides a wide array of services and coaching on everything from when students should take certain standardized tests to which schools would make the best fits, to how parents can go about paying for the school their child eventually settles on.

Slicing through it all, Metsch said he and his staff help “reduce the movement in a lot of moving targets.”

That’s a colorful phrase he used to describe how his company helps take time, complexity, confusion, and anxiety out of a process that might (maybe ‘would’ is the better word) otherwise involve much larger quantities of each.

When asked how it does this, Metsch would go on in great detail, and we’ll get to those of those thoughts later, but he summed most of it up by saying his company works very hard to get young students to take ownership of the college-selection process, a necessary quality given the high financial stakes involved, but also because many of them don’t take such ownership, and with often dire consequences, poor decision making, and missed opportunities.

For this issue and its focus on paying for college, BusinessWest talked at length with Metsch about his business, his profession, and the mindset students and parents should take as they approach one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make.

Schools of Thought

There’s a map on the wall in the lobby area of the College Advisor’s suite of offices. It identifies essentially every college and university in the country, and at a glance, it’s quite revealing.

Massachusetts has so many of these institutions, there isn’t room for all the names within the confines of the state’s borders, thus they’re placed out over the Atlantic Ocean. In Wyoming, by way of contrast, there are just a few lines for the entire state.

Knowing where the colleges are, however, is just a very small part of the equation when it comes to the process of choosing a school, and the many moving parts, or targets, as Metsch called them, now explain why this profession of college advising has grown considerably after the past quarter-century.

Back in the early ’90s, this was the domain of high-school guidance counselors and a few individuals (mostly women) with backgrounds in social work who often worked part-time out of their homes helping parents and students navigate school-selection matters and options for financing an education.

Over the years, as many of these issues became more complex and parents and students realized they could use some assistance, more of it became available, although there are still not many people doing this kind of work, said Metsch.

And there are tiers within this profession, he noted, adding that some financial advisors will add these services to their portfolios, often as a way to sell more annuities and related products. Parents should look for individuals who can put the letters CEP (certified educational planner) on their business card, said Metsch, adding that he has done so for years now.

As such an advisor, he said he provides counsel on a broad range of subjects, which, as noted earlier, include such things as tests and when they should be taken, colleges and which ones might make the right fit, timelines for decision making, and how to pay for an education.

He said that many parents and students are still of the belief that they can do all this themselves, perhaps with some help from the high-school guidance counselor, and often find out that they’re in over their head or that they’re wasting money and an equally precious commodity — time.

He offered an anecdote to get some of his points across.

“I got a call two months ago from a family that said they thought they could do this on their own,” he recalled. One of the parents said, ‘when we went to Northeastern University, we realized they didn’t have the major my daughter wants. She was interested in looking at the school, but she didn’t realize they didn’t have her major; that was half a day we didn’t need to spend.’”

Busy parents don’t have many half-days to waste, he went on, adding that this family may have been using outdated information or relying on word of mouth. In any case, the proper research wasn’t done before the student and parents gassed up the car and drove across the state.

That’s one very simplistic example of how unscientific many searches are, said Metsch, adding that his business specializes in removing the prefix from that word.

And it does so with every aspect of the process, he added, noting that his team, which has more than 90 years of combined experience, has visited more than 550 colleges and universities across the country and can offer first-hand insight into a broad range of schools.

Staying with that anecdote he offered earlier, Metsch said this was a case where the parent clearly wanted the student to take ownership of the process — and that student did, but wasn’t properly equipped, or properly motivated (or both), to carry out that assignment responsibly.

Which brings him back to that notion of moving targets.

“If you look at financial-aid eligibility, many parents have no idea what they can afford,” he explained. “They’re just looking at a $60,000 price tag, and that’s paralyzing them. Then you have the question about how this school figures out who gets scholarships or need-based aid, so that’s a moving target. The kid doesn’t know what he wants to study, so that’s a moving target. So where do you start the process?

“We’re able to come up with a plan that takes into account how much it’s going to cost at a variety of schools based on the different formulas schools use,” he went on. “We can do an eligibility analysis, and, like an accountant, can reduce your tax burden and increase your eligibility for financial aid.”

There is both an eligibility review and an affordability review, he went on, which really does a deep dive into just what parents can realistically afford, taking into account a host of factors including everything from how loans are paid back to how many children the couple has, to how much money the family will save when the child leaves the house for college.

“Some families may not be able to afford what the formulas say they have to pay,” Metsch went on. “So that means we have to look more at schools where the student can get academic scholarships. We may also say to a student, ‘here’s the threshold you want to get your test scores to, because if you just go up another 20 points, you’ll get another $10,000 from this particular school.’”

Grade Expectations

This is what Metsch means by a more scientific approach to this complex, time-consuming process.

And such science is obviously critical given the high stakes for all those involved and the long-term implications of the decisions being made.

“There are all these moving targets,” he said in conclusion. “And if you can’t freeze-frame them, it’s a complete crapshoot, and no parent wants that.”

And that’s probably the best reason, he went on, why people should look at his services as an investment, not an expense.

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

Education Sections

Screen Test

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says online education is a natural outgrowth of Bay Path’s efforts to serve non-traditional students.

This year marks the 15th consecutive year of growth in what’s known as online, or distance, learning at U.S. colleges and universities. But a newer trend is seeing students fresh out of high school — not just the working adults that have dominated the online-learning world — logging on as well. At a time of changing demographics in higher education, area schools that have embraced the distance model simply say they’re meeting students where they want to be.

Before online college courses were a thing — heck, before ‘online’ was a thing — attending college was tougher for some than others, and for many, finding a path to a degree while working and raising a family was too high a scheduling hurdle.

Amanda Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College (TAWC) at Bay Path University, said Bay Path has long been responsive to that need — specifically, the Saturday programs it started offering in 1999 for students who had work or family responsibilities during the week.

“It was intended to be an additional entry point to higher education, for students who didn’t enroll right after high school, or tried to go to another college but never actually completed,” she told BusinessWest. “The options at the time — evening programs and traditional semester-based models — were not conducive to working adults supporting a family.”

Around 2007, she went on, the concept of online learning (also known as distance learning) started to gain traction, and when Bay Path made forays in that direction, feedback was positive. The American Women’s College — which offers a host of online degree programs, from accounting to criminal justice; from child psychology to food science and safety — was founded in 2013 with a mission to expand access to higher education to working women who do not have a college degree.

“You can manage your own time and work on your own schedule, as opposed to trying to keep to a certain schedule every week. It gives you that flexibility,” Gould noted.

Online classes allow students to engage in classroom activity — much of which takes place on forums and discussion boards — on their own schedule. And that ‘additional entry point’ isn’t just anecdotal: 70% percent of TAWC students are first-generation college attendees, one-third are single mothers, and more than half are Pell-eligible, which speaks to economic need.

At American International College (AIC), a host of degree programs in the health sciences — a master’s degree in nursing, an RN-to-BSN program, and an occupational therapy doctorate, to name a few — meet similar scheduling needs, particularly for professionals already working in those fields who seek advanced degrees without having take time away from work.

“Obviously, the clinical piece has to be on the ground, but all the didactic coursework occurs online,” said Cesarina Thompson, dean of AIC’s School of Health Sciences.

Karin Moyano Camihort, dean of Online Programs at Holyoke Community College (HCC), said her department understands the importance of work, family, and other commitments, and the college’s online degree and certificate programs make it easier for busy people to earn a degree without sacrificing priorities.

“Our students choose online for a variety of reasons,” she told BusinessWest. “Some are working adults that are looking for flexibility; some are college students from other institutions that join our summer or accelerated courses, and some are high-school students starting their college experience ahead of schedule.”

HCC’s three most popular degrees — business administration, liberal arts, and criminal justice — can all be completed fully online, on campus, or both, by taking some courses online and some on campus. “Plus, our partnerships with four-year colleges and universities make transfer easier,” she noted.

In short, online learning at the college level is expanding at a rapid rate, both locally and nationally — and, increasingly, it’s more than just working adults logging on.

Clicking with the Public

In the 2017 study “Tracking Distance Education in the United States,” the Babson Survey Research Group revealed that online student enrollments increased for the 14th straight year in 2016-17, with more than 31% of all college students taking at least one distance-education course — and all evidence suggests the uptick has continued this year.

“The growth of distance enrollments has been relentless,” wrote study co-author Julia Seaman, research director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “They have gone up when the economy was expanding, when the economy was shrinking, when overall enrollments were growing, and now when overall enrollments are shrinking.”

Public institutions command the largest portion of distance-education students, with 67.8% of all students studying online. And a handful of colleges and universities have broadly embraced the model, with 5% of institutions accounting for almost half of all distance-education students.

The study also showed that distance learning doesn’t necessarily mean actual distance: 52.8% of all students who took at least one online course also took a course on-campus, and 56.1% of those who took only online courses reside in the same state as the institution at which they are enrolled. Fewer than 1% of all distance students are located outside the U.S.

“Online has really grown quite a bit over the years and become very sophisticated in how the whole learning experience is managed,” Thompson said, explaining that AIC uses a platform called Blackboard, one of several management systems in use today, that offers multiple ways for professors and students to interact online, from message boards to videoconferencing. “It can be asynchronous, with students logging in whenever they want to, and can also be arranged as a synchronous experience, with all students online at a certain time.”

Cesarina Thompson

Cesarina Thompson says AIC’s online programs offer opportunities for face-to-face interaction, but enough tools that those meetings aren’t always necessary.

For those who might wonder how engaged students are, that’s something instructors can easily track.

“The technology is advanced nowadays, and you really can engage students much more frequently; in an online learning environment, I might say to a student, ‘I want to see you’re logging in at least twice a week and entering responses to these questions,’” she explained. “In a classroom setting, a student can stand in the shadows and never say a word, but with analytics, we who know who’s logging in, when, and how many times.”

Gould said classes at TAWC are run in a cohort model, meaning the students navigate through the courses together, although they don’t necessarily have to be online at the same time. Often, the lecture-hall experience is replaced by reading offline, while online ‘classroom’ time is spent on projects, group work, active learning, and lab-based activities.

However, this model not always the easiest option, she said.

“What people don’t realize is the time-management piece is actually very tricky,” she noted. “It takes a lot of self-motivation and a certain skill set to be able to block out times. Some folks end up doing a lot of work when they’re exhausted, late in the evening. So, I don’t think it’s easy by any means, but it appeals to people who want to feel in control of when they work.”

Meanwhile, recognizing that person-to-person interaction is a big part of college life, Bay Path has created a series of social-engagement opportunities for its online students, from Facebook communities to support from peer mentors who can answer questions and provide feedback, to national learning communities online, where students learn about organizations in their field, job postings, and area events. “We want to keep them engaged as much as possible both inside and outside the classroom.”

Moyano Camihort said HCC offers fellowship programs for faculty where they enhance their online-instruction skills and share best practices.

“Our online faculty also teach on campus, so there is a real connection to our college,” she went on. “We have a brick-and-mortar building. We also have a dynamic and innovative online learning environment where students connect with instructors and peers, access lectures and materials, submit assignments, work in groups, and learn online.”

The results, she went on, are evident in enrollment figures — one-third of all credits currently available at HCC are online. “Our students prefer online courses, and even though they will tell you that our courses are challenging, they continue to choose online.”

Virtual Revolution

The flip side, of course, is the effect on colleges when it comes to on-campus enrollment, and the long-term impacts remain unclear. According to the Babson study, the number of students studying on a campus dropped by almost 1.2 million, or 6.4%, between 2012 and 2016.

Jeff Seaman, co-director of Babson and a co-author of the study, expects this trend to persist in 2018 and beyond. He also believes the number of students who only take on-campus courses will probably keep dropping, in part because more students are combining online and in-person learning.

Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, says online degree programs in 2018 will increase their use of modern technologies to enhance their curriculums, including a move toward virtual and augmented reality, which can allow students to learn in simulated environments, and remote technologies, such as videoconferencing and robotic telepresence, to allow for more face-to-face interaction among students and instructors.

At the American Women’s College, the demographics still largely favor a mix of working mothers and professionals who want to advance in their careers, but there has also been an increase in students under age 25, who now account for 10% of online enrollment.

“I do think we’re going to see a shift in higher-education enrollment for these types of alternative models, for a number of reasons,” Gould said. “Financially, the residential experience is becoming outpriced for a number of students. I think we’ll see younger working students who are juggling school and life, and as we see future generations becoming college-ready, expectations around technology and virtual engagement will only be on the rise.

“I think,” she went on, “we are only going to see continuous, growing demand for online options.”

Thompson agreed that online courses aren’t limited to working adults, and some younger students prefer a blended model, mixing online with traditional or hybrid courses, the latter being programs that require some physical classroom time amid the online coursework.

“We’re online, but we still draw from a local market, so there’s still the possibility of face-to-face contact between faculty and students,” she said. “If they want to stop by and have a meeting, we can do that, but there are enough tools online that it’s not always necessary.”

One positive for colleges, she noted, is that, at a time when the region’s demographics are shifting older, the ability to capture working adults will be a boon for colleges that embrace online and distance models.

“With an aging population, a decline in birth rates, and an outmigration to other states, it’s going to be a challenge for institutions of higher education going forward,” she said. “With a declining high-school-graduate population, we have to adapt to other populations who may not be able to make it to class as a full-time student — and utilizing online and other flexible modes of delivery is certainly one way to do that.”

It’s all about adapting to a 21st-century student body, Gould said, that is far more comfortable with high-tech solutions than previous generations.

“Students are becoming so dependent on technology to do so much in their lives, but trying to figure out how to fit all those things together is not an easy task,” she said. “It takes time to figure out, and it takes finances. It’s expensive to integrate technology; it’s not a cheap pursuit if you want to do it well. But, from a mission perspective, that’s the only way to do it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Positive Steps

Maria Rodriguez-Furlow

Maria Rodriguez-Furlow says her ‘dancing with the stars’ appearance is much like her decision to pursue a college degree later in life — a leap of faith.

Maria Rodriguez-Furlow says she isn’t exactly sure why her name came up — although she has some theories — but she’s ultimately glad it did.

Indeed, her participation in the upcoming Dancing with the Stars-like competition — which will certainly comprise the defining moments of Bay Path University’s second annual President’s Gala on June 2 at the Sheraton in Springfield — will be fun and support a very good cause: college scholarships for women and men who need them.

But it will also be poignant, if not symbolic, on several levels.

And this brings us back to that question about why she was chosen as a contestant.

While Rodriguez-Furlow likes to dance and her colleagues at Bay Path’s American Women’s College recognize that — “they know that when there’s music and there’s me, I’m moving,” she said — there’s more to her selection, she believes.

And it comes down to the fact that she embodies just the type of individual who will likely receive one of these scholarships — she’s a non-traditional student in every sense of that phrase — and this dance competition, like her decision to go to college somewhat later in life, was a leap of faith.

“I decided to complete my undergraduate degree as an adult — I was in my mid-30s at the time, I had a full-time job, I had two young kids,” said Rodriguez-Furlow, adjunct faculty hiring manager for the American Women’s College. “And I enrolled in what was called the Saturday program; you went for 12-hour days. I was scared, but I knew that earning a degree was something I needed to do for myself.”

In press releases from the university concerning the event, Rodriguez-Furlow’s name is followed by ’10 G’12. Roughly translated, that means she earned her bachelor’s degree from Bay Path in 2010 and her MBA two years later. It also means she’s already ‘danced a mile in their shoes,’ the name given to the president’s gala and a nod to the challenges facing those who will receive the scholarships it generates.

We’ll get back to Rodriguez-Furlow for more thoughts on that later, but first, her competition for that night in June: two members of the business community who have agreed to step out of their comfort zones — way, way out, if you listen to them.

Indeed, Patty Faginski says the woman who called to ask her to participate let her know something intriguing was up by prefacing her query with another one: “are you sitting down?”

She was, which helped, Faginski told BusinessWest.

As for Delcie Bean, who really needs no introduction in this space, but we’ll do it anyway — he’s the founder and president of Paragus Strategic IT and also a Bay Path trustee — he said his participation in this event came about not with a single phone call, but maybe six to nine months of “gentle prodding and light encouragement” by his estimates.

To put things in perspective, when asked just how far out of his comfort zone Bean was stepping with this assignment, he kept his answer short, sweet, and direct.

“As far as you can imagine.”

But like his two competitors, he never really considered saying ‘no,’ because, and we’re paraphrasing here, the cause is that good, the challenge is that intriguing, and the message sent by taking part is that compelling.

“I think it’s relatively easy to donate one’s time or even money to an organization you support,” said Bean. “However, being willing to step well outside of your comfort zone and learn a brand new skill in order to help support the organization felt more meaningful and impactful to me, and aligns with my desire to support the organization in any way that I can.”

Elaborating, he said it did take all those months of prodding to get him to do this. And while he already considers himself a winner just by participating, should be win the coveted mirror-ball trophy that goes to the champion?

“I would proudly display it right on my desk,” he told BusinessWest, “as it would represent me overcoming my fear, stepping outside my comfort zone, and, in the end, being successful.”

Faginski echoed those thoughts. She said she was first approached a few months ago and said her one of her first thoughts was ‘I always wanted to take dance lessons,’ or words to that effect.

And now, she is, along with her fellow competitors. Those lessons are being provided by Daryll (a Bay Path graduate) and Gynnar Sverrisson. There’s one a week, said Faginski, adding, with a laugh, that such a volume of instruction is certainly needed as she learns a dance called the ‘jive.’

As for Rodriguez-Furlow, she said having already walked a mile in the shoes of those for whom the scholarships are intended made it easy to agree to dance another mile.

“That’s why I didn’t hesitate when I was asked,” she explained, adding that, through her experiences with first gaining her bachelor’s degree and then her MBA, Bay Path has enabled her to believe she can accomplish pretty much anything she sets her mind to.

And that includes winning the mirror-ball trophy.

She’s not sure that will happen, but she is sure, as are her competitors, that they’ve already won something important just by competing.

The real winners, of course, are those who will receive the scholarships generated by this truly unique event.

For more information on the event, visit www.baypath.edu/gala.

—George O’Brien

Education Sections

The New Faces of Medical School

First-year medical students Betsy McGovern

First-year medical students Betsy McGovern

Prithwijit Roychowdhury

Prithwijit Roychowdhury

Kathryn Norman

Kathryn Norman

Colton Conrad

Colton Conrad

Like most first-year students, Kathryn Norman entered medical school in August not knowing exactly what to expect.

But there were certainly some things she never expected.

Like a curriculum that included a visit to the Hampden County jail in Ludlow, where she and fellow classmates talked with inmates about their health and well-being and learned first-hand how social issues and mental-health conditions have impacted their lives and put them on a path to incarceration.

Or a visit to a local food store, where teams were assigned the task of taking $125 in food stamps and buying a month’s worth of food for a single mother with diabetes and her daughter, all while trying to keep proper nutrition as the basis for the spending decisions.

Or a visit from an auto mechanic who would discuss the questions he asks a car owner to diagnose problems, with the goal of driving home the message that a similar methodology — and many of those same questions — would be utilized by a physician seeking to fully diagnose an issue with a patient.

But all this and more has been part of the first five months of experiences at what is known as the University of Massachusetts Medical School – Baystate, the Springfield campus, if you will, of the Worcester-based institution.

“The very first patient that I ever spoke to was someone who was incarcerated,” Norman said of her start in medical school. “And just getting to hear about the challenges these inmates had and bringing together the medical conditions they have, which are pretty complex, and the social conditions they have, that’s very exciting.”

That’s a word used often by the 22 students enrolled at UMass Medical, who spend one day every two weeks in Springfield and, more specifically, at the facility created by Baystate Health at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute on Main Street. They are there for a class devoted to developing their interviewing skills, something not often thought about when it comes to a medical-school curriculum, but a nonetheless critical part of the equation when it comes to being a good doctor, as Dr. Kevin Hinchey explained.

Dr. Kevin Hinchey

Dr. Kevin Hinchey says the PURCH program puts emphasis on the social determinants of health and prevention, not merely treatment, of illnesses.

He’s chief Education officer and senior associate dean for Education at UMass Medical School — Baystate, and he said that, while students are mastering the art and science of asking questions, they are gaining a unique perspective on the many aspects of population health by hearing, and absorbing, the answers.

Such as those they heard while visiting an area homeless shelter.

“There was a gentleman there who has diabetes; the students were interviewing him, and he said he keeps a candy bar by the side of his bed,” Hinchey recalled. “When they asked him why, he said ‘because it’s nutrition, it has a lot of calories in it, and it doesn’t spoil.’

“This is one of the social determinants of health,” he went on. “We talk about a food desert in downtown Springfield … you can’t get fresh fruits and vegetables, so you get other foods. That conversation becomes important, because later, when you see that same person in your office and his blood sugar is 400, you might say that he needs insulin. But because you saw him there (at the homeless shelter), you say ‘no, he needs a refrigerator.’ It changes your concept of the disease and gives you a real example of people thinking, ‘as a doctor, I’m reacting to things; can’t I get more upstream and do some more prevention?’”

Indeed, through participation in an initiative known as PURCH (Population-based Urban and Rural Community Health), students are getting a different kind of learning experience as they work on their interviewing skills, one that Rebecca Blanchard, assistant dean for Education at UMass Medical School — Baystate, and senior director of Educational Affairs at Baystate Health, summed up by saying that what differentiates it is not what’s being taught, but how and where, and also in the way these experiences motivate students.

And to get that point across, she talked more about that visit to the homeless shelter.

“This is an interviewing class; students are building skills in interviewing — having a conversation to gain information. It’s also a track focused on how population health and disparities intersect in a human way,” she said, adding that, through their various experiences, students move beyond the act of treating sick patients and into the all-important realm of advocacy.

“They come back from these experiences asking questions that are advocacy questions,” she went on. “They ask ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’ and ‘how can we help?’”

For this issue and its focus on the healthcare workforce, BusinessWest visited the Baystate facility and talked with Hinchey, Blanchard, and several students about the unique approach that is PURCH, as well as the many unique learning experiences they’ve already shared.

Body of Evidence

As he talked about the process of applying to medical schools and the factors that weighed on his decision concerning where to go, Colton Conrad, from North Carolina, started by saying he first focused on schools with respectable primary-care rankings and also an emphasis on patient care rather than research.

Through their experiences in the PURCH program, Rebecca Blanchard

Through their experiences in the PURCH program, Rebecca Blanchard says, students training to become doctors also take on the role of advocates.

Those criteria put UMass Medical on his relatively short list, he went on, adding that, while he was applying, he noticed a secondary application “for this thing called PURCH.” Intrigued, he went on the website and did some reading.

Actually, it was only about three paragraphs, but it was more than enough to get his full attention.

“What I gained from those three paragraphs was that this was a branch of UMass Med School that was starting up the year I was starting school to take future physicians out of the classroom, out of a standard hospital setting, and get them involved in the community,” he recalled, “with the goal of better understanding the people and the patients they serve — to understand them on a deeper level than just illnesses.

“And I thought that was really cool,” he went on, adding that this quick synopsis was enough to prompt him to apply. And the visits to Worcester and then Springfield were enough to convince him that his search was pretty much over.

“It felt like … it wasn’t just a place where I wanted to be; the people also wanted me to be there,” he explained. “That was the first time I felt that at a medical school.”

With that, there was considerable nodding of the heads gathered around the conference-room table as BusinessWest spoke with several students enrolled in PURCH.

Collectively, they used that word ‘cool’ several more times as they talked about both those experiences that take place, as that short description on the website noted, outside the classroom and outside the hospital, and also about what it means for their overall medical-school experience.

Norman said PURCH adds what she called “another layer” to her education, an important one not available in the traditional classroom setting.

“Our education has been so much more grounded in actually understanding real people and the real lives they have,” she said. “And these are opportunities that I haven’t seen our classmates in Worcester have.”

Betsy McGovern, from Andover, agreed, and to get her points across, she revisited her experiences at the Ludlow jail, which were memorable on many levels, but especially for the unexpectedly candid conversations between students and inmates.

“Our inmate was talking about his struggles with diabetes and his family history of diabetes, and he mentioned, very briefly, a domestic-violence incident that occurred between his family and his mother,” she recalled, adding that the students involved were at first unsure about whether to probe deeper on that topic, but eventually did, in part because the inmate was able and willing to open up, but also because it was important to do so.

Indeed, there are many contributing factors to one’s health and well-being, McGovern went on, and traumatic experiences such as witnessing domestic violence are certainly one of them. Asking patients about them is difficult and awkward, but it’s as important as asking them about their diabetes. And gaining experience with such hard questions — and the resulting answers — is a critical part of becoming a good interviewer and, more importantly, a competent clinician.

And something else as well — an advocate, said Prithwijit Roychowdhury, another first-year student known to his colleagues longing for something shorter and easier to pronounce as ‘Prith.’

He told BusinessWest that, through their experiences in PURCH, students gain a greater appreciation for those social determinants and thus, perhaps, a better understanding of the importance of prevention, rather than simply treatment of illnesses.

“I think a lot of us are interested in being advocates and policymakers potentially, or even researchers working on policy or how well certain policies are working,” said Roychowdhury, who is from Worcester. “And to that end, getting a diverse exposure from a variety of different groups of people helps to contextualize the things you might want to advocate for.

“And as medical students who are interested in population health, we all know that it’s not purely the encounter with the patient in the examination room that matters,” he went on. “It’s about the broader context: what are the kinds of policies that are causing this particular patient to have a child who gets exposed to lead or arsenic, or are there reasons why a family has a long history of diabetes?”

All these comments help explain why the PURCH curriculum, and this interviewing class, were structured in this way, said Blanchard and Henchey, adding that the goal is to motivate students to look beyond the patient’s condition and to the big picture — the factors that made this condition possible and even inevitable, with an eye toward prevention.

“We’re getting students involved in advocacy and those discussions about what can be done to improve population health early on,” said Blanchard. “There’s genuine curiosity to be actively part of the solution, and it’s quite exciting for all of the faculty to see it from that lens.”

Learning Curves

Conrad told BusinessWest that one of the most important aspects of the road trips taken by the PURCH students is the debriefing — his word — that goes on afterward.

“When we go out as a group for these experiences, we come back and we talk about them,” he explained. “And it’s really interesting to hear everyone’s perspective, because just about everyone in PURCH has different backgrounds, different life stories.”

And these debriefings have become learning experiences in their own right, he went on, using the trips to the homeless shelter and jail (half the class visited each one) as an example.

“We all came back from those trips, and it seemed like everyone had very similar stories even though we were with very different populations,” he explained. “We all found that most of our patients had these pre-existing, oftentimes mental-health conditions that were playing out in the worst ways in every aspect of their lives.

“It’s really easy to look at the prison population or the homeless population and make fairly gross generalizations,” he went on. “But after having our debriefing, it’s a little harder to do that, except to say that a lot of people have underlying issues that are affecting their lives so negatively that they are put in situations where they’re homeless or they’re incarcerated or they are drug addicts. Out of all these experiences, what I’ve gained the most is looking at people beyond what their particular illness is at that moment; whatever they’re presenting with that day isn’t even close to the full story.”

This, in a nutshell, is what PURCH is all about, and Conrad’s comments, and those of his fellow classmates, effectively bring to life that three-paragraph description of the program that drew them in and eventually drew them to Springfield.

There are many social determinants of health, and each one plays a role in what brings a patient to a physician’s office on a given day. Some of the biggest are the many challenges that are part and parcel to living at or below the poverty line, challenges that drive home the point that there are often huge barriers to doing the right thing when it comes to one’s health and well-being.

Which explains why that visit to the grocery store carrying $125 in food stamps was so eye-opening, said Norman, adding that there’s a big difference between reading about such issues in a book or news article and seeing them first-hand.

There were fruits and vegetables at this store, but they were too expensive and they would perish, she noted, adding that those pushing the cart had to steer it up different aisles.

Conrad, who was in the same group, was actually able to bring personal experience to bear.

“My family was on food stamps for a while when I was growing up, and I remember my mom having to make some of those tough decisions,” he recalled. “And it was weird to be in her situation but in a simulation.”

By the time the group arrived at the checkout line, the cart was full of rice, beans, pasta, and other items that were in bulk, inexpensive, and transportable, said Norman, adding that those who participated in the exercise left the store with large doses of frustration.

And that led Roychowdhury back to his thoughts about advocacy.

“We need to think about what we can do about these issues, such as the food choices that might lead to diabetes,” he explained. “Regardless of where we end up … if we end up in a hospital, what can we do to advocate for our board of trustees or our administration to help create and implement programs focused on education regarding diabetes or even creating a diabetes pump clinic?

“These are things already happening at Baystate and are concrete examples we can draw from,” he went on. “They give us a lot of insight into maybe how to implement these in our population health tool kit, not purely as a clinician, but as a population-health advocate.”

Outside the Box

Returning to that visit to the food store one more time, Conrad said it was quite lifelike, but not quite the real thing, and for several reasons.

Indeed, he recalls Roychawdhury, also part of his group, advising that they buy food with a lower glycemic index. “I said, ‘dude, I don’t even know what that means; how are we expecting the average person to make healthy choices for their diabetes based on a glycemic index when I don’t know what that is?’

“Also, we didn’t have a screaming kid in our cart as we doing our shopping, and we were able to take our cars; we didn’t have to take the bus and fit everything for a month into three bags,” he went on, adding that these missing ingredients would have made the assignment that much more difficult, as it was for some people who were tackling that exercise for real on the same day his team was.

The screaming child was missing, but just about everything else was there. It was real, hands-on, outside the box, and certainly outside the classroom.

As noted earlier, Norman and her classmates didn’t know quite what to expect in their first year of medical school. But they were definitely not expecting learning experiences like these.

Experiences that will make them better interviewers — and better doctors.


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