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Education Special Coverage

Back to Normal?

It’s hard to gauge what ‘normal’ looks like during the era of COVID-19, when normalcy is a moving target. For area colleges and universities, though, getting back to normal means one thing: bringing as many students back to dorms and classrooms as possible. Make no mistake, campus life this fall will still be different from the pre-pandemic college experience, but just opening those classroom and residence-hall doors is a big step — the result of many lessons learned during the most unusual academic year in memory.

Normalcy.

It’s an attractive concept these days, if an elusive one. Just ask the folks planning for the fall 2021 semester at the region’s colleges and universities.

“This fall, we’ll go back to some normalcy, with classes back in person full-time, students in the residence halls, and athletes on the fields,” said Jonathan Scully, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Elms College. “That’s the plan right now.”

Scully said Elms has long maintained a COVID-19 task force that meets every week to discuss public-health data, on-campus health metrics, current recommendations of the CDC and the state Department of Public Health, and, importantly, how faculty and staff feel about a full return. “That all played a part in making decisions for the fall.”

He noted that students seem excited about coming back to Springfield Street in Chicopee, even though the college’s ElmsFlex hybrid plan, by which students could learn on campus, remotely, or with a combination of both, has been well-received.

“We’re not fully remote; we had that ElmsFlex option, because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely,” Scully said. “But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Western New England University (WNEU) was among just 27% of U.S. colleges and universities that opened to mainly in-person learning and residential living last fall and remained open through the 2020-21 year, having delivered about 75% of courses on campus and the rest through online and hybrid formats, said Bryan Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing.

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully

“Because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely. But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Two factors played into that success, he said: a culture of small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio is 12:1) and plenty of space that made social distancing much easier to implement, and a commitment — a compact, really, among students, faculty, and staff — to make sure the campus could stay open.

“They adhered to that social distancing, we put up tons of signage, we brought in extra cleaning staff, we had plexiglass throughout … all those things contributed to the plan for the past year,” Gross told BusinessWest.

He noted that colleges and universities don’t have the luxury of making their fall opening plans in July or August; the shift on the fly to remote learning that happened last spring is not the preferred model for campus planning. So, while the course of the pandemic might still alter the plans before September, those plans still need to be made and set in motion.

At WNEU, that will mean all courses normally taught on campus will be, indeed, taught in person, with three-foot distancing in place and masks required, at least according to current guidance. While some hybrid options may be available, Gross said, “we feel Western New England is best with face-to-face classwork, and that’s what we’re moving forward with.”

American International College (AIC) is moving in that direction as well, said Matt Scott, vice president for Student Affairs.

For the current year, he explained, residence halls are open, and students are allowed to live on campus, but most classes are remote, and athletics have continued as normal. Surveillance testing for COVID is widespread, and other safety and sanitization protocols are a regular part of life.

For the fall, Scott said, the current plan is to go back to “whatever the new normal will look like,” but the goal being full residence halls and in-person instruction.

“We’re still waiting to see some state guidance — there’s K-12 guidance that came out in terms of desk distancing in classrooms and things of that nature, but they have not come out with specific guidance for colleges yet,” he added. “But that’s the plan.”

Chet Jordan

Chet Jordan

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely.”

The plan at most campuses, it turns out, is for normalcy, or, as Gross noted, whatever that term might mean come September. But optimism is high that college life will finally begin to look like it used to.

 

Safety First

Community colleges, for the most part, were more fully remote than most schools, and are being more cautious with their return to normalcy. For example, Greenfield Community College (GCC) will offer classes in a face-to-face or hybrid format, meeting at least once a week on campus with some possible online instruction as well.

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely,” said Chet Jordan, dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at GCC. “Our faculty and staff have been almost entirely remote for the past year, so their input in how we can phase in a slow reopening of the campus was essential to us.”

GCC brought together a group of faculty, staff, and administrators to talk through the complexities of a reopening, eventually crafting a hybrid model. “We want to make sure our faculty and staff feel safe when they return to campus,” Jordan added. “The situation is constantly changing, but we addressed the key questions as best we could.”

Students in GCC’s health-career programs will meet on campus in hands-on courses to best prepare them for essential jobs in the growing healthcare industry. Those in other professional programs, such as business and education, will also have on-campus options. In most programs, students will complete some of their coursework online and will participate in weekly experiential learning opportunities, including lab activities and field trips.

GCC will follow state guidelines on occupancy rates in classrooms and offices, mask requirements, and health screenings, as well as maintaining scrupulous air-quality practices and a thorough sanitizing schedule.

The class schedule is roughly 55% online and 45% in person, Jordan said, which allows time to space out the classes between sections to avoid a bottleneck of students entering and exiting, while maintaining appropriate distancing.

“It gives students who want to be on campus that in-person experience, but also flexibility the rest of the week to finish online,” he said, adding that the library will be available for students to access a virtual class between in-person sessions on any given day. “So they won’t have to jump between campus and home, we’re giving them space to do a remote class and then go to their next class on campus.”

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families.”

UMass Amherst also expects campus life to return to normal operations in fall 2021. That means an emphasis on face-to-face instruction, full residence halls — an expected 13,000 students will live on campus — and a complement of student events and activities.

Planning for summer orientation is well underway, as new students will be invited to participate in a series of synchronous and asynchronous orientation programs over the summer before they arrive for in-person welcome sessions at the end of August.

This past fall, many first-year students who would have experienced on-campus housing for the first time did not get that opportunity. So, in an effort to support these students, freshmen and sophomores will receive priority consideration to select on-campus spaces this fall. Still, based on current interest, UMass expects to be able to meet all housing requests, including all interested juniors and seniors.

Finally, UMass announced that its renovated Student Union is now open, offering space for events, student organizations, student businesses, and a ballroom.

The campus experience is more than academics, WNEU’s Gross said, noting that the university creative in finding ways to bring students together for small-group activities in the campus center. This fall, he expects larger outdoor activities, including intramural sports, to return, as well as indoor events as long as safety protocols are followed.

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families,” he said, including a big homecoming event inviting back the 2020 graduates, who were unable to have a traditional commencement experience.

 

Learning by Doing

In his first year working at GCC, Jordan said he has been “incredibly warmed and inspired by the creativity of the faculty, who do anything they can do make sure students have the best experience.”

For example, science classes have included more outdoor, experiential learning. Meanwhile, students in the health sciences have been on campus throughout the pandemic, due to the unique, hands-on needs of their training. “They paved the way,” he said. “They’re the ones who figured out how to open as safely as we possibly can.”

At AIC, students in those fields have been diligent about safety protocols and personal protective equipment, Scott said. “Because they’re health-science students, they tend to take it a little further than some of our other students. If they’re getting up close and personal, they’re wearing face shields and masks and such.”

Particularly during the 2020, he noted, constant pivoting was the order of the day for college faculty and administrators, who had to constantly monitor the development of the pandemic and guide a testing and safety plan for their campuses.

“But I think, overall, our plan stayed the same,” he added. “We thought it was safest this year to keep as many students remote as possible and have some in-person experiences that are kind of controlled for the pandemic-related protocols we had in place. That all stayed the same throughout the year, but the way we approached them adjusted as we needed to.”

Some of the lessons learned led to positive developments, said Kerry Cole, vice president for Admissions at AIC. For example, the college used to deliver its certificate of advanced graduate study (CAGS) programs for teachers at 11 physical sites. Once the program was forced online by COVID, administrators began to hear from the grad students that they loved it.

“So, beginning in the fall, we’re moving to a virtual format throughout the state, where we’re able to deliver licensing programs in a virtual format for all the programs we offer,” Cole said. “That came directly from students. They wanted virtual — not online, but virtual, synchronous, so they can communicate with each other.

“We’re very, very excited about it,” she went on. “Our teachers now need more flexibility than ever. They’re rock stars, and we need to be able to support them.”

Scott agreed, noting that there were many instances where he and others said, “wow, we didn’t realize this would work, that students would enjoy this.” One example is online counseling services, which are now much more accessible to commuter students.

That doesn’t mean students don’t want to return to in-person learning, of course; for the most part, they certainly do. But they’ve handled an unusual year well, he said.

“I am amazed every day how well our students are doing with these protocols. You’ll always have the occasional mask below the nose, and that’s going to happen, usually because they have a mask that doesn’t fit them well. But we have not really had any issues with students giving people a hard time when they’re entering the dining commons to get food. We planned for that; we asked, ‘how are we going to deal with the student who shows up and flat-out refuses to wear a mask?’ But we have not had that happen.”

In fact, the worst incidents have been the occasional group of students who head to the mall and don’t wear masks in the car.

“They’re not supposed to do it, but there are far worse things they could be doing and far worse ways they could be violating our protocols,” Scott said. “We try not to have a heavy hand; we try to take an educational approach and make sure they understand the potential impact, the ripple effect those actions can have on the community. But we’ve been very impressed with the way our students have responded this year.”

 

Waiting for the Return

Enrollment dipped last year at many colleges due to uncertainty about what the academic experience and college life would entail, but most area institutions see the application and enrollment numbers on the rise in 2021.

“Along with the rest of the community-college sector, we saw a decline over the past year, but that was an anomaly,” Jordan said. “In most recessions, community colleges do really well, but this was the reverse; this sector was the hardest-hit. The reason is that low-income students and students of color have been unprecedentedly hit by this pandemic, and those are our students.”

It’s especially important, then, for community colleges to offer a flexible model during these times, and that’s what GCC is aiming for, he added.

“We want to be sure we’re reaching students at home with kids, so those students can take classes online, and also opening the campus in such a way that students who need to be on campus will get that in-person instruction. Having more flexible classroom options will invite more people back.”

Cole said AIC successfully implemented the plan it thought best for 2020-21, and will now expand upon that.

“We’re very excited about it,” she said, noting that campus tours have begun again, and the campus hosted its first in-person admissions event of the school year in mid-April. “Graduate students love virtual info sessions and open houses. Undergrads are a mixed bag, but graduate students will take it all day. So we’ll likely keep some of that.”

Scully said nothing is set in stone when it comes to pandemic planning; the past 13 months at the Elms have been proof of that.

“We’re monitoring everything very closely, and our first priority is the safety of students and staff,” he said. “We know things could change on a dime.”

Elms, like many colleges, already offered some programs online before the pandemic, and has since bolstered the technology to conduct those, having purchased new cameras, microphones, and other equipment. “But, like everyone else, we’re looking forward to getting back to normal.”

And doing so safely, Gross said.

“I’ve never been so proud to be part of an organization as I’ve been of our students, faculty, and staff over the last year and a half,” he said. “I can’t stress how many extra hours our faculty and staff put into adjusting curriculum, adjusting extracurriculars, and changing everything we do, from open houses to the way we engage with current students, prospective students, and alumni. It was a group effort in flexibility, agility, determination, and energy.

That said, “the community is tired,” he went on. “We’ve been going non-stop; I can’t tell you how many faculty and staff have told me about the extra hours they’ve put in over the weekends. We’ve all been chipping in to do whatever it takes to keep things safe and enjoyable for students.”

But there’s no time to take a break. Not with the fall semester right around the corner.

“Things are constantly changing,” Gross said. “We’re all learning as we go. But we are a learning organization, after all.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Making Change

By Mark Morris

Sustainathon

Students gather at a booth during the 2019 Sustainathon, the last time it was held in person.

One modest act can inspire others — and when that happens, the entire community benefits.

That’s the premise behind the Cooler Communities effort led by Uli Nagel, project director for Ener-G-Save, a program run by the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation.

Cooler Communities (the word ‘Cooler’ refers to reducing global warming) encourages school systems in Western Mass. to take on class projects relating to energy and energy efficiency. These projects are then displayed at a public exhibition in the community, where all attendees are asked to pledge one action they will take to conserve energy.

“Whether a person replaces standard light bulbs with LEDs or decides to buy an electric car, we encourage every action that saves energy,” Nagel said. Staff from Ener-G-Save keep a running total on pledged actions to measure their impact on the community.

For example, in 2019, Agawam schools held a Cooler Communities event in which 115 people took an energy-conservation pledge. Ener-G-Save estimated that follow-through by those Agawam residents would result in $87,600 in energy savings and 605 tons of carbon emissions eliminated from the air every year.

“Put another way, the energy-saving impact would be similar to removing 86 cars from Agawam roads every year,” Nagel said, demonstrating the impact from just one town.

The Cooler Communities efforts have continued this spring in the Berkshires and Agawam. This is the first year Springfield is taking part, as more than 1,000 high-school students have researched energy-related topics and recommended different actions they and their peers can take to make Springfield a safer, cleaner, and healthier place to live.

“Whether a person replaces standard light bulbs with LEDs or decides to buy an electric car, we encourage every action that saves energy.”

Nagel credited Springfield school officials for taking on Cooler Communities during the challenging year everyone has faced due to COVID-19 concerns. Ron St. Amand, director of Science for Springfield schools, appreciates the educational opportunity.

“It’s exciting to be able to help our students understand their choices have an impact,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to empower students to save energy, reduce carbon emissions, and slow climate change.”

To properly display all the student exhibits and invite others to take actions on saving energy, Ener-G-Save worked with Springfield to develop a dedicated website to make the effort accessible to everyone at a time when in-person exhibits are not possible.

From left, the 2019 Sustainathon

From left, the 2019 Sustainathon, STCC mascot Rowdy the Ram, Reena Randhir, the three-student winning team from Springfield Sci-Tech School, and (back row) Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman and STCC president John Cook.

Nagel pointed out that setting up a virtual exhibit has definite advantages because more people can see all the student projects and pledge to reduce their energy usage online.

“The Berkshires Cooler Communities online event drew 600 visitors to the site, nearly double the number who attended the live event the year before,” Nagel said. “Keeping the exhibits and information online encourages more people to take part in the experience.”

 

Sustaining Momentum

A similar effort to raise awareness and take action on environmental challenges, known as Sustainathon, is happening at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). This effort, now in its fourth year, brings together STCC students and high-school students to create awareness of environmental-sustainability challenges and how science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields contribute to finding solutions.

Reena Randhir, director of STEM Starter Academy at STCC, said Sustainathon was developed because many students are not aware of environmental efforts in their own backyard.

“While we certainly have environmental challenges, Western Mass. also has many success stories, like turning food waste into fuel,” Randhir said. “People from other countries are studying what’s happening here, so our students should also be on top of these innovations.”

Similar to Cooler Communities, students who take part in Sustainathon create exhibits relating to environmental issues and present them at a public event. Because of COVID concerns, the public event switched to a livestream on April 14 that attracted more than 800 registrants. While Randhir hopes to once again hold Sustainathon in-person, moving online this year turned it into an international happening.

“This is a great opportunity to empower students to save energy, reduce carbon emissions, and slow climate change.”

“Nearly 80 people from India participated in the live event, as well as smaller numbers of students from five other countries,” she said. “By livestreaming, we were able to reach classrooms around the world as well as our own students.”

The Sustainathon also encourages participants to pledge at least one action to benefit the environment, Randhir said. “We hope everyone is a champion of change in their life. Even the simple act of eliminating the use of plastic bags can make a difference.”

One of the actions she and her students had planned was a tree-planting campaign around Western Mass. timed for Earth Day on April 22.

The Grinspoon Foundation and the Community Fund of Western Massachusetts have come together to provide $5,000 grants to the school systems taking part in Cooler Communities efforts. Nagel explained that philanthropist (and recent BusinessWest Difference Maker) Harold Grinspoon started Ener-G-Save because, as a real-estate developer, he was always troubled by energy-inefficient New England homes that commonly leaked heat from roofs, windows, and walls.

“Harold made it his goal to raise awareness of energy efficiency to help people spend less money on energy that is, literally, going out the window,” Nagel said. At one point, Ener-G-Save took drive-by thermal images of 100,000 homes in Western Mass. and encouraged homeowners with the worst heat leakage to take advantage of free energy audits from Mass Save.

 

Every Bit Helps

Though a number of the energy-saving pledges are tied to home ownership, Nagel said one doesn’t need to own a home to find plenty of ways to make a difference. “Simple acts like stopping junk mail and including more meat-free meals in your diet are two easy things anyone can do that benefit you and the environment.”

She also suggested riding a bike for a short trip instead of driving a car and, when using a car to run errands, consolidating trips to save gas and time.

“Energy use and conservation are huge topics,” Nagel said. “When we see the simple things others are doing that make a difference, we are less likely to feel overwhelmed and more likely to act.”

Education

Prepared for Launch

By Laurie Loisel

 

David Gruel stands next to the launchpad

David Gruel stands next to the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center on July 29, 2020, the day before NASA’ s Perseverance rover mission launch.

Not many people can say they’ve worked on every U.S.-led rover mission to Mars. One who can is David Gruel, a Holyoke Community College graduate from the class of 1991.

Five years out of HCC, Gruel was part of the Pathfinder mission that landed the Sojourner rover on Mars, the second Mars mission since the Viking became the first-ever U.S. mission to Mars in 1975. Sojourner had limited movement when compared to other rovers (most recently Perseverance) that travel across the planet, but it was a milestone nonetheless.

“Pathfinder was the return to the red planet some 20 years after Viking,” he said of the rover that launched in December 1996, landing on Mars in July 1997.

After that, through his job as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Gruel was among the crews working on the Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance NASA rover missions.

Considering that Gruel falls into a category of people for whom the maxim “it’s not rocket science” most definitely does not apply, the 50-year-old is modest and candid about his high-school years as an avid underachiever. He is equally clear about the role HCC played in putting him on a path to a career in rocket science. In fact, he flat-out declares that, if not for HCC, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

“I still have an incredible memory of the math and physics professors at HCC, and it was mutual. They went out of their way to know their students and to figure out where they could help.”

As a student at Westfield High School, Gruel spent more energy stocking grocery-store shelves, tending to the car those earnings bought him, and socializing with his friends than on academics. “I was looking for the easy road out at all times,” he admits.

After graduation, when many of his friends headed off to four-year colleges, Gruel continued working in the grocery store. “And then I realized I needed a different challenge in life,” he said.

That’s how he ended up at Holyoke Community College. Despite a less-than-stellar high-school transcript, he knew HCC “would actually give me a chance,” he said. “HCC was there to give people a second chance.”

Once enrolled, encouraged by his professors, he buckled down. He believes he had a better academic experience at HCC than he would have had he attended a four-year program right out of high school.

“The classes were small, and the teachers actually cared about you,” he said. “I still have an incredible memory of the math and physics professors at HCC, and it was mutual. They went out of their way to know their students and to figure out where they could help.”

It was not easy. He worked two jobs while a full-time HCC student, sometimes studying while logging third shift at a gas station.

“I was willing to work at it,” he said, “but there were people who were willing to support me, and that’s what I needed.”

Gruel graduated with honors and an associate degree in engineering, an accomplishment he remains proud of to this day. “This was something I had done for myself, and I had earned it.”

 

Up, Up, and Away

It also earned him acceptance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he found he had a real affinity for engineering. And here is where his humility rears its head again.

“A lot of things went my way,” he said. “In addition to working hard, there’s a lot of luck involved in where we end up in our lives.”

In his senior year at RPI, he learned that two friends who also had gone to HCC were doing co-op semesters in the field, working at engineering jobs. He decided to pursue one, landing a co-op placement at the prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, a federally funded research and design center managed by Caltech, with the vast majority of its funding and contract work coming from NASA.

Dave Gruel’s favorite photo of Perseverance was captured moments before the Mars landing

Dave Gruel’s favorite photo of Perseverance was captured moments before the Mars landing by one of the EDL (entry, descent, landing) cameras he installed on the rover.

Gruel thought the experience would spice up his résumé by adding that he worked on a team designing interplanetary spacecraft. Little did he know it would lead to his life’s work.

After eight months, he went back to RPI to finish school and graduate. Once on the job market, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was among the job offers he received, and though he always imagined settling down in New England, he found himself changing those plans when such an enticing job.

“The challenge of JPL massively dwarfed the benefits of being in New England,” he said.

Gruel’s role in the last two Mars missions was to lead the team known as ATLO (“I’m the boss man,” he said cheerfully.) ATLO stands for Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations. Essentially, the team takes all the parts for the rover and its spacecraft — tens of thousands of them — and assembles them.

“We get delivered to us a bunch of intricate Legos,” is how Gruel put it.

Next the team conducts endless tests to simulate launch, touchdown, and the harsh conditions on the ground. “So when it’s cruising from Earth to Mars, it works as designed,” he noted.

To simulate launch, the machine goes into a large vibe table; to mimic the Mars environment, it goes into a vacuum chamber that gets as cold as the red planet itself.

From mission start to landing, it takes about six to eight years, he explained. And timing is everything: because the planets align every 26 months in a way that creates optimal conditions for Earth-to-Mars travel, all assembly and testing must be fully complete when that time comes.

“The schedule pressure is intense,” he said. “We need to get our testing done and our design done in order for it to be ready to launch.”

In addition to finding a career at JPL, Gruel met his wife, Danelle, there when she was working in the Finance division, though now she stays home with their two boys, Dylan, 14, and Ethan, 11 (who also love Legos, as well as watching mission launches with their father).

Typically, once a mission has landed, Gruel’s role slows down quite a bit, but the Perseverance landing in February 2021 was different because he had installed a camera system to take video and still images of the descent, and he was responsible for it.

“Even after we launched, I was still intimately involved in making sure that system was going to function,” he said. “We continued to do testing on it to make sure it would reach its full potential, and it sure did. The images were amazing.”

Those images captured the spacecraft’s descent and landing, including video of the rover setting down on Mars and kicking up dust. “We joked it was kind of like our selfie cam,” he said.

 

Back to His Roots

In 1998, Gruel returned to HCC as the recipient of a Distinguished Service Award at commencement and delivered the keynote address, an invitation he seems to still find hard to believe to this day: “I spoke at commencement! Me, a flunkie out of high school!”

It’s a fact he mentions not to boast, but rather to inspire. If there’s anything he hopes people take away from his story, it’s that they should never underestimate their potential, even if they’ve had trouble living up to it.

“When you as a person make a decision to do something, the sky opens up,” he said. “The sky is no longer the limit.”

And that’s coming from someone who knows how to get to Mars.

 

Laurie Loisel is a freelance writer based in Northampton.

Education Special Coverage

Portrait of a Graduate

 

The program is called ‘Portrait of a Graduate,’ and that name pretty much says it all.

But maybe an adjective is in order to get the complete picture, pun intended.

Indeed, what the Springfield Public Schools are focused on now is creating a portrait of a successful high-school graduate, through an initiative designed to gain feedback from a host of constituencies regarding the skills — as in all the skills — that young people will need to not only earn a high-school diploma, but thrive in an ever-changing, technology-driven economy.

And this portrait will become a valuable blueprint of sorts as school administrators go about creating a new strategic plan for the city’s public schools, said Superintendent Dan Warwick, who stressed repeatedly that Portrait of a Graduate is very much a community-driven process that will define success for Springfield students, including the values, knowledge, skills, and work habits they will need to thrive as learners, workers, and leaders.

Among those providing input are members of the business community, said Trisha Canavan, president of United Personnel and current president of Springfield Business Leaders for Education, adding that their commentary will be critical to creating that portrait and then inspiring needed changes to programming and curriculum.

Made possible by a grant from the Barr Foundation, this Portrait of a Graduate initiative is part of a broad movement across the country to involve the community in shaping a school system’s strategic plan and specific programming and curriculum for helping to ensure student success.

The list of communities that have embarked on such programs grows each year, and now includes Lowell, Shrewsbury, and other cities and towns in Massachusetts, as well as Hartford, Conn., Fairfax County, Va., and many others, said Warwick.

In most of those communities, Portrait of a Graduate is used as part of a strategic plan for a specific school system, said Paul Foster, chief information officer for Springfield Public Schools. Here, though, it will help guide development of a new strategic plan, which is an important distinction.

Dan Warwick

Dan Warwick

“Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.”

“Most communities make it one of the activities as part of creating a plan,” he explained. “It’s not as common to create that vision first and then build the plan based on the vision. I think it’s important that we not make decisions on how to change schools until we have that clarity of vision that a portrait provides.”

Warwick agreed. “Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.

“Other iterations of our strategic plans were mostly academic-focused, which is what you would expect for a school system to put forward in a strategic plan,” he went on. “But this piece is designed to take a wider look and really get the community to rally around what they want our graduates to look like and what attributes they’ll need, and then we’ll build the actual strategic plan from that profile.”

By most accounts, he noted, it has succeeded in its goal of garnering community interest in helping to create this portrait.

“I think it excited people,” Warwick told BusinessWest. “The community involvement has been tremendous — the breadth of the input from every sector of the community has been significant, and this new concept has helped us with that.”

The acknowledgment that needed skills for success in the 21st-century workplace extends well beyond academics is made clear in the six ‘pillars’ of the portrait — learn, work, thrive, lead, persist, and communicate, said Azell Cavaan, chief Communications officer for Springfield Public Schools, adding that the school system has received more than 1,400 responses to a survey regarding a draft portrait that reflects how these pillars will be addressed moving forward.

All those we spoke with noted that there are few real surprises in the feedback that has been received, and the skills and attributes identified as needed are included in most school systems’ strategic plans. However, it is important to have these sentiments reinforced, and equally important to gain input from a broad, diverse audience, one that reflects the community in question.

“We’ve had hundreds of meetings in every segment of the community, and folks have really stayed with this,” Warwick said, adding that the city has been able to maintain momentum for the initiative even in the middle of pandemic, a clear indicator of its importance to the future of the city and the region.

Paul Foster

Paul Foster

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Portrait of a Graduate initiative, its goals, and why Springfield school officials believe it will pay dividends in their ongoing efforts to ensure that students not only graduate, but can succeed after they do.

 

Course of Action

Foster told BusinessWest that Portrait of a Graduate, or POG for short, is becoming an increasingly popular response to what has a national issue, or concern — helping students succeed beyond the classroom.

He said the movement, if it can be called that, started several years ago in the private-school arena, and was quickly embraced by public schools as well. The basic concept is to ask a question — what skills and attributes will students need to succeed years and decades down the road? — and ask a lot of different of people that question. It sounds logical, but it in many ways represents a new way of thinking about this issue, Warwick said.

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community,” he explained. “We’re getting a lot of input on the skills and attributes that people are looking for that, for traditional educators like myself, wouldn’t have been the first things we would be thinking about.”

What are these attributes and skills? The list includes financial literacy, problem solving, and perseverance — being able to stick with something until the problem is solved, said Foster, adding that what has been most important in this process has been not only hearing such comments, but hearing them over and over, and from different constituencies.

“What I thought was surprising, and important, was how aligned what we heard was,” he told BusinessWest. “We went from conversation to conversation and heard the same things over and over again. For example, we heard ‘financial literacy’ at every conversation. There wasn’t a group that we spoke with that didn’t say that was important.

“It was the same with things like problem solving,” he went on. “It wasn’t surprising that we heard those things; I think it was surprising that we were hearing the same things from every group; we were talking to business leaders, we were talking to parents, and we were talking to teachers, and they were identifying the same things, which is good.”

Canavan agreed, and said one of the broad goals of the initiative is to create a sense of ownership within the community when it comes to the city’s schools, or a stronger sense of ownership, as the case may be.

“Getting the collective wisdom of the community is important,” she said, “because I’m hopeful that one of the things that will come out of this is our community embracing that notion that this is our responsibility — that it’s not just the responsibility of the schools or just the responsibility of the parents — it’s our responsibility.”

The process of gathering feedback from these constituencies began in the fall of 2019, and the seeds were planted for the initiative maybe six months before that, said Foster, adding that the school department has been hosting what it calls ‘community conversations,’ a phrase chosen over ‘focus groups,’ which comes with some preconceived notions, not all of them good.

These conversations, organized by various stakeholders, have been going on continuously, he went on, adding that they have involved the business community, the refugee community, parents, educators, students, alumni, the faith community, and other constituencies. One was comprised of area business owners who are also alumni of Springfield Public Schools.

Traditionally, these groups, when involved in such conversations, focus on what needs to be done differently in the schools. For this exercise, they didn’t start there, but rather with two questions: ‘what are your hopes and dreams for children growing up in Springfield?’ and ‘what are the knowledge and skills that young people growing up in Springfield will need to realize those dreams?’

The feedback was intriguing, and in some cases powerful, said those we spoke with, especially when it came to students, what their dreams are, and what they need to make them reality.

This is reflected in those six aforementioned pillars and how the assembled feedback has shaped the working portrait with regard to how the school system must address each one.

Under ‘persist,’ for example, it notes that the Springfield Public Schools and the Springfield community will prepare students to:

• Remain focused on goals, using coping strategies and flexibility to overcome obstacles;

• Speak up for themselves and the issues that are important to them;

• Engage in self-reflection to build on strengths and weaknesses;

• Evaluate choices and outcomes when making decisions; and

• Give, receive, and respond to constructive feedback.

Under ‘communicate,’ the bullet points include ‘write and speak with clarity, evidence, and purpose’; and ‘know how to listen to others, ask questions, and seek to understand.’ And under ‘lead’ are these points, among others: ‘be curious, creative, open-minded, and flexible in new situations’; ‘advocate for themselves and for others’; and ‘seek opportunities to understand and serve the community.’

Now that the portrait is essentially complete, said Foster, those leading this initiative are pivoting from writing that document to writing a strategic plan, one that will attempt to prioritize what has been learned over the past year or so and create a blueprint for action and change moving forward. The aggressive timeline has the plan being completed in August, in time to implement changes for the next school year.

“We ended this with a recognition that there are some small ways and some big ways that we need to think differently and change schools,” he explained. “Schooling in the United States has been done in a relatively similar way for a very long time, and some pretty significant things need to change; some of those are going to be one-year changes, and others are going to be five-year changes.”

 

Drawing Conclusions

Moving forward, those we spoke with they expect the POG initiative to help introduce new performance measures and ways of evaluating whether students are ready to not simply receive a diploma, but succeed in what has always been the broader goal — success in the workplace and in life.

“You can have someone has mastered English and mastered math who is not ready for the workforce,” Foster said. “So part of the strategic plan will be introducing new performance measures that are not a replacement of but an addition to the ones we have today; we’re thinking about how you evaluate student performance differently.”

Where this thinking takes the school system is a question still to be answered. But the process begins with a portrait of a graduate, and in Springfield, this is still a work in progress and an important step forward.

 

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

Education

Balance Sheet

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

For Dawn Forbes DiStefano, it was the quintessential all-or-nothing proposition.

As the search for a successor to Joan Kagan, Square One’s long-time president and CEO, commenced last summer, Forbes DiStefano knew what few outside the organization — and probably few inside it, as well — knew: if she did not prevail in the nationwide search, she would no longer be working for the Springfield-based provider of childcare and other services for children and families.

That’s because the position she held at the time — executive vice president — was to be eliminated as the agency continued on a course of restructuring its top management.

But Forbes DiStefano, one of roughly 60 candidates to apply for the post, certainly had a leg up on the others — in large part because she was in that position. But also because she and Kagan had entered into what she described as a ‘shared management’ situation, one that familiarized her with all aspects of this operation and fully prepared her for the role she was seeking.

“I don’t think it was a shock that I was able to answer questions with more detail and probably more insight than other candidates, because I worked here,” she told BusinessWest. “But I worked really hard over the past 30 years to position myself to apply for a position like this.”

By that, she was referring to a lengthy career in the nonprofit realm, most of it at the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, but the past five at Square One, where she has displayed what she and others consider perhaps her best strength — an ability to combine a passion for the agency’s mission with a strong business sense and attention to the bottom line needed to make sure a nonprofit can survive and carry out that mission.

It’s a mindset that embodies a quote she attributes to Sr. Mary Caritas, the long-time president of what is now Mercy Medical Center, and uses often: “no margin, no mission.”

Her outlook on nonprofit management, and her take on her own management style and the need for that balance between business and mission, are further summed up as follows:

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

Forbes DiStefano, who took the helm in late December, leads the agency at a time of perhaps unprecedented challenge — most of it brought on by COVID-19, although it was a difficult time for nonprofits even before the pandemic reached Western Mass. While coping with the pandemic and its day-to-day decision making, execution, and ongoing efforts to create an environment “not in crisis,” she is also planning for the long term and life after COVID.

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

She admitting to disliking the word ‘normal,’ at least in the way many are using it now, and told BusinessWest she isn’t sure what ‘normal’ will mean moving forward. She will help create at definition, at Square One, anyway, while also continuing to build on the legacy and broad portfolio of programs she’s inherited.

“When Joan arrived, we were the expert in early education and care, and we remain the expert in early education and care,” she explained. “She knew that she wanted to focus on families and a holistic, family approach; she knew that children would thrive and families would stabilize and become self-sufficient if we were serving whole families. We have the foundation, and we want to keep building on it.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Forbes DiStefano about her new role, her long career in nonprofit management, and how she intends to apply all she has learned to effectively write the next chapter in this agency’s long history.

 

School of Thought

In many ways, Forbes DiStefano said, her career has come full circle. Well, sort of.

Indeed, she went to Boston College and then UMass Amherst with the goal of becoming an elementary-school teacher, although she never really made it into the classroom as an instructor, as we’ll see in a minute.

But she is now leading an agency specializing in early-childhood education, but not devoted to that exclusively, as it was decades ago.

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano wants to build on Square One’s foundation of serving whole families, not just children.

Flashing back to her college years, or just after she graduated in 1993, to be more precise, Forbes DiStefano said she encountered a challenging job market and had trouble breaking into the profession locally. She recalled a conversation she had with the superintendent in Southwick, who happened to be her high-school principal in West Springfield, about her struggles.

“He told me that it might have been worthwhile for me to do my student teaching here in Western Mass. instead of in Boston — we hire local.”

After spending some time at home thinking about what to do with her life and career, she decided to take what she could find, and this was a job at the YWCA of Greater Springfield as a receptionist. She didn’t take it expecting to stay more than 23 years, but that’s what happened, because, well, “I found my home … I found my calling,” she explained. “I was just smitten by being surrounded by women and girls whose mission — and passion — was to make life better for women and girls.”

Despite this enthusiasm, boredom quickly settled in. However, she would soon take on a new and rewarding role, somewhat by accident.

“We would get piles of mail every day with grant applications, RFPs, and proposals, and told the executive director at the time, Mary Reardon Johnson, ‘we should be applying for some of these grants; we’re doing amazing work here,’” Forbes DiStefano recalled. “She sort of flippantly said, ‘I don’t care what you do, just don’t lie too much; practice, do whatever you want to do, stay busy.’”

She did all of that and started responding to grant applications, and in short order, she started to get some approvals. And this eventually led to a role as grants manager, and then as director of Resource Development, playing a lead role in a capital campaign and raising funds for a number of building projects and new-program creation.

“It was an exciting time to be a part of the YWCA,” she said, adding that, while her teaching degree came in handy in many ways, she never did enter the classroom.

In late 2015, with a change of leadership at that agency, she decided it was time to seek a new challenge, and to get some advice on what the next chapter could and should be, she invited Kagan out for coffee.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life.”

In that conservation, she told Kagan she liked grant writing and knew there were opportunities for people with that unique and coveted skill. But she said she couldn’t write grants for just anyone or anything.

“I told her that the magic of grant writing comes because it’s something I care deeply about,” she recalled. “I told her I wanted her help because I had been offered a few opportunities, but wasn’t sure I could make it with those agencies.”

She wasn’t expecting to be given a job offer, especially because the agency had recently hired Kris Allard as vice president of Development and Communications, and wasn’t — at least initially. But she credits Kagan with sensing, and then seizing, an opportunity to strengthen Square One by bringing her on as a full-time grants officer.

But her role would soon involve much more than that.

Indeed, she would take a deep dive into the agency’s financial status, which at that time was “very unique and somewhat worrisome,” as she put it, and would eventually take on a broader role as chief Finance and Grants officer.

Over the next several years, she and Kagan would guide the agency through some difficult but necessary steps to stabilize the agency financially. These included closing Square One’s early-childhood education center in Holyoke in early 2017 — the agency still has a presence in that city with other services — and also a consolidation of services focused on infants and toddlers, with a greater emphasis on preschool.

“It was a very methodical and financially driven decision-making process,” she recalled. “And this is where Joan and I started finding a balance between the two of us. Joan is a social worker; she understands people and the strengths people bring to an organization, and she is phenomenal at program development. I think what I brought to her is an equal understanding of people and certainly the same amount of passion for children, but I really came to it with a fiscal mindset that we need to get this business financially viable.”

Through a hard focus on maximizing enrollment, creating efficiencies, and reducing expenses (often, again, as a result of difficult decisions), the agency, which was seeing annual deficits of $1.5 million or more only a few years ago, was at the break-even point for fiscal 2019.

“We have seen a massive improvement in our financial stability,” she said. “And we did that while keeping children and families at the core of what we do.”

 

Successful Succession

Forbes DiStefano told BusinessWest that she credits Kagan with taking a number of steps to successful transition to Square One to new leadership, work she believes will create a seamless passage of the baton.

“Joan reorganized Square One back in the fall of 2019,” she explained. “One of the senior-level administrators was leaving, and she [Kagan] took the opportunity not to announce her retirement, but certainly organize and structure the agency so it would be ready for when she was ready to announce.”

As part of that organizing and structuring, Kagan created an executive vice president’s role for Forbes DiStefano, one she said would enable her to make a desired transition away from the finance side of the operation and into a shared leadership role.

“From the fall of 2019 to the summer of 2020, we enjoyed that relationship,” Forbes DiStefano explained. “Joan was very mindful, very practical, and extremely generous in that space; I think some leaders want to be in a shared-leadership position, but then, when it really comes to fruition, they don’t want to be. Joan really lived it.”

As noted, there was a nationwide search for a successor, something the agency’s board, Kagan, and Forbes DiStefano all thought was necessary. In the end, she said her 30 years of experience with nonprofits, her five years in Square One in roles that exposed her to all aspects of its operation, and especially that time in that shared-leadership role, positioned her to excel in that search.

Moving forward, she intends to use all that experience and learning, both on the job and in the classroom — over the years she has added a bachelor’s degree in nonprofit management and a master’s degree in nonprofit management and finance — to guide Square One through the next chapter in its long history.

While doing so, she must first contend with the pandemic, which has tested the agency in myriad ways. Overall, she said it has been Square One’s goal to create a calm, safe place in the midst of the pandemic, and in most all ways, it has been successful in that mission.

“We’re making decisions minute by minute about the health and safety of everyone at Square One,” she said. “What we have done very well is read, digest, interpret, and then operationalize all the CDC and DPH guidelines for health and safety. We don’t want you to be in crisis when you’re here at Square One. We understand that there’s a crisis going on our world, but our job, every single day from 7:30 to 5:30, is to create a stable, warm, non-crisis, non-traumatic environment for children to be able to learn and thrive.”

Meanwhile, Forbes DiStefano said she, Allard, and other members of the leadership team are focused on “expanding what we do well.”

That broad phrase includes early-childhood education, obviously, but also other services, including those focused on the mental health of children, needs that have only grown during the pandemic.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life,” she explained, noting that Square One has, in recent years, expanded what would be considered traditional mental-health services — referrals to therapists — with an early-childhood mental-services center called Cornerstone.

Launched as a pilot program, the center has grown in size, scope, and services.

“It’s designed to be both a physical and a social/emotional space — you can’t help but feel calm when you walk in,” she explained. “And I think it’s the most outstanding achievement we’ve made at Square One in the last five years.

“What we’ve created is a space where children can come with their peers,” she went on, adding that, instead of one-on-one therapy, there are group activities, such as games and book reading. “Everyone is experiencing some level of healing; it’s children helping each other learn how to cope, have healthy reactions, and reduce the triggers. And teachers are learning as well; they’re watching the therapist engage with the children.”

 

Bottom Line

Moving forward, Forbes DiStefano said it’s her goal — and now her job — to build on the solid foundation that’s been built at the agency and continually look for new ways to carry out the overriding mission: to improve quality of life for children and families. And there are many aspects to that work.

“It’s my job to welcome everyone to the table, make sure that our services are working seamlessly, and then find opportunities to bring new partners, new donors, new investors, and new ways of thinking to build on the good work that exists here,” she said.

That’s all part of managing Square One with that mindset, and with that balance, she described earlier.

As she said, ‘nonprofit’ is a tax status; it’s not a way to do business.

 

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

Education

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Christina Royal

Christina Royal

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

Three local college presidents are among only 13 nationwide to be recognized last week for leadership in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion by the Assoc. of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the education-technology company Cengage.

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal, Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernández, and Elms College President Harry Dumay were among that select group of 13 to receive the AAC&U-Cengage Inclusion Scholarship, which recognizes college and university presidents whose outstanding leadership to advance liberal education has resulted in reduced equity gaps, improved inclusion and belonging for minority students, and reformed hiring practices to promote greater diversity.

“Growing up as a first-generation, low-income, multi-racial college student, I understand some of the challenges today’s students face and the importance of having an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive,” said Royal, who was also honored last week by BusinessWest as one of the 2020 Women of Impact. “These are very important issues to me personally and professionally, as well as to our college community, and I’m honored to receive this recognition on behalf of HCC.”

The recipients were announced on Jan. 22 at the AAC&U Presidents’ Trust Symposium, part of the organization’s virtual annual meeting. The symposium brings together higher-education leaders from all institutional types to explore the most pressing issues facing colleges and universities and to share strategies for success.

“I am honored by this recognition, and I am most proud of the work that my colleagues and I are engaged in at Greenfield Community College with and for our local communities,” Salomon-Fernández said. “We know that a more just and equitable world is most conducive to citizenship and democracy.”

The other recipients of the 2021 AAC&U-Cengage Inclusion Scholarship are Sandra Boham, president of Salish Kootenai College in Montana; Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College in South Carolina; Karrie Dixon, president of Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina; Alicia Harvey-Smith, president of Pittsburgh Technical College in Pennsylvania; Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in Louisiana; Valerie Roberson, president of Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts; Ron Rochon, president of University of Southern Indiana; Ivy Taylor, president of Rust College in Mississippi; Dwaun Warmack, president of Claflin University in South Carolina; and David Yarlott Jr., president of Little Big Horn College in Montana.

“We are so excited to be able to support these amazing higher-ed leaders who are making a real difference by reducing inequities and increasing access to education. At Cengage, we believe learning transforms lives, and the work of these leaders is so critical in giving students the opportunity to better their lives and in creating an educated, informed, and just society.”

Four Massachusetts presidents made the cut, two more than any other state.

“AAC&U is proud to recognize and support these exceptional leaders in their efforts to advance equity and quality as hallmarks of a liberal education across a diverse range of campuses and student populations,” AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella said.

The AAC&U-Cengage Inclusion Scholarship recognizes higher-education leaders who support and advance quality, equity, and student success in undergraduate education. This includes improving degree completion or transfer for students from underrepresented groups; closing equity gaps in student success; improving diversity in hiring practices and creating more equitable hiring policies; and increasing the sense of belonging, well-being, and inclusion among students from historically underserved populations (including racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and LGBTQIA students).

“We are so excited to be able to support these amazing higher-ed leaders who are making a real difference by reducing inequities and increasing access to education,” said Fernando Bleichmar, executive vice president and general manager for U.S. Higher Education at Cengage. “At Cengage, we believe learning transforms lives, and the work of these leaders is so critical in giving students the opportunity to better their lives and in creating an educated, informed, and just society.”

In recognition of their accomplishments, the AAC&U-Cengage Inclusion Scholarship recipients will each receive a one-year, complimentary AAC&U campus membership and a one-year complimentary membership in the AAC&U Presidents’ Trust, a diverse network of CEOs who are committed to advancing the vision, values, and practices that connect liberal education with the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, a global workforce, and thriving communities. The trust provides members with access to dedicated resources and events as well as exclusive opportunities to promote their thought leadership.

Education Special Coverage

The Sternest of Tests

By George O’Brien

 

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the region’s community colleges were facing some pretty severe headwinds before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Western Mass. in March.

Indeed, these institutions, like all colleges and universities, have been seriously impacted by demographic trends — specifically, a decade or more of consistently smaller high-school graduating classes, said Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC).

But they’ve also been adversely impacted by what was the nation’s longest economic expansion and historically low unemployment rates, in a continuation of a trend that has become quite familiar to those in the community-college realm — when times are good, enrollment suffers, she noted; when times are bad, like during the Great Recession, people go back to school and enrollment climbs.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the pandemic has in some ways accelerated the pace of change when it comes to jobs and the workforce, and community colleges will need to help individuals thrive in this altered landscape.

But while the pandemic has created some of the worst times this region has seen in the past 90 years or so and put thousands on the unemployment rolls, that development hasn’t benefited the community colleges in the manner it has in the past, said Salomon-Fernández and others we spoke with. There are a number of reasons for that, many of which have to do with the ongoing health crisis itself.

Listing some, Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC) and one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2020, said many individuals and families are simply coping with too many issues right now — from balancing life and work to trying to find employment, to simply putting food on the table — to consider adding a college education to the mix.

Beyond that, one of the real strengths of community colleges is their personal style of learning in the classroom, something taken away by the pandemic, and something that is keeping many students on the sidelines, Royal continued.

“We have a lot of students who prefer in-person learning,” she explained, noting that, in what would be normal times, roughly 20% of courses offered by the school are taught remotely; now, that number is closer to 95% or even 98%, and it will be that way at least through next spring. “So some students feel frustrated that the pandemic is continuing; what they thought would be a one-semester impact is now much more than that.”

But maybe the biggest reason this crisis has hit the community colleges harder than other institutions of higher learning is that this has not been an equal-opportunity pandemic, said John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), noting that it has impacted those in urban areas, those in lower-income brackets, and those in the minority community more severely than other constituencies. And these individuals, which were already struggling in many ways before the pandemic, form the base of the student populations at all of the state’s community colleges.

“For us and for the other community colleges, this is a conversation about equity,” he told BusinessWest. “We are a college that has a majority of students of color, and we’re seeing steep enrollment declines. It’s right in line with the way the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the African-American community and the Hispanic community.”

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says enrollment at community colleges has been dropping consistently since 2012, a pattern exacerbated by the pandemic.

Add all this up, and the region’s community colleges have had a very trying time since the spring. There have been cutbacks — STCC has had to cut several programs, for example, everything from automotive technology to landscape architecture (more on that later) — and workforce reductions by attrition at each school. And no one is really sure when the picture might at least start to brighten, which may be the biggest challenge of all.

“I’m encouraged, like the world, by vaccines, but just like everything with this pandemic, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to when anything is going to take place,” Cook said. “So it’s really hard to forecast for next fall and beyond.”

But in some ways, this has been a proud moment for the schools, if that’s the right term, as they have focused their attention on the students who are enrolled and their growing needs during the pandemic — for everything from Chromebooks to hotspots so students can have internet access, to food and even desks so students can study remotely.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment. This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

Meanwhile, the schools are doing what they always do — looking to the future and seeing how the pandemic will impact the employment landscape with an eye toward preparing students for what will be a changing job market.

“The economy is changing, and jobs are changing, and we were already beginning to see these shifts before the pandemic,” said Salomon-Fernández. “When you read reports from the World Economic Forum, you see predictions that, over the next several years, many of the jobs that exist now will disappear. We knew there was a change coming in the future of work, and what we’re seeing now is that the pandemic is affecting how we work — and what the work is.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic has impacted the region’s community colleges, and how they’re responding to these even stronger headwinds.

 

Difficult Course

Cook told BusinessWest that the presidents of the state’s 15 community colleges meet weekly.

They’ve always done this, he said, but the meetings are different now. For starters, they’re by Zoom, obviously, and the tone is decidedly different as the schools collectively deal with challenges on an unprecedented scale.

Unprecedented, because the schools have never faced a perfect storm like this one.

“There’s a solidarity there, for sure — you’re with a group of peers and colleagues contending with similarly difficult circumstances,” he said with some understatement in his voice. “We do a lot of listening and sharing — of strategic actions; navigation of federal, state, and local regulations; and best practices. We’re all coping with the same challenges.”

And there are many of them, starting with enrollment. As noted earlier, several forces have been pulling the numbers down for the bulk of the past decade, including the smaller high-school graduating classes and the economy — and the impact has been significant.

Indeed, overall enrollment at STCC had fallen by 30% between 2012 (when there were 7,000 students on campus) and the fall of 2019, said Cook, and it took another 15% hit this fall.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment,” he noted. “This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

John Cook

John Cook says the pandemic has disproportionately impacted urban areas and communities of color — constituencies served by community colleges.

The story is similar at most all of the other community colleges. Royal said enrollment has been declining at a rate of roughly 5% a year since 2012, or the peak, if you will, when it comes to enrollment growth in the wake of the Great Recession, and the pandemic has certainly compounded the problem. At HCC, enrollment is down 13.7% (roughly 600 students) from the fall of 2019, while the number of full-time equivalents is down 17%. And they are projected to decline further for the spring (enrollment is traditionally lower in the spring than the fall), she noted, as her school and other community colleges have announced that all learning next semester will be remote.

At GCC, the school hasn’t been hit as hard when it comes to enrollment, perhaps an 8% decline, said Salomon-Fernández, but the numbers are still down, and the long-term projections show they will continue trending downward for perhaps the balance of the decade, something GCC and other schools have been trying to plan for.

These enrollment declines obviously take a toll on these schools financially, said those we spoke with, a toll that has been greatly acerbated by the pandemic; Cook equated the 15% drop in enrollment from last year to $3 million in lost revenues. State and federal assistance from the CARES Act and other relief efforts have helped, he said, but there are restrictions on those monies, and, overall, they certainly don’t offset the steep losses.

Meanwhile, other headwinds are blowing, he said. At STCC, for example, the school has a number of issues with its buildings, some of which are more than 150 years old, with costs totaling several million dollars.

In response, the institutions have been using every tool in the toolbox to cope with the declines in revenue, including inducements to retire, not filling positions when people do retire or leave, reducing part-time personnel (and then full-time workers) if needed, creating efficiencies when possible, and cutting down on expenses wherever possible, including travel, utilities, and more.

In some cases, schools have had to go further and cut programs, as at STCC, which has eliminated several programs, including automotive, cosmetology, civil engineering, and dental assisting, which together enrolled roughly 120 students. These cuts came down to simple mathematics, said Cook, adding that, while some programs were popular and certainly needed within the community, like automotive, they are losing propositions, budget-wise.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break. And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

“By and large, with every program we offer, the tuition and fees do not cover the costs; no program really breaks even, especially anything that has a lab or a technical or clinical element to it; those are all losing endeavors,” he explained. “Which means there’s even more pressure when enrollment falls.”

 

Steep Grade

And, as noted, enrollment is projected to keep falling for the foreseeable future, and for all of the reasons, many of them pandemic-related, mentioned above — from individuals not able to attend college for financial or other reasons to people not wanting to learn remotely, which is all that community colleges can offer right now, except for some lab programs. And these trends are piling up atop those falling birth rates and smaller high-school classes.

Overall, it’s far more than enough to offset any gains that might come from the economy declining and the jobless rate soaring, said Royal, noting that this downturn is unlike those that came before because of the pandemic and the wave of uncertainty that has accompanied it.

“When we think about the conditions that tend to drive more students to higher education during a recession, in normal times, there is more predictability when it comes to economic cycles,” she explained. “We know that during a recession, jobs are limited, and you use the time to focus on your education; the market is going to turn, and when it does, you’ll have more credentials and certificates to be competitive for a job.

“When you think of the conditions we’re in now, there’s still so much uncertainty that people are feeling nervous about starting a new program when they just don’t have a sense for where the world is going to end up,” she went on. “They’re thinking, ‘what is the world going to look like, and how do we even navigate this?’”

With many schools forced to offer only remote learning, Salomon-Fernández noted, there was some speculation that students, perhaps with some prodding from their parents, might opt to learn remotely at a community college rather than a far more expensive four-year institution of higher learning. But thus far, such a movement has not materialized, she said, adding that some students are opting out altogether and taking at least a semester or year off rather than enroll remotely at any institution.

What is materializing is a situation where those in the minority communities and the lower end of the income scale — frontline workers, in many instances — are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And this is the constituency that fills many of the seats — another term that takes on new meaning during the pandemic — at this region’s community colleges.

“If you look at Holyoke, Springfield, Chicopee, and Westfield — those are our top feeder communities,” Royal said. “These are the communities that are getting impacted by the pandemic in a significant way; we know the pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income communities.”

She and the others we spoke with said the pandemic is putting many people out of work or reducing their hours, affecting everything from housing to food insecurity. Meanwhile, for others, the pandemic has them in a situation where balancing work and life has become more challenging and complicated, leaving fewer hours in the day and less time and opportunity for things like attaining the associate degree that might open some doors career-wise.

“There are so many uncertainties right now that have many people saying, ‘I don’t know if I can handle another thing right now — so I’m just going to wait and see if we can stabilize some of these other factors, especially some consistency with K-12 education and a better understanding of where the jobs are and who’s hiring,’” Royal said.

Cook concurred. “A lot of what we see in our enrollment decline is students not going anywhere — they’re sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “They’re not seeking another option because, frankly, we’re the most affordable and most accessible option in Springfield. They’re literally staying home — taking care of children who are similarly home, or taking care of family members, or addressing working concerns. That’s what we see, and that’s part of the larger story around racial concerns, equity, and structural racism, and this is how it lands at a place like STCC.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break,” he went on. “And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

 

Learning Curves

While coping with falling enrollment, the community colleges are facing additional challenges when it comes to serving those who are enrolled, said those we spoke with, noting, again, the disproportionate impact on those in lower-income brackets.

One of the biggest challenges many students face is getting internet access, said Salomon-Fernández, noting that this was already a challenge for some in rural Franklin County before the pandemic; now, it’s even more of an issue.

Royal agreed, noting that many students made use of HCC’s wi-fi and computer labs before the pandemic because they didn’t have it at home or had limited, low-band service.

The schools have responded by giving out laptops and Chromebooks on loan, as well as mobile hotspots to help with wi-fi connectivity.

“We’ve had hundreds of students access technology to help them with remote learning,” said Royal, adding that, through the school’s Student Emergency Fund, help has been provided for everything from rent payments to auto insurance to food, with more than $90,000 distributed to more than 230 students.

But the help goes beyond money, she said, adding that, at the school’s Thrive Center, students can get assistance with filling out applications for unemployment, get connected to mental-health services, find digital-literacy programs, and receive support from the school’s food pantry, in addition to those internet hot spots.

Looking ahead, though, the colleges face a much larger and even more important challenge as they try to anticipate changes to the job market, some of them being shaped by and accelerated by the pandemic, and adjust their programs accordingly.

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change. We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.”

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change,” said Salomon-Fernández. “We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.

“We’re already working with our Workforce Investment Board and with our chamber of commerce and other employment partners to help them think through training, both right now and for what’s coming down the pike,” she added. “It’s a matter of being agile in our thinking, of being responsive in terms of what new academic programs and new workforce-development programs might be needed, and making sure they are informed by industry and that we are ready to serve when people are ready to re-engage in this work.”

‘Ready to serve’ is a phrase that defines the purpose and the mission of the region’s community colleges. Carrying out that mission has become more difficult during the pandemic and the many changes it has brought, but the schools are persevering.

This has been the sternest of tests for them, but they are determined to pass it themselves, and enable all those they serve to do the same.

 

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

Cover Story Education Special Coverage

Writing the Next Chapter

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

At least once, and perhaps twice, Robert Johnson strongly considered removing himself from the mix as a search committee narrowed the field of candidates to succeed Anthony Caprio as president of Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield.

It was early spring, and the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting every institution of higher learning, including UMass-Dartmouth, which he served as chancellor, with a laundry list of stern — and, in some cases, unprecedented — challenges.

Johnson told BusinessWest that the campus needed his full attention and that it might be time to call a halt to his quest for the WNEU job. But he “hung in there,” as he put it, and for the same reason that he eventually decided to pursue the position after at least twice telling a persistent recruiter that he wasn’t really interested.

“We are at an inflection point in higher education,” said Johnson, who arrived on the campus on Aug. 15, just a few weeks before students arrived for the fall semester. “Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.

“I think it’s fair to say that, when we think about higher education, the last time we’ve seen the level of transformation that is about to happen was just after World War II, with the GI Bill and the creation of more urban public universities, community colleges, and the list goes on,” he continued, as talked through a mask to emphasize the point that they are to be worn at all times on this campus. “As we think about the world of work and the future, colleges and universities will be educating people for jobs that don’t exist yet, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created to solve problems that have yet to be identified.”

Elaborating, he said today’s young people, and he counts his son and daughter in this constituency, are expected to hold upwards of 17 jobs in five different industries (three of which don’t currently exist) during their career. All this begs a question he asked: “what does an institution of higher learning look like in an environment like this, where the pace of change is unlike anything the world has ever seen?”

The short answer — he would give a longer one later — is that this now-101-year-old institution looks a whole lot like WNEU, which, he said, is relatively small, agile, and able to adapt and be nimble, qualities that will certainly be needed as schools of all sizes move to what Johnson called a “clicks and mortar” — or “mortar and clicks” — model of operation that, as those words suggest, blends remote with in-person learning.

The process of changing to this model is clearly being accelerated by the pandemic that accompanies Johnson’s arrival at WNEU, and that has already turned this fall semester upside down and inside out at a number of schools large and small.

“Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.”

Indeed, a number of schools that opened their campuses to students have already closed them and reverted to remote learning. Meanwhile, others trying to keep campuses open are encountering huge problems — and bad press: Northeastern University recently sent 11 students packing after they violated rules and staged a gathering in one of the living areas, for example, and the University of Alabama has reported more than 1,200 cases on its campus in Tuscaloosa.

It’s very early in the semester, but Johnson is optimistic, even confident, that his new place of employment can avoid such occurrences.

“The decision to go with in-person learning was essentially made before I got here, and I think it was the right decision,” he explained, noting that students are living on campus and only 16% of the courses are being taught fully online, with the rest in-person or a hybrid model. “We’ve tested more than 2,500 individuals, and we’ve had only three positive cases, all asymptomatic. It’s worked out well so far, but this is only the end of the first week.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, and we take it day to day,” he went on, adding that the school’s smaller size and strict set of protocols, such as testing students upon arrival, may help prevent some of those calamities that have visited other institutions. “We’ve been very judicious, and our small size makes us a bit different. We’re kind of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name; we don’t have tens of thousands of students that we have to manage.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Johnson about everything from the business of education in this unsettled time to the next chapter in higher education, which he intends to help write.

Screen Test

Flashing back to that aforementioned search for Caprio’s successor, Johnson noted that it was certainly different than anything he’s experienced before — and he’s been through a number of these, as we’ll see shortly.

Indeed, this was a search in the era of COVID-19, which meant pretty much everything was done remotely, including the later rounds of interviews, which usually involve large numbers of people sitting around a table.

Robert Johnson says he’s confident

Robert Johnson says he’s confident that WNEU, a smaller, tight-knit school, can avoid some of the problems larger institutions have had when reopening this fall.

“It was all Zoom, and it was … interesting,” he said of the interview process. “You don’t know if you’re truly connecting or not. As a person being interviewed, you have much more self-awareness of not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it, and your own non-verbal communication, because you can see yourself on the screen.

“You have to make sure your background is right, the lighting is right, you’re wearing the right colors, all that,” he went on. “It’s like being on TV, literally, because the first impression people get is what they see on screen.”

Those on the search panel were nonetheless obviously impressed, both by what they saw and heard, and also the great depth of experience that Johnson brings to this latest stop in a nearly 30-year career in higher education.

Indeed, Johnson notes, with a discernable amount of pride in his voice, that he has worked at just about every type of higher-education facility.

“I worked in every not-for-profit higher-education sector,” he noted. “Public, private, two-year, four-year, private, Catholic, large, medium, and small — this is my seventh institution. And I think that gives me a unique lens as a leader in higher education.”

Prior to his stint at UMass Dartmouth, he served as president of Becker College in Worcester from 2010 to 2017, and has also held positions at Oakland University in Michigan and Sinclair College, the University of Dayton, and Central State University, all in Ohio.

As noted earlier, when Johnson was invited by a recruiter to consider perhaps making WNEU the next line on his résumé, he was at first reluctant to become a candidate.

“The search consultant, who I happen to know, called me two or three times, and I did not bite,” he noted. “But as she told me more, and I learned more about Western New England University, I began to take a look. I knew about the school, but I had never taken a deep dive into the institution, its history, and what it had to offer.”

He subsequently took this deep dive, liked what he saw, and, as he noted, hung in through the lengthy interview process because of the unique opportunity this job — at this moment in time — presented.

Since arriving on campus, he has made a point of meeting as many staff members and faculty as possible, but this, too, is difficult during the COVID-19 era. Indeed, meetings can involve only a few participants, so, therefore, there must be more of them.

“We can’t have any of those big ‘meet the president’ meetings,” he noted. “So I’ve had six, seven, or eight meetings with small groups or facility and staff, and I probably have another 15 or 20 of those scheduled. I’m getting to know people, and they’re getting to know me; I’m doing a lot of listening and learning.”

Overall, it’s a challenging time in many respects, he said, adding quickly that higher education was challenging before COVID, for reasons ranging from demographics — smaller high-school graduating classes, for starters — to economics and the growing need to provide value at a time when many are questioning the high cost of a college education.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently,” he told BusinessWest. “I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently. I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.”

“It was a Monday, and seven to nine days later, every college in the country was teaching remotely and working remotely, in ways we never imagined,” he continued. “So the very idea that colleges and universities will go back to 100% of what that old business model was is a non-starter. So the question is, ‘how do we reinvent ourselves?’”

Courses of Action

As he commenced answering that question, he started by addressing a question that is being asked in every corner of the country. While there is certainly a place for remote learning, he noted, and it will be part of the equation for every institution, it cannot fully replace in-person learning.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future,” he noted. “I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many students, and classes of students, the in-person, on-campus model is one that can not only provide a pathway to a career but also help an individual mature, meet people from different backgrounds, and develop important interpersonal skills.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future. I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

“For the student coming from a wealthy family, I think they need socialization, and they need a face-to-face environment,” he explained. “For the first-generation student whose parents did not go to college, I think they need socialization. And for students who come from poor families, they need socialization.

“My point being that online learning is not a panacea,” he continued. Some would argue that, if you have online learning, it would help poor kids go to college. I would say that the poor kids, the first-generation kids, are the very ones who need to be on that college campus, to socialize and meet people different from themselves. And the same is true for those kids coming from the upper middle class and wealthy families — they need that socialization.

“In my humble opinion, face-to-face never goes away,” he went on. “But does that mean that one might be living on campus five years from now, taking five classes a semester, with maybe one or two of them being online or hybrid? Absolutely. I think the new model is going to be click and mortar, or mortar and click.”

Expanding on that point while explaining what such a model can and ultimately must provide to students, he returned to those numbers he mentioned earlier — 17 jobs in five industries, at least a few of which don’t exist in 2020. Johnson told BusinessWest that a college education will likely only prepare a student for perhaps of the first of these jobs. Beyond that, though, it can provide critical thinking skills and other qualities needed to take on the next 16.

“That very first job that a student gets out of college — they’ve been trained for that. But that fifth job … they have not been trained for that,” he said. “And I think the role of the academy in the 21st century, the new model, is all about giving students and graduates what I call the agile mindset, which is knowledge and the power of learning — giving students essential human skills that cannot be replicated by robots and gives them the mindset to continually add value throughout their professional careers.

“We’re educating people to get that first job, and to create every job after that,” he continued. “We’re making sure that every person who graduates from college is resilient and has social and emotional intelligence and has an entrepreneurial outlook, which is not about being an entrepreneur; it’s about value creation and having those essential human skills. What that means, fundamentally, is that no algorithm will ever put them out of a job.”

To get his point across, he relayed a conversation he had with some students enrolled in a nursing program. “They said, ‘this doesn’t apply to us,’ and I said, ‘yes, it does, because there are robots in Japan that are turning patients over in hospitals. So if you think technology does not impact what you do, you’re mistaken.’”

Summing it all up, he said that, moving forward, and more than ever before, a college education must make the student resilient, something he does not believe can be accomplished solely through online learning.

“How do I put the engineer and the artist together, give them a real-world problem, and say, ‘have at it, go solve it?’” he asked. “They have to be face to face, hands-on. We can come up with alternate reality, virtual reality, and all the technology you want, but at some point, people have to sit down and look each other in the eye.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of the pandemic and the ongoing fall semester, Johnson reiterated his cautious optimism about getting to the finish line without any major incidents, and said simply, “get me to Thanksgiving with everyone still on campus.” That’s when students will be heading for a lengthy break after a semester that started early (late August) and, to steal a line from Bill Belichick, featured no days off — classes were even in session on Labor Day.

But while he wants to get to Thanksgiving, Johnson is, of course, looking much further down the road, to the future of higher education, which is, in some important respects, already here.

He believes WNEU represents that future, and that’s why he “hung in there” during that search process.

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

Education

The Experiment Begins

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School will repurpose for class time this fall — weather permitting.

Brian Easler learned a saying during his time in the Army: “two is one, and one is none.”

It’s a way of stressing the importance of having a backup plan — and he certainly put that concept into action this summer.

“The idea is, anything can fail at any time. You have to have a backup,” said Easler, head of school at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA). “We did everything we could think of to make the campus as safe as possible. We have layers of filters where, even if one preventive measure seems duplicative of something else we’ve done, we did both anyway.”

For instance, all HVAC systems on campus were updated and fitted with ionizers to filter air. But the school also bought 287 Honeywell HEPA air purifiers, similar to what hospitals use, and placed one in every room on campus. And when public-health officials said students at school could stay three feet apart while wearing masks, WMA kept a six-foot standard.

“Again,” he told BusinessWest, “we’re layering precautions on top of precautions.”

The reason is simple: parents want to send their kids to school to learn in person — despite its widespread use, no one believes remote learning is the best option from an academic and social perspective — and they also want to feel their kids will be safe.

Melissa Earls is a believer in in-person learning, which is why, as head of school at Academy Hill School in Springfield, she has spent the last several months making sure the campus is safe.

And not only because younger students — unlike WMA, Academy Hill is a pre-K to grade 8 school — have a tougher time handling remote education without the physical presence of parents, who often simultaneously hold jobs.

“It’s not just the autonomy factor, but what’s developmentally appropriate,” she said. “It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen. For them, it’s an abstract concept to wrap their heads around. Developmentally, we much prefer having them here with us.”

That’s not to say classes don’t look a little different these days.

“We’re a small private school, and we typically have a lot of collaborative tables, reflective of our instructional model. We’ve replaced them with rows and columns of desks, which was not our style,” Earls explained. “We also purchased tents to create outdoor spaces, sheltered from the sun, and even the rain, to respond to the space challenge.”

John Austin, head of school at Deerfield Academy, in a letter to parents last month, outlined the many precautions and protocols unfolding to make the campus safe (more on that later). But he also stressed that students have to buy in to make it work.

“We know from experience — and science tells us with near-certainty — that wearing masks, physical distancing, and enhanced hygiene can help mitigate the spread of this virus. And that is what, together, we will endeavor to accomplish. We begin the year knowing that our students will arrive ready to express their care for others by following these simple expectations,” he wrote.

Noting that students must sign a ‘community health pledge,’ he called the document “an attempt to clearly and explicitly capture that ethos of care, citizenship, and sacrifice that will allow us to return to school safely and be together as a campus community.”

In other words, if students want to be on campus — and private schools throughout the region are definitely emphasizing that model — they know they’re all in it together. It’s an intriguing experiment in the first fall semester of the COVID-19 era, one that follows a summer that was also unlike any other.

Team Effort

The first question at Academy Hill, Earls said, was whether the campus had the space and ability to pull off on-campus learning.

“Once we knew we could do this, it became a priority to get them back,” she said. “Getting here was a team effort. What impressed us was the selflessness of everyone who worked all summer long. Actually, they didn’t have a summer. The plan was constantly evolving, and everyone was so generous with their time and their thoughts.”

While students are expected to be on campus if they’re not sick, a blended learning option is available for those who have to quarantine because they or a family member have been exposed to coronavirus. At the same time, if a faculty member is exposed, but is able to teach from home, students will attend classes on campus while the teacher instructs from a remote location, with the assistance of technology.

Melissa Earls

Melissa Earls

“It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen.”

And, of course, in an echo of the spring, when schools and colleges across the U.S. shut down and switched to online learning, Academy Hill will be able to do so if a viral spike forces such a move — but it won’t be so on the fly this time, as teachers engaged in professional development over the summer to prepare for the possibility of remote learning.

“Our plan is a living document,” Earls said. “We looked at CDC and state guidelines, and our goal was to exceed them. When they shortened the physical distance to three feet, we still do six feet apart. We made sure we were meeting or exceeding all the guidelines, and we shared every iteration of the plan with families. I sent notes home weekly over the summer, if not moreso.”

Easler said prepping WMA for an influx of students included renovating a former school meeting space into a second dining hall, installing new bathrooms in a boys’ dorm, and, perhaps most dramatically, instituting an aggressive testing program. The school engaged with a lab at MIT to implement twice-weekly testing for all students, faculty, and staff, with no more than four days between tests.

“The rationale is, the only way to prevent widespread transmission on campus is to know where the virus is, especially with a population that’s often asymptomatic. And the only way to know where the virus is, is to test. The testing program is our first defense.”

Easler spoke with BusinessWest the second day students were on campus, and said students were adapting well to the new protocols, which include mandatory masks, although there are outdoor mask-free zones that offer some relief. Among close to 400 students at WMA, only 64 have opted for remote learning this fall.

“The kids seem pretty happy; it’s encouraging to see how quickly they adapted to everything. Kids are adaptable in general, but we’re still really proud of them.”

He added that WMA isn’t among the wealthiest private schools, but he’s pleased with the investments that have been made, from campus renovations to the testing plan. “Testing is expensive, but it’s worth every penny.”

Testing, Testing

To a similar end, Deerfield Academy has partnered with Concentric by Ginkgo, a program that provides COVID-19 testing in support of schools and businesses. Students were tested before they arrived on campus, as soon as they arrived, and again several days after. Weekly testing will continue for students, faculty, and staff throughout the fall term.

The school will also employ daily reporting and symptom screening and has prepared guidelines for contact tracing in order to quickly isolate any positive cases and quarantine all close contacts. In addition, all boarding students have single rooms, and weekend off-campus travel is being limited, as are family visits.

Meanwhile, a new, modular academic schedule will reduce the number of classes students take over the course of the day and gather them in smaller classes, and all HVAC systems have been fitted with advanced air filters, and are circulating fresh, filtered air at an increased rate.

“In my 35 years in education, never before have I seen such effort, sacrifice, and commitment to mission,” Austin wrote. “Every member of our community has generously given their time and effort over these summer months to prepare the campus and its buildings to safely welcome students.”

Easler agreed. “We did lot of work over the summer, meaning we really didn’t get much of a summer,” he said, adding that part of the process was training faculty on the Canvas learning-management platform, allowing them to teach face-to-face and remotely at the same time.

“The rest of the staff spent the summer planning logistics around campus,” he added. “It was so much work because we literally did everything we could think of.”

While enrollment projections dipped slightly early in the summer, Easler said it picked up again once word got out into the community of what WMA was doing to make the campus a safe environment. “Families want a little more predictability than they get out of the local public systems, which don’t have the kind of flexibility and resources we do.”

With such resources come a responsibility, Earls said, to understand what students are going through during this unprecedented year.

“I told the teachers, ‘always remember that hundreds of kids will pass through here during the course of your career, but to John or Jameel or Suzy, you are their only second-grade teacher, their only math teacher, their only Spanish teacher. You need to respect that.’ This year more than ever, we need to pay attention to their anxiety levels, their social and emotional well-being. We’re going to make sure they feel safe and normalize the situation for them.”

That normalization, she believes, begins with in-person learning, and getting to that point took a lot of work. Now, she and other area heads of school can only hope it’s enough.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Education

Entrance Exam

Come back to campus, or don’t — either way, you’ll learn.

Just don’t expect campus life to be anything like you’re used to.

That’s essentially the message from UMass Amherst, by far the region’s largest of roughly 20 colleges and universities grappling with how to welcome students back to campus this fall — or setting them up for online instruction, as the case may be. Or, in some cases, both.

“We heard loud and clear from our student body that, even if they’re taking courses remotely, they would really like to be on campus or around campus,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said during a recent conference call discussing the university’s fall plans.

In a nutshell, the vast majority of students will not be required to return to Amherst, with most courses offered remotely. But they may return — for residence-hall life and in-person instruction — if they’d like.

“Our communication will be very explicit about what the campus might look like and what our expectations are, and what we will hold all of our students responsible for,” he continued. “With all of that knowledge, if they still want to come to campus and live in campus housing, they’re most welcome to. And whether they come back to campus or not, we will really provide a rich and rewarding academic experience with not only remote courses but also advising and lots of peer-to-peer interactions and faculty-to-student interactions and so forth.”

In other words, Subbaswamy noted, “we’re prepared to serve our community to the best possible extent in terms of providing all the college experience can under these different circumstances because of the pandemic. That’s the bottom line.”

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education, but the university is ready to pivot if the pandemic worsens.

That said, life in the residence halls will be altered to include pedestrian-flow guidelines, restrictions on group gatherings, and limited face-to-face contact. No guests will be allowed in residence halls, at least at first. Most student services will be offered remotely. The Recreation Center will be open — with limits and restrictions placed on activities.

In short, things have changed since COVID-19 arrived in Massachusetts. Leaders at the region’s higher-education institutions have been meeting since … well, pretty much since they sent students home in mid-March, to hash out what classrooms and the campus experience will look like come late August, when the fall semester begins for most.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation.”

None of the schools’ plans are exactly the same, with some emphasizing on-campus instruction, some — including most of the community colleges — opting for an online-heavy approach, and others landing somewhere in between, with students choosing between in-person, online, and hybrid programs (see box on page 19).

Western New England University, touting its ample space and small classes, has decided to conduct the vast majority of classes fully on-campus this fall, while a small number of courses will be delivered in a hybrid or online format.

“We keep coming back to discussions regarding our mission, which is to provide a highly personalized educational experience inside and outside class,” said Bryan Gross, vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing. “For the faculty and staff working on this plan, any time we get stuck on details, we come back to that mission.”

Students will be required to wear a mask or face shield, practice social distancing, and maintain a high standard of hygiene. In addition, plexiglass barriers will be installed throughout campus, including classrooms. Most buildings will be one-directional to minimize hallway contact, buildings will be cleaned more frequently, and residence halls will be limited to single and double rooming options, among other measures.

Walter Breau

Walter Breau

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen.”

“We watch the news every day,” Gross told BusinessWest. “Things are constantly changing in terms of safety, and we have to follow state and federal regulations, but based on the information we currently have, we feel confident our plan is doable — that it meets our values and protects the health and safety of students. But if things change, we also have to be open and honest, and we are willing and able to change.”

That’s why WNEU, like many colleges and universities, has actually been planning for three different scenarios — most students on campus, online learning, and a hybrid of the two.

“The majority of our families are ready for their children to be on campus and have the campus experience,” he added, “They trust our Health Services and know, if it’s ever not safe to be here, we’re going to make the right decision in the best interest of our students.”

That’s the COVID-19 world colleges and universities must grapple with — with every day bringing changing news and more moving targets. As enrollment planning goes, it’s unprecedented, at least within living memory. And students aren’t the only ones who will be learning something.

Course Corrections

At Elms College, classes will be taught this fall in a hybrid, flexible model that gives students the option of attending sessions in the classroom, online, or both. Students can move between the options based on their personal preferences, while international and non-local students will be able to continue their coursework from afar.

“We know some students are high-risk or living with someone high-risk and don’t feel comfortable being in a classroom, but we also know students want an in-person experience,” said Walter Breau, vice president of Academic Affairs. “So they can choose when to be in the classroom.”

The usual mix of masks, distancing, and plexiglass will be in play, and on-campus students will be expected to monitor and record any COVID-like symptoms they might have. As is the case at other campuses welcoming students this fall, any positive symptoms must be reported to the Health Center for consultation, and the college will have a separate living space for any student in need of quarantine.

Fall 2020 Plans … for Now

Leaders at 20 area colleges and universities continue to discuss plans for how academic programs will be delivered fall. Those plans might change, and even schools planning on a mostly on-campus experience will likely offer some programs remotely. Here are the latest plans, grouped by categories that may not capture all the nuances of each plan; readers are encouraged to visit the schools’ specific websites for more information.

• All courses delivered online, but students have option of attending in person: UMass Amherst.

• All online, with students in some programs (such as healthcare and culinary arts) on campus part of the time: Asnuntuck Community College, Cambridge College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College.

• Blend of on-campus, online, and hybrid instruction: Bay Path University, Berkshire Community College, Elms College, Mount Holyoke College, Springfield College, Westfield State University, Williams College. American International College is discussing this model as well.

• Blend of on-campus and online instruction with students on campus for either fall or spring: Amherst College, Smith College.

• Mostly on-campus instruction: Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Hampshire College, Western New England University.

“Safety is our number-one priority,” Breau told BusinessWest. “We know students want to come back. How to keep them safe while doing that has been the prime goal of reopening. Our task force made sure safety was always number one on the list.”

To that end, students will need to review safety-training materials when they return to campus. “It’s going to be a team-based effort. It’s not just administrators, faculty, and staff, but students have to be a part of the process as well. We’ll certainly rely on them to help us stay safe.”

There’s a safety net built into the ‘HyFlex’ model as well, Breau noted, in that it wouldn’t be difficult to transfer all learning online if the region’s infection rates soar.

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen; it’s built into the syllabus and the way instructors plan the courses.”

American International College is also seriously considering a HyFlex model, and plans to announce its detailed fall strategy by the end of July, said Nicolle Cestero, chief of staff, senior vice president for Human Relations, and Title IX coordinator. She said a group of campus leaders has been meeting for several months and are doing all they can to give students an on-campus option.

With more than half of its undergraduate student body first-generation college students and more than 50% also Pell Grant-eligible — meaning they come from low-income families — AIC doesn’t want to add additional challenges to their lives, she noted.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation,” Cestero said, noting that the HyFlex option is an ideal model in that it allows students to access their education in a way that best serves their needs in this most difficult year.

Plus, there’s value in the on-campus experience that can’t be replicated remotely, she added. “Maybe your roommate becomes your best friend for life. Or you’re participating in a conversation that you never would have participated in — on race or gender or power and privilege, or whatever it is — and you don’t necessarily get to do that if you’re not on campus. You develop so much in these years — it’s your first time away from home, and you’re teaching yourself how to do things, how to manage your own time and finances, all that stuff.”

In a letter to the Springfield College family, President Mary-Beth Cooper detailed a blend of in-person, remote, and hybrid instruction, with all learning moving online after Thanksgiving. But she emphasized that new safety measures — from masks and distancing to a contact-tracing program and isolation spaces — are key to making the plan work.

“Successfully remaining on campus throughout the fall semester will depend on the degree to which we, as a community, work together to reduce the possibility of the virus appearing on campus and, if it does, responding quickly to limit its spread,” she explained.

Brandi Hephner LeBlanc, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UMass Amherst, noted that the university will distribute a student agreement that details the testing and symptom self-monitoring they’re asked to do, as well as the need to carry hand sanitizer and face coverings when moving about, among other safety measures.

“We’re really asking them to be a responsible community member, first and foremost, and to be a part of the bystander intervention,” she said. “When you see someone without a mask, remind them.”

And if students don’t comply?

“There is going to be what I would term an escalation of intervention,” she explained. “We’ll have public-health ambassadors on campus that will help remind folks, and there will be a lot of communication to find out if there’s a problem. This is not going to be an immediate referral to the Conduct Office, unless it’s something so egregious that that’s necessary. But this is something that takes a lot of reminding to manage the behavior. And we’re prepared to do that.”

Catalog of Options

A few institutions across the region have emphasized the value of returning as much activity to campus as possible. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge cited recent survey data collected from 10,000 high-school and college students; 78% of respondents find the experience of in-class learning this fall appealing, while one-third would transfer out of their institution if the college shifted to online course delivery.

Nicolle Cestero

Nicolle Cestero says the value of the campus experience shouldn’t be minimized, but a hybrid flex model might be the smartest way to go this fall.

“We know the residential and in-person class experience is important to our students, students at state universities across the Commonwealth, and nationally,” Birge said, which is why MCLA is moving ahead with an ambitious on-campus approach. “Although returning to campus this fall presents some risk, we will work to make the campus experience as safe as possible for everyone. Of course, this means we will have to significantly shift our way of learning, teaching, and working.”

Other campuses, like Amherst College and Smith College, are looking at having roughly half the students on campus for the fall, to better achieve physical distancing, with the ones sent home for remote learning having on-campus priority for the spring.

“We know that any scenario short of bringing everyone to campus will be bitterly disappointing to those who will have to wait until the spring,” Amherst College President Biddy Martin wrote in a letter to students and families. “With this structure, we can provide the opportunity for every student who wishes to be on campus to spend at least one semester here and, if things go well, both semesters for a large number of those students.”

Meanwhile, Springfield Technical Community College is among a handful of area institutions — several community colleges among them — to continue with an online model this fall, though some programs in STCC’s School of Health and Patient Simulation will include low-density, on-campus labs adhering to social-distancing, PPE, and sanitizing protocols.

“STCC has no intention of becoming a fully online institution,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs. “The pivot to online is driven by a health pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the college to adjust, and we do hope in the future to return to the robust utilization of campus facilities.”

In some instances, STCC will use synchronous teaching strategies, with students gathering at a specific time through videoconferencing. But most of the classes will be taught using an asynchronous approach, which gives students flexibility to set their own hours to complete their studies and assignments.

“Many of our students have childcare obligations, work commitments, and a host of other complicated circumstances,” President John Cook said. “We know that our students benefit from having flexibility in their classwork, and online is yet another way STCC lives its mission of ensuring access to higher education.”

Flexibility, in many ways, has become a key word in the region’s higher-education sector, which suddenly offers a wide array of learning models heading into perhaps the most unusual fall semester for American students in generations.

What these schools have in common is an emphasis on safety, and on making sure students know their own responsibilities in keeping COVID-19 infections low — and keeping the campus experience alive, in whatever curtailed form it might take.

WNEU’s Gross is confident it’s a message they will understand.

“You’re not doing it for yourself, but for other people. And that’s such a positive message we can send,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s why human beings are on this earth, to care for one another and take actions that help the community. We hope that value is something that’s embraced by our students. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn and grow and take actions to help others.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

‘This Is Our Moment’

Sandra Doran

While the pandemic presents a number of challenges, Sandra Doran says, it might also create opportunities for Bay Path University.

Sandra Doran says her family has long been attracted to careers in education and the law.

One great-grandfather traveled from New York to Colorado and set up the first one-room schoolhouse in that state, she noted, while her grandfather was superintendent of a school district in New York City, and her mother was a music teacher. And her other great-grandfather was a bankruptcy lawyer, kept especially busy during the Great Depression.

So it’s logical she would take one of those career paths. Actually, she took both.

Indeed, after serving as chief legal officer for Shaw’s supermarkets, she later served as vice president, general counsel, and chief of staff at Lesley University in Cambridge. And it was that position that eventually inspired a full shift to higher education — although she always calls on her legal background — and put her on a path to … Bay Path University and its president’s office.

“At Lesley, I came to realize that higher education was my passion, and my calling,” said Doran, who’s been handed the attractive, but perhaps also daunting, assignment of succeeding Carol Leary and building on the strong foundation she built during a 25-year tenure that saw the college become a university and expand in every way imaginable.

She arrives at Bay Path at a critical juncture, when several powerful forces are colliding — stern challenges in higher education that started emerging years ago; the COVID-19 pandemic, which is exacerbating those challenges and creating new ones; a financial crisis; and a nationwide focus on racial justice.

“This is a historical leadership opportunity for all of us — how we lead through the months and years ahead is really going to define what kind of community we are, how resilient we are, and now adaptive and nimble we are.”

This collision of crises, as Doran called them, presents a real test — actually, several of them — but also opportunities for the school, and higher education in general.

“This is a historical leadership opportunity for all of us — how we lead through the months and years ahead is really going to define what kind of community we are, how resilient we are, and now adaptive and nimble we are,” said Doran, adding that she believes Bay Path is well-positioned to be a leader during this time of crisis, introspection, and profound change, and that she is looking forward to the challenge of helping it play that role.

As she talked with BusinessWest at a small table positioned on the lawn behind the college’s administration building, Deepwood Hall — a nod to social distancing and keeping safe during the pandemic — Doran talked about the college’s plans for reopening this fall. It will embrace what many are calling a hybrid model blending online and in-person classes, with far more of the former. The plan, overall, is to “de-densify the campus,” as she put it, with a limited number of students living on campus, all in single rooms.

But mostly, she talked about this convergence of crises and how, rather than be a roadblock or even a speed bump, it could serve to accelerate the process of Bay Path’s emergence as a leader not simply in remote learning — only she doesn’t call it that; she prefers ‘technology-assisted learning’ — but in guiding students to fulfillment of their goals and ultimate success in the workplace. And also accelerating the process of creating systemic change in how higher education carries out its mission.

For the school, this opportunity to further cement its reputation as a pioneer and frontrunner in remote learning has been confirmed by the large number of colleges and universities calling to seek assistance as they establish or build their own programs (more on that later).

And for higher education, the pandemic presents a unique if not entirely welcome (at some schools) opportunity to rethink and perhaps reinvent many aspects of a college education and put more (and much-needed) emphasis on cost, access, and pathways to success in the workplace, and less on the on-campus experience (more on that later as well).

For all of this, Bay Path is well-positioned, if not uniquely positioned, to grasp these opportunities.

“This is our moment at Bay Path,” she said with noticeable energy in her voice, “because we’ve always been that place where students come to further their career ideals, and we’re going to continue to provide that opportunity.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Doran about what she ultimately called “an exciting moment in time,” and all the reasons that make it so.

School of Thought

When asked what appealed to her about Bay Path and its presidency, Doran said, in essence, that there was little, if anything, that didn’t appeal to her.

Indeed, she said the once-struggling two-year college that was resurrected and then taken to dizzying new heights during Leary’s tenure represents an opportunity that brings together her collective passions and many of the initiatives that have marked the latter stages of her career.

These include women’s education, technology and technology-assisted learning, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Sandra Doran, seen here with a student

Sandra Doran, seen here with a student on Feb. 27, the day she was introduced to the campus community, embraces the challenge of building on the foundation built by her predecessor, Carol Leary.

“This opportunity is a perfect fit and really the culmination of all my professional work,” she explained. “I’ve had the opportunity to lead a women’s college, so I understand the value of a women’s education. But another part of my background involves adaptive learning and the power of online education to really bring out the best of everyone in terms of mastering the subject matter and ensuring that everyone has a voice. I’ve also led a software company and been an entrepreneur. This opportunity brings all that together, and that’s why it’s a perfect fit.”

A quick recap of her career to date will explain why she said that.

We start at Shaw’s, where Doran, in addition to her work as general counsel, oversaw the company’s portfolio of mergers and acquisitions, which included the acquisition of Star Market Inc.

Later, at Lesley, which she also served as general counsel, she came to that realization that higher education was a passion, one that led her to pursue and then garner the role of president of American College of Education, an online doctoral institution serving more than 3,500 students.

From there, while serving as an entrepreneur in residence at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., she served as the CEO of Castle Point Learning Systems, a Stevens Institute-supported educational technology startup that had developed an instructional framework for calculus, enabling students and teachers to develop a more robust foundation for higher-level mathematics.

Concurrently, she took a position as National Policy director for the New England Board of Higher Education, where, among other responsibilities, she created and implemented an innovative initiative for multi-state collaboration to increase educational attainment and access for students through online, hybrid, and distance education.

Her career then took another intriguing turn when she was appointed president of Salem Academy and College in North Carolina, the country’s oldest women’s college, founded in 1772. There, she put the school on firm financial footing, developed a strategic plan, and initiated several new programs, including an entrepreneurial makerspace in downtown Winston-Salem where students could work directly with the city’s innovation ecosystem.

As noted earlier, while education has become her career, she calls on her background in law on an almost daily basis, and finds that the two professions coexist effectively.

“One of the great roles of lawyers is to educate,” she explained. “It’s to educate clients, to educate themselves, to mediate, to bring people together, to critically analyze the data and synthesize the data, and communicate. Lawyers are problem solvers, except for the high-profile ones, which are litigators; most lawyers are solving problems.”

When a search firm called last year to gauge her interest in the Bay Path position, she responded enthusiastically, and for the reasons — and passions — mentioned earlier.

“I was familiar with the pioneering aspects of Bay Path — it was one of the first institutions to immerse themselves in the online education experience and understand what that could provide for our students,” she explained, adding, again, that she viewed this opportunity as the culmination of all the career work that had come before it.

Many schools don’t have an online presence at all, and so imagine their consternation when faced with this pandemic. It’s interesting that other liberal-arts colleges are reaching out to us and looking to us as being able to provide that kind of education.”

Since arriving on campus late last month, Doran, while working with staff on the reopening plan, has also been trying to meet with local leaders and the campus community alike — in COVID-mandated ways, especially phone calls and Zoom meetings.

It’s not the same as meeting people in person, but it’s been effective in that she’s getting to know and better understand the community the school serves. And this work continues with an initiative she calls “Let’s Come Together: Virtual Conversations with President Doran.”

“I’m eager to get to know my colleagues, and they’re eager to get to know me,” she said. “So these are conversations we’re conducting virtually, almost one a day — so faculty and staff have an opportunity to sit and talk and learn about each other. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn about our staff and faculty and what excites them about Bay Path, and, frankly, to learn about areas of strength and areas we need to improve.”

Course of Action

Doran was introduced to the Bay Path community on Feb. 27, just before the school sent its students home for the semester and essentially closed the campus. By the time of that announcement, it was already becoming clear that the approaching pandemic could alter the calendar and impact lives — but no one could really have predicted just how profoundly the landscape would change or how schools would be challenged by the virus.

As the story on page 17 reveals, schools have been spending the past several weeks carefully putting together reopening plans for the fall that incorporate a host of different strategies.

For Bay Path, the assignment, while not easy by any stretch, was made less complicated by what could be called the school’s head start when it came to online programs. Its first fully online graduate program was the MS in Nonprofit Management & Philanthropy, launched in 2007, followed by other online graduate programs for men and women and the fully online bachelor’s-degree program offered by the American Women’s College.

Bay Path’s plan, blueprinted with the help of a 75-member task force, calls for essentially cutting the number of students living on campus by half — down to roughly 200 — and conducting most courses, except those with some lab component, online. It’s a plan the school feels comfortable with because so many of its students were already learning remotely.

“It’s an environment where we’re making decisions with imperfect information — our environment is changing on a weekly basis, if not on a daily basis,” Doran noted. “So we’re going to be ready to pivot if we need to, but we feel strongly that we’ve got the right plan in place.”

This head start with remote learning has certainly caught the attention of others in academia, she added, noting those phone calls and e-mails seeking Bay Path’s assistance with online programming and inquiring about potential partnership opportunities.

“We’ve had several schools reach out to us to ask if they can enroll their students in our courses or think about ways we can partner,” she told BusinessWest, noting that inquiries are coming from institutions across the country. “Many schools don’t have an online presence at all, and so imagine their consternation when faced with this pandemic. It’s interesting that other liberal-arts colleges are reaching out to us and looking to us as being able to provide that kind of education.

“They want to learn from what we’ve learned,” she went on. “So it’s exciting to be in that position of being able to share what we know, what we’ve learned about how to provide the best opportunities for students.”

And these phone calls represent just one of the opportunities, a strange word to use in this climate, to arise from the pandemic, said Doran, adding that she chooses to look upon them in that light.

“We have an opportunity to rethink how we meet the needs of students whose ideals and thoughts around higher education are changing in the midst of everything that we’re dealing with,” she said. “So, just as the pandemic is impacting every single person in terms of how they think about their own career and their own lives, our students are doing the same thing.”

Elaborating, she noted that fewer than 20% of those attending college today are having what would be called a traditional college experience, meaning a four-year school and living on campus.

“The other 80% attend a very different — and have a very different — college experience,” she went on. “And one’s not better than the other, but I think there’s a new reality that higher education is embracing that’s focusing on the academic part of the experience, the part of the experience that enables students to have productive careers and move forward with their life goals and their life dreams.

“And that’s what Bay Path has always been — our mission is rooted in this idea that we want to provide career paths,” she continued, noting, again, that the school is well-positioned to embrace this new reality, as she called it, and this is reflected in enrollment numbers for the fall, which are quite solid at a time when many schools are struggling.

“We have — and this is another strength of Bay Path — a very diverse set of students,” she said. “We have students who are only online students, so they were never contemplating coming to campus, so we feel secure in those enrollments; we have graduate students, many of whom are online, so we feel secure in those enrollments; and our undergraduate enrollment is up for this fall in terms of deposits and commitments. We’re feeling very confident, and we’ve had a good response to our plan.”

Overall, the school is on solid financial ground, Doran said, and in a good position to withstand the challenges created by the pandemic.

“The finances around higher education are always challenging,” she explained. “The pandemic has certainly raised another level of gauze around all this, because it’s hard to see through and see what the next steps are. But we have a number of task forces looking at the long-term aspects, and, overall, we see some opportunities.”

Bottom Line

Looking ahead … well, Doran acknowledged it’s difficult to look very far ahead in the era of COVID-19.

Her immediate goals are to continue building on the foundation that Leary has built and develop new growth opportunities for a school that has come a long way in the past quarter-century.

And rather than somehow slow or stifle those efforts, this convergence of crises that greeted her upon her arrival may, as she said, actually serve to accelerate that process.

As she noted, “this is our moment.”

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

Education

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Carol Leary

Carol Leary

Since arriving at the campus of Bay Path College in 1994, Carol Leary has always had her focus on what the future of higher education would — or should — look like, and positioning the institution for that day. As she prepares to retire in late June, she still has her eye on the future. She predicts that careers — and college programs to prepare people for them — will look much different years down the road, and institutions must be open to changing how they do business.

Carol Leary says she found the photo as she commenced the still-ongoing task of essentially packing up after a remarkable 26-year career as the president of Bay Path University — only it wasn’t a university when she arrived, as we all know.

It’s a shot of herself with former Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole — one of the first keynoters at the school’s Women’s Leadership Conference — and Caron Hobin, an administrator at Bay Path who back then had the title of dean of Continuing Education, and is now vice president of Strategic Alliances, a role we’ll hear more about later.

Since finding it on a shelf not far from her first edition of Bay Path Crossroads, the school’s admissions magazine (which also features Dole on the cover), Leary has been showing this photo to pretty much everyone who ventures into her office.

“It brings back so many memories — and it was the beginning,” she said, adding that it has become her favorite photo, not just because she and others can marvel at how much younger she and Hobin were back when it was taken, but because of the way it makes her pause and think about everything that has happened since it was snapped.

It is quite a list — from that aforementioned progression to a university to its dramatic growth; from the addition of baccalaureate, then master’s, and finally doctoral degrees to the creation of the American Women’s College, the first all-women, all-online baccalaureate program in the nation; from the opening of a new science center to national recognition is such fields as cybersecurity. And it is certainly worth dwelling on all those accomplishments.

Leary has certainly been doing some of that over the past several weeks as she winds down her tenure and anticipates the beginning of retirement in late June, especially as she finds more artifacts as she starts to pack up her belongings. But not too much, as her time has been consumed with everything from welcoming her successor — Sandra Doran was introduced to the campus community in late February — to dealing with the many effects of coronavirus, which has hit the higher-education sector extremely hard.

And while the latter is now dominating the final weeks of her tenure, with decisions to be made about events, classes, and more, Leary spent much of her time this winter not looking back, but looking ahead to the future of higher education and how schools like Bay Path can prepare for, and be on the cutting edge of, what should be profound change.

In most respects, this is merely a continuation of what she’s been doing since arrived at the Longmeadow campus in the fall of 1994.

“Colleges are facing some incredible headwinds,” she said. “And beginning a year ago, at each executive committee meeting of the board, I started sharing some of those challenges and opportunities facing not only Bay Path but all colleges and universities.”

When asked to elaborate on these headwinds, she started with demographics, especially those concerning the size of high-school graduating classes. “The number of 18-year-olds is dropping dramatically in this country, and that won’t turn around unless immigration is opened up and you get a flood of immigrants,” she explained. “All colleges are facing it, so what do you do?”

Many schools are shifting their focus to graduate degrees and adult students, and Bay Path was somewhat ahead of this curve when it started added such programs 20 years ago, Leary said, adding quickly that, while such steps have worked, schools can’t depend on them moving forward.

Carol Leary, seen here introducing poet Maya Angelou

Carol Leary, seen here introducing poet Maya Angelou at one of Bay Path’s Women’s Leadership Conferences, has led the school through a period of unprecedented growth and expansion.

“There are now many more competitors — everyone is adding new programs,” she went on, noting that this is true of both adult (non-traditional) programs and online education, another arena where Bay Path was a pioneer. “As more schools enter the marketplace, that increases your competition, and then pricing gets driven down.”

There are many other headwinds, especially the soaring cost of higher education and the ways in which students will learn, she said, adding that it is incumbent upon all schools to try to get ahead of these issues and respond proactively, rather than react when it is perhaps too late.

This is the mindset she took to Bay Path back in 1994, and it’s the one she’s leaving with the board and her staff as she packs up those photos and other memory-triggering artifacts from a career with a number of milestones.

For this issue and its focus on education, training, and employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Leary. It was supposed to be to flip through a figurative photo album assembled over a quarter-century, but, in keeping with her character, she was much more focused on the future than the past.

Developing Story

As noted, that photo of Leary with Dole and Hobin triggers a number of memories — and stories, which lead to even more stories.

One that Leary likes to tell involves how Dole’s presence at the conference helped lead to another keynoter of note — Margaret Thatcher.

“People ask how we accomplished what we did, and I always said the number-one reason was that I hired very committed, very passionate, and very smart people. And that is the secret sauce — who you hire. I give them all the credit.”

“She [Dole] had an advance person, a young man maybe 25 years old, and I’m in the wings with him listening to her speak, and he said, ‘who else would you like to have?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘we don’t have the first woman president of the United States yet, so I’d love the first woman prime minister of Great Britain.’ And he said, ‘my mother is her advance person.’”

Fast-forwarding a little, she said arrangements were made for Leary and Hobin to fly to Washington and deliver the invitation to Thatcher personally. She eventually came to downtown Springfield in the spring of 1998, thus adding her name to a lengthy list of keynoters that also includes Maya Angelou, Jane Fonda, Madeleine Albright, Rita Moreno, Queen Latifah, and many others.

There are stories — and photos — involving all those individuals, said Leary, who got to spend some time with each one of them.

But while she loves to tell those stories, an even more pleasant assignment is talking about the women, many of them first-generation college students, who have come to the Bay Path campus over the past quarter-century. Creating opportunities for them has been the most significant accomplishment of her career, she said, adding that her tenure has in many ways been defined by the small framed copy of that quote attributed to Steve Jobs — “The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do” — she keeps near her desk.

“I don’t even know if he actually said that, but they say he said it,” she noted with a laugh. “Anyway, I always tell people that’s how we have to look at every issue.”

And that mindset has led to a stunning transformation of the 123-year-old school, which was a secretarial school decades ago and a sleepy two-year school when she and her husband, Noel, first visited it after she was recruited to apply to be its fifth president.

By now, most know the story. While many of their friends and family were dubious about this small school as her next career stop after working for several years at Simmons College (another women’s school), the Learys didn’t have any doubts.

But nothing about the turnaround effort — and it has to be called that — was quick or easy. And all the efforts were the result of teamwork, said Leary, who, over the years, has said repeatedly that the success of the institution is not due to one person, but rather a large and talented team.

“People ask how we accomplished what we did, and I always said the number-one reason was that I hired very committed, very passionate, and very smart people,” she said. “And that is the secret sauce — who you hire. I give them all the credit.”

While finding old photographs and items like that issue of Crossroads, Leary has also come across some of the letters (yes, she kept them) from institutions trying to recruit her and headhunters asking to apply for positions. More than the letters themselves, she remembers how she replied to them.

This copy of Bay Path College Crossroads

This copy of Bay Path College Crossroads, with Elizabeth Dole on the cover, is one of many poignant pieces of memorabilia Carol Leary has come across while packing up after her remarkable career at the school.

“I always said, ‘my work here isn’t done — I’m in the middle of this vision or that vision,’” she recalled. “I never had the yearning to go anywhere.”

The work was never done because the school was seemingly always in a state of transition — first from a two-year school to the baccalaureate level, then to the master’s level, and then online and the introduction of new healthcare programs, and then doctorate programs.

And because it needs to, the school is still transitioning.

School of Thought

As she talked with BusinessWest a few weeks ago, Leary was splitting her time a number of different ways — although coronavirus had certainly seized most of it as this article was being written, including the postponement of the annual Women’s Leadership Conference, which had been set for March 27 at the MassMutual Center. Meanwhile, there are several retirement parties scheduled, as well as the annual President’s Gala, a huge fundraiser for the university and, specifically, the President’s Scholarships established by Leary to assist first-generation students. Those are still proceeding as scheduled, although the virus and the response to it is a story that changes quickly.

What won’t be changing quickly — in speed or direction — are those headwinds facing seemingly all the most prestigious colleges and universities.

And the most pressing issue, she told BusinessWest, is doing something about the high cost of a college education.

“As higher-education professionals, we have to figure out how to deliver our model in an affordable way so that families can send their children and adults can attend as well and not have high debt,” she explained. “That’s why the American Women’s College was created in 2013, but it is not going to be unique anymore because, as the number of 18-year-olds goes down, colleges have to think about other sources of revenue.”

With this in mind, Leary said Bay Path long ago started looking at new strategies for growth and creating learning opportunities. And it has created a new division, the Office of Strategic Alliances — Hobin now leads it — which is focused on non-credit work and professional development.

“We’re thinking not necessarily about a student coming to us, graduating in four years, and maybe getting a graduate degree, but more in terms of ‘what do we need to do to educate that student through her life cycle,” Leary explained, pointing, with emphasis, to a report she’s seen indicating that a child born today has the potential to live to 150 years.

“If you think about that, they may have an 80-year work life,” she went on. “And so, the college degree they earn at age 22 may not be relevant at age 60, 70, or even 80; a child today will have a longer work life, and it will be a much different work life than what people are experiencing today.

“I can’t even predict what it will be like, but colleges have to stay relevant,” she said, adding that Bay Path’s new division will handle professional development for businesses that want to retool and retrain their workforces. “That’s probably the future; that’s where we need to be — not just offering degrees but also offering lifelong learning opportunities.”

In that future, which is probably not far down the road, Leary projects that higher education will be “unbundled,” as she put it, into degrees but also short- and long-term programs, and with students not necessarily spending four years at one institution, but rather moving in and out of a school.

“This is going to shake up my colleagues in the field, but if I had a crystal ball … I don’t think students are going to come to one college and stay there for 120 credits,” she explained, summoning the acronym CLEP, or college-level examination program, which enables individuals with prior knowledge in a college course subject to earn college credits by passing an exam, thus possibly earning a degree more efficiently and inexpensively.

“I always said, ‘my work here isn’t done — I’m in the middle of this vision or that vision.’ I never had the yearning to go anywhere.”

“We already see students coming and going, bringing in community college and other college credits, CLEP, advanced placement, and more,” she went on. Meanwhile, adults don’t some in expecting to take 120 credits because somewhere in their life they may have taken a year somewhere and then life happened and they dropped out.

“Overall, colleges are going to have to reflect on what is learning, how does learning place, where does it take place, and how does it fit it into a credential like a degree; I don’t believe that degrees are going to be place-bound,” she said in conclusion, adding that such reflection must lead to often-profound change in how things are done.

And higher education is not exactly noted for its willingness to change, she said, adding that this sentiment must shift if the smaller institutions want to not only survive but thrive.

Future Course

As noted, Leary will be staying on until late June, and between now and then she has to move out of her home on campus and pack up everything in her office, including a number of awards she’s received from organizations ranging from the Girl Scouts to BusinessWest; she’s actually won two honors from this magazine — its Difference Makers award and its Women of Impact award.

She’s also planned out the first several months of retirement, with several trips scheduled — to England in July and Italy in August, if coronavirus doesn’t get in the way — and work on two boards in Ogunquit, Maine, where she will spend roughly half the year, with the other half in Fort Lauderdale. She even has a T-shirt that reads, “Yes, I have a plan for retirement.”

As for the school she’s leaving … it’s a much different, much better, and much more resilient institution than the one she found a quarter-century ago. She insists that people shouldn’t credit her for that. Instead, they should maybe credit Steve Jobs and that quote attributed to him.

Leary didn’t set out to change the world, necessarily, just that small bit of it off Longmeadow Street. To say she did so would be a huge understatement, and in the course of doing so, she changed countless lives in the process.

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

Education

Valuable Perspectives

Students at UMass Amherst participate in the 2017 International Festival.

International students can add a lot to a university or college. They bring diversity when it comes to cultural traditions, and they give domestic students a chance to experience global perspectives. However, it is not always easy to be an international student at a U.S. institution. The process to get in can be very difficult, tuition is expensive, and a rocky political climate makes the decision to go to a different country for school even more unsettling. But colleges and universities in the area are taking steps to make international students feel at home.

Imagine moving to a new country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the predominant language.

This is the reality for international students who travel to the U.S. to further their education. But local institutions in Western Mass. are well aware of this and have implemented several new strategies to make these students feel more at home.

The 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education released by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs notes that the total number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges fell by 2.1% from 2017 to 2018, and continues to drop. This national decline is being attributed to many factors, including student visa delays and denials, the steep price of U.S. higher education, and a rocky political climate.

However, a few institutions in Western Mass. are bucking this trend and continue to accept a consistent number of international students. In some cases, the numbers are even increasing.

While dedicating resources, staff members, and lots of time toward specifically reaching out to international students may not have been on the radar for institutions 10 or 15 years ago, the benefits of bringing these students to campus has become clearer for schools, several of which have adopted strategies for recruiting international students. Some even have positions dedicated to just this effort.

“It’s only been about 10 years that we’ve been really putting our mind to it,” said Kregg Strehorn, assistant provost for Enrollment Management of Undergraduate International Admissions at UMass Amherst.

But putting forth such an effort can’t happen all at once; it requires thoughtfulness, a solid plan, and a team willing to put in the work to make sure these students not only enroll in the university, but thrive there.

“One thing when we began to recruit international students was to make sure that we had a slow-growth model,” said Strehorn, adding that they didn’t just open up the doors and welcome any qualified international student because they wanted to increase the numbers. “We were very planful, very guided. That included me being in constant contact with our campus partners.”

At Western New England University (WNEU), two staff members travel internationally to recruit students, and the institution works with several companies geared toward marketing efforts specifically for international students.

Michelle Kowalsky Goodfellow, executive director of Undergraduate Admissions at WNEU, said a big part of the process is making the students feel welcome, just like they do for any domestic student as well.

“We really try, as we do for any student here, to get them involved in other clubs and organizations and get them to a place where they can make some connections with other friends and not just treat them as, ‘oh, they’re the international students,’” she said. “We want them to have the full experience like any other student.”

Despite a tense political climate and some difficult circumstances, these two universities, among many others, have implemented specific plans to give international students a great experience from start to finish — and those efforts are bearing fruit.

Welcoming Diversity

Strehorn summoned a phrase — “the farther you get away from home, the more you understand home” — to explain how he approached learning about the international student market.

So much so, in fact, that he moved to China with his family for four months to get to the bottom of it.

“China was the first market that we really drilled down and tried to understand how we would compete in that market,” he told BusinessWest, adding that UMass Amherst was already receiving a solid flow of applications from China before implementing specific outreach strategies.

UMass and other institutions have honed strategies for not only attracting international students, but creating a welcoming environment for them.

Living there, he added, helped him understand the intricacies of the market and helped him develop a strategy to move forward.

And it’s working.

According to a fact sheet from the Office of Institutional Research at UMass, the number of entering first-year international students has grown continuously over the past decade, from 54 in the fall of 2010 to 444 last fall.

“From that slow-growth model, we can meet and decide, how many more students can we add for the following year?” Strehorn said.

WNEU has had similar experiences, and Goodfellow says the university accepts around 50 new international students each fall at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

One of the ways UMass and WNEU have been able to retain these students is by cultivating an open and welcoming environment. Goodfellow noted that, despite the negative perception the media may portray regarding the U.S. and its relationship with international visitors in general, most are able to recognize that they will be coming to a safe space.

Massachusetts also leans toward the more progressive side — another talking point for international students and their families.

“I tend to articulate that and say, ‘you would be coming to a place that’s a lot more open to diversity and people with different backgrounds,’” she said. “That’s kind of a big part of a university in general — the inclusion and feeling of acceptance of all people.”

Strehorn added that creating a welcoming environment from start to finish is a big part of recruiting and retaining international students. When they are admitted, the first department they hear from on campus is International Programs, where they receive help with their I-20 document and visa to enter the country, as well as assistance with how to travel to the U.S., where to land, and how to get to campus.

Michelle Kowalsky

“We really try, as we do for any student here, to get them involved in other clubs and organizations and get them to a place where they can make some connections with other friends.”

“It’s really that welcoming spirit that then carries through,” he said. “Not only have they had a good experience through the admissions process, that first handoff over to International Programs is quite smooth and friendly.”

Strehorn said the somewhat tumultuous political climate in the U.S. is a common topic for international students and their families. He added that these families frequently see Americans on the news being less than welcoming of people from other countries, and that can be a valid concern.

“We hear from students and families constantly about the political atmosphere in the United States, whether they will be safe,” he went on. “We are consistently asked about the president and his policies. I think people are doing their due diligence when they’re sending their children here, wondering, are they still going to get a good education at a fair price? And are they going to be safe and welcomed?”

A more recent concern is the spread of the coronavirus, which continues to wreak havoc in China. As a result, UMass has decided to suspend its spring 2020 program to China, affecting seven students. However, the university has not yet made any changes to recruiting Chinese international students. Like everyone else, Strehorn noted, they are waiting for more information before making any big decisions.

“Right now, we are moving business ahead as usual,” he said, adding that they have reached out to several contacts at universities in the U.S. as well as overseas. “We’re hoping to support people from China as always, and we’re hoping this doesn’t turn out to be as devastating as it has the potential to be.”

Home Away from Home

Despite these challenges, there are certainly benefits to bringing international students to an American campus. The first, Goodfellow says, is the diversity factor.

“It allows both our domestic students to interact with folks from all over the world, as well as for those students that are coming from abroad to get a perspective of a U.S. student,” she said.

Another reason is the economic impact international students have on universities and the areas surrounding them.

International students are not eligible to receive federal financial aid, meaning most students, aside from merit-based scholarships like the #YouAreWelcomeHere scholarship at WNEU, are paying full price to attend these universities, boosting revenues for schools and the areas around them.

To put a specific number on that impact, according to the Assoc. of International Educators, international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contribute $39 billion to the U.S. national economy and support more than 400,000 jobs.

Strehorn added that UMass likes to call itself a “global community,” and it can’t be that without representation from the globe.

“Having folks from all different countries is imperative,” he said. “Domestic students can benefit tremendously from being in classes, discussions, clubs, and social events with students from other countries. I think all of that has formed kind of a home away from home for these students.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Joint Effort

Jeff Hayden says the Cannabis Education Center is a much-needed training ground that will support the growth of an industry on the rise in Holyoke and across Massachusetts.

Investment, job creation, and tax revenue.

According to Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC), these are the three keys to economic development.

They’re also precisely what the cannabis industry is bringing to the state of Massachusetts, which is why HCC has created the Cannabis Education Center, a new series of non-credit courses that provide skilled workforce training to prepare participants for a career in the cannabis industry.

HCC has partnered with the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) to create the first-ever cannabis training center in the state, and classes and programs are in full swing.

Hayden said the conversation about a cannabis training course started two and a half years ago, when discussion was heating up across the Bay State about the prospects of legal, adult-use cannabis — and how the Cannabis Control Commission would handle an expected proliferation of businesses. Once word got out that the commission would be licensing companies — and, therefore, creating jobs in the state — HCC jumped into action.

“Right now, there are about 75 employees in Holyoke who work for cannabis companies, but the projection is that, within a year of those licenses being granted to them, there will be somewhere between 400 or 500 employees in Holyoke.”

“When we heard that, we started to look around for different resources to try to learn more about what was going to happen, and especially what was going to happen in terms of the workforce training and how does someone get ready for the jobs that are going to come in this field,” he told BusinessWest.

About 14 companies have already applied for 21 licenses, and counting, in Holyoke alone. Two are active, both run by Green Thumb Industries on Appleton Street, and the rest are provisional or pending. But that won’t be the case for long.

“Right now, there are about 75 employees in Holyoke who work for cannabis companies, but the projection is that, within a year of those licenses being granted to them, there will be somewhere between 400 or 500 employees in Holyoke,” Hayden said.

Soon, the demand for trained, qualified employees in several different cannabis careers will skyrocket, and there needs to be people to fill those positions.

That’s where HCC comes in.

Growing Like a Weed

Hayden says there are currently five key pillars under the Cannabis Education Center’s umbrella: community education, meaning teaching people all about the cannabis industry; social-equity training; occupational training; custom contract training to cannabis businesses, including communication, leadership, and mentorship skills; and developing different trainings that would be useful for the industry.

Sage Franetovich says there’s a lot of curiosity around the subject of cannabis, and she expects the career prospects to draw people from different backgrounds.

“In all these pillars that we have, we hope that we’re providing a broad-based approach to the industry to either the job seeker or the business so that they can get the training and skills they need either to get on that career track or to be able to be a successful business,” said Hayden. “The hope, really, in terms of what they walk away with, are stackable credentials.”

A few examples of rising careers in this industry are cannabis culinary assistant, cannabis retail/patient advocate, cannabis cultivation assistant, and cannabis extraction technician assistant.

But HCC’s cannabis education doesn’t stop at the center. The college is also soon to offer its first credit-based cannabis-related course, called “Cannabis Today,” through its Sustainability Studies program. While no cannabis will be allowed on campus, the programs will use off-site locations for programs that require practice with the plant.

Sage Franetovich, Biology professor at HCC, will be teaching the class and said she has been working on developing the curriculum for the fall of 2020, and hopefully sooner, in the summer, if all goes well.

“With a response to the growing market and job market, we decided it would be a good fit to offer a course on cannabis cultivation with a focus on hemp,” she said.

The class will target topics such as the cultivation of hemp, indoor growing versus outdoor growing, and plant diseases and pest management.

Franetovich said she has been working with several people in the cannabis industry to develop the best possible curriculum for the class. “I think there’s a lot of curiosity around the subject, and I think that will be a draw for people from different backgrounds.”

All this activity comes in response to what will soon be incredibly high (no pun intended) demand for a cannabis workforce.

“When you start to think about that many new people coming in, that’s the equivalent of some of the large things that have happened regionally, like the CRRC company in Springfield, or MGM,” Hayden said.

And this center is striving to prepare people for careers in cannabis with everything from knowledge of the cannabis plant to knowledge of the industry itself, to understanding the commission’s regulations and how those impact the way they’ll do their jobs.

For example, a culinary technician working with edibles needs to know some of the ways the chemicals impact the edible product, specific measurements, levels of dosing, and more.

In the end, all this training is an investment that will, hopefully, bring the city of Holyoke a lot of jobs, and a lot of revenue.

High Expectations

Hayden estimates that between $20 million and $30 million has already been invested in the cannabis industry in Holyoke alone, despite only two operating licenses so far. He says the taxes going to the state will be significant, but 3% of sales also goes to the municipality. That means $1 million in sales equals $30,000 in taxes for the city of Holyoke.

“It’s a significant amount of money that the town can garner,” he said. “This past year, we’ve already received over $100,000 from cannabis-related companies for the city of Holyoke with only two licenses.”

And, so far, the response to the center has been positive, he noted. One of the first programs, a one-time class on the business and accounting side, drew 15 participants, and more than 100 people have expressed interest in training.

The first occupational training course began on Jan. 25 at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute and will continue for five more Saturdays for eight hours a day. C3RN will then place those who successfully complete the course in internships with local companies.

The ultimate goal of all these trainings is not simply to hand participants a diploma, but give them several certifications that will allow them to thrive in every aspect of the field.

“That’s really what we’re shooting for, someone who’s got multiple pieces of paper,” Hayden said. “It’s not just one diploma, it’s multiple pieces of paper that show to an employer that they’re ready for the job and that they can learn from the employer in terms of the skills they need for the future.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Breaking Down Stereotypes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Experience Into Expertise

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

Susanne Swanker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Toward a More Equal Future

The statistics speak for themselves.

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Center of Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New School of Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Model of Excellence

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

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

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

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

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

Education

Breaking Barriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broader Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking to the Future

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Doctors in Residence

Dr. Lauren Wagener

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

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

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

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

But she has a few problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Zoha Kahn

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

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

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

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

Learning Curves

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

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

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

Dr. Tiago Martins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support System

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poverty-simulation program is another big part.

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

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

And the schedule is carefully choregraphed, she went on.

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

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

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

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

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

At Home with the Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolling with the Punches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Study in Determination

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

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

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

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

Education

Learning to See

Joy Baglio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Settling Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preserving the Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Pressing On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade Expectations

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

Ken Rosenthal

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

Wingenbach agrees, but he has a plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Course of Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Critical Crossroads

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

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Closing the Skills Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interactive Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Kayla Ebner

Education

Taking Center Stage

Frank DeMarinis stands in the balcony

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

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

What he could never understand is why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Masonic temple on State Street

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

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

Development of Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan Kelly, principal of the Springfield Conservatory of the Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show of Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education

Building a Pipeline

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

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

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

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

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

The pitch involved the country’s student debt crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Bidwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Floor

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

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

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

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

The center’s mechatronics lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demand Continues

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

The Face of a Changing Landscape

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus

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

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

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

New-school Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Brittingham

Barbara Brittingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

Textbook Case?

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

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

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

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

Miriam Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charting a New Course

Time will tell whether this projection comes to pass.

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

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

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

Education

Closing the Gap

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says the grant awarded to Bay Path University will fund a collaborative effort to help improve the digital fluency of the workforce.

When people talk about an ‘IT gap,’ Amanda Gould says, the appropriate response might be, ‘which one?’

Indeed, there’s the gap that seems to getting most of the attention these days, the one that involves the huge gender disparity in the IT workforce, with the vast majority of those well-paying jobs going to men, said Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College at Bay Path University, one of the institutions working to do something about this through its expanding Cybersecurity and IT degree programs.

But there’s another gap, she said, and this one involves the workforce and its digital fluency — or lack thereof. In short, too many people lack the necessary skills to thrive in the modern workplace, especially in IT-related roles, and the need to devise solutions for changing this equation is becoming critical.

For this reason, the nonprofit Strada Education Network committed $8 million to what it calls the ‘innovative solutions in education-to-employment’ competition, a name that speaks volumes about its mission.

And Bay Path emerged as one of the winners in this competition, garnering $1.58 million for a three-year project appropriately called “Closing the Gaps: Building Pathways for Women in a Technology-driven Workforce” (note ‘gaps’ in the plural).

This will be a collaborative effort, said Gould, adding that work is already underway with a number of partners, including the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, Pas the Torch for Women, Springfield Technical Community College, the UMass Donohue Institute, and others.

“Thinking about IT being in and of itself a discipline is, in my view, becoming obsolete.”

This work, said Gould, “involves extensive employer research and engagement, and building capacity of the American Women’s College to scale enrollment of adult women and prepare them with core cybersecurity and information-technology competencies that meet the needs of employers, support them as they move to degree completion, and assist them to successfully transition to careers in cybersecurity and IT-related employment.”

The key word in that sentence is ‘core,’ she said, because such competencies are now needed to succeed in jobs across virtually all sectors, not just IT and cybersecurity, and, as noted, many individuals simply don’t have them, and thus doors to some opportunities remain closed.

Opening them is the purpose of the of the Strada Education Network program, said Gould, adding that it will address a large problem that is obvious, yet often overlooked.

“What we’re not doing well overall when we think about our workforce is recognizing that technology is becoming increasingly more important in any role in any industry,” she explained. “Thinking about IT being in and of itself a discipline is, in my view, becoming obsolete; technology is a part of any organization running, and we should be less focused on training people to live in a silo or column that prepares them to fulfill very specific functions, and instead be training our women across all our majors to be thoughtful about how technology may impact their future roles in the workforce and how to be more engaged with ways technology helps them perform the aspirations they have in a variety of careers.”

Patricia Crosby, executive director of the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board, agreed. She said her agency and other workforce-related partners will play a key role in this initiative — specifically bringing business leaders and those in the education sector together in the same room to discuss how curriculum can and should be structured to vastly improve the odds of student success and make what has been a fairly closed field much more open.

“The IT field has not been an open field to newcomers, diverse workers, and female workers,” said Crosby. “The Bay Path program is attempting to remedy some of that and make the pathways clearer.”

Overall, the nearly $1.6 million grant will be put toward a variety of uses, said Gould, who listed everything from career coaching to scholarships; from curriculum development to putting students in situations where they’re getting hands-on training in their chosen field. And all of them are pieces to the puzzle when comes to not only entering the workforce, but succeeding in a career.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the ‘closing the gaps’ initiative and why it is so critical when it comes to today’s workforce.

Keys to Success

Smashing Bay Path’s program down to a few key swing thoughts, Gould said it basically involves determining which IT skills are most needed in the workplace, which ones are missing in a large number of applicants and employees, and how to effectively provide those skills.

And while it’s easy to state the problem and this three-year project’s goals, devising solutions won’t be quite so easy because the problems are systemic and fairly deep-rooted.

Patricia Crosby

Patricia Crosby says the grant awarded to Bay Path University will help create clearer, better pathways into an IT field that historically has not been open to women, newcomers, and diverse workers.

“As higher-education institutions,” Gould explained, “we haven’t kept up with our education and our curriculum to make sure that, as students are leaving with a psychology degree or a communications degree or nursing degree, we are building in exposure to these tool sets and these skills. By being more theoretical in our education, we’ve almost created the gaps.

“I really think we’re at a moment in time when we need to be more thoughtful about integrating technology for all students,” she went on, adding that, if those in higher ed created the gaps, it’s now incumbent upon them to close them.

Elaborating, she noted that cybersecurity, while still a specific discipline and course of study, is also part of myriad job descriptions today — for those helping with social-media campaigns to those handling customer records — and thus cyber should be part of occupational training.

This is a relatively new mindset, she acknowledged, one that involves a close partnership between the business community and those in higher education.

To put it in perspective, she cited some research conducted by Strada and Gallup regarding the relevancy of educational programs.

“When they were interviewing higher-ed administrators about how prepared they thought their students were for the workforce, a majority of them said ‘they’re very prepared,’” she noted. “But when they interviewed employers, a very small percentage of them thought the students were truly prepared to enter the workforce. There’s an enormous disconnect.”

A commitment to closing it explains why the Strada network is giving $8 million to seven winners of its competition, and also explains why partners like the EDC and the MassHire facilities will play such a critical role in this endeavor.

They will help connect those with the project to industry groups and specific companies with the goal of not only determining the skill sets they need in their employees, but placing students in situations where they gain valuable hands-on experience.

These experiences can include job shadowing, interviewing someone in a particular role, project-based coursework, or actual internships, said Gould.

“There are a variety of ways we can get our students connected with employers,” she said, adding that such connections are vital to understanding the field, comprehending the role IT plays in it, and, ultimately, gaining employment within that sector.

“In an ideal scenario, our students are off and working,” she went on. “It would be better if they were working in a field they see as their career rather than in a job where they’re working to offset expenses. If there are ways to get students into the workplace before graduation, we want to nurture those entry points.”

Crosby agreed.

“In an ideal scenario, our students are off and working. It would be better if they were working in a field they see as their career rather than in a job where they’re working to offset expenses.”

“In this field [IT], more than any other, as much as any credentials or degrees, employers are looking for experience,” she said. “There’s a gap between the people who are learning it and the people who are getting the jobs because the people who get the jobs already have experience. There’s a bridge that has to be crossed between any education and training program and the workplace.

Sound Bytes

As she talked about the Bay Path program and how to measure its success, Gould said there will be a number of ways to do that.

These include everything from the level of dialogue between the business community and those in education — something that needs to be improved — to the actual placement rates of graduates in not only the IT and cyber fields, but others as well.

In short, the mission is to close the gaps, as in the plural. There are several of them, and they are large, but through a broad collaborative effort, those involved in this initiative believe they can begin to close those gaps and connect individuals to not only jobs but careers.

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

Education

Reservoir of Talent

Ware High School graduates

Ware High School graduates, from left, Felicity Dineen, Jordan Trzpit, Valentina Towne, Joe Gagnon, Morgan Orszulak, and Seth Bourdeau with Michael Moran (right), president of Baystate Health’s Eastern Region, which helped fund tuition and textbooks for the students’ EMT training at Holyoke Community College’s satellite in Ware.

 

 

Seth Bordeau had no plans to become a paramedic, but a chance elective at Ware High School last year — “Introduction to Fire Science,” taught by Ware Fire Department Deputy Chief Edward Wloch — led him down an unexpected path.

“I was less than enthusiastic, but slightly interested in the fire-science class,” Bordeau said. “But after every class, I found myself more and more excited for the next. The subject of emergency services was fascinating, and as the year-long course was coming to an end and graduation grew closer, I knew I’d miss this class the most. I also knew that I wanted to pursue this career.”

Fortunately, the elective led to an opportunity to take an EMT class at the Holyoke Community College satellite located at the Education to Employment (E2E) site on Main Street in Ware. He and fellow Ware High students who finished the high-school elective are now contemplating a career in fire science and emergency medicine. Baystate Wing Hospital Corp., one of the E2E’s local business partners, provided a matching grant that covered half the tuition and textbooks for the EMT course for each of the students.

“When we took a step back and took a broader look, we realized there was a hole in the region — there really weren’t any institutions of higher learning past high school, very little if any public transportation, and a lack of resources for people looking for jobs and employers looking for qualified workers.”

“I signed up for the EMT course almost immediately and didn’t think twice about my decision,” said Bordeau. “The EMT course ran from June to August, the whole summer, and looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted the summer to be any different. I have completed the practical exam and passed, and I am now onto taking my written exam. Once that is completed, I’ve been offered a position as an EMT for the town of West Brookfield. I hope to further my career by looking into paramedic school.”

This career pipeline between Ware High School and HCC’s satellite in Ware is just one example of how E2E — initially forged as a partnership between the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. (QVCDC) and HCC — is building connections between higher education, local businesses, economic-development leaders, and the community to meet workforce needs, said Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at HCC.

“From an academic point of view, they’re really looking to provide hands-on training activities for students who maybe aren’t sure what they want to do, or aren’t as book-motivated as some students might be. The hands-on training is giving them experience in an actual occupation,” said Hayden, noting that Ware High School added a criminal-justice elective to its roster of project-based, career-focused learning in 2018, and will introduce a certified nursing assistant (CNA) course in the fall of 2019.

Those efforts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to E2E programming, which features a range of resources for employers looking for talent and individuals seeking jobs (and the skills needed to procure them), and even a transportation service, the Quaboag Connector, that helps people access these services across these lightly populated towns in West-Central Mass.

“E2E is really a unique and innovative facility to help meet the needs of folks in our rural, former mill-town communities,” said Sheila Cuddy, executive director of the QVCDC. Several years ago, she explained, her organization was looking at strategic planning in the 15 communities it serves.

Jeff Hayden said HCC meets a need in Ware and surrounding towns

Jeff Hayden said HCC meets a need in Ware and surrounding towns for students who might be burdened by a long commute to the nearest college campus.

“We had been meeting with educators and small-business people and larger employers about the disconnect in our unemployment rates in this region, which tend to be 1% to 2% above the state average,” Cuddy told BusinessWest. “At the same time, we had employers who had difficulty hiring qualified workers. When we took a step back and took a broader look, we realized there was a hole in the region — there really weren’t any institutions of higher learning past high school, very little if any public transportation, and a lack of resources for people looking for jobs and employers looking for qualified workers.”

After HCC came on board as the QVCDC’s higher-ed partner in E2E, Country Bank stepped up with class-A office space in downtown Ware it no longer needed, and a mix of business funders (including Monson Savings Bank), grants, and tax credits began to take shape. “Since then, it has mushroomed,” Cuddy said.

For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest takes a look at how Education to Employment has brought new levels of collaboration and creativity to bear on the persistent problem of matching job seekers with jobs — often jobs, as in Bordeau’s case, they had no idea they’d want.

Key Connections

In one sense, Hayden noted, the E2E center was created to provide a place where individuals could connect with the college, because a 45-minute commute could be an obstacle — in both time and money — to enrolling in college. “So if you had a place where you could get information, resources, and a study place, with technology there, that might be advantageous.”

Indeed, the roughly 3,000-square-foot center located at 79 Main St. in Ware includes two classrooms, as well as private study areas and office space. Computer workstations are available for community members interested in enrolling in credit classes at HCC as online students. Meanwhile, the center has offered non-credit classes in hospitality and culinary arts, manufacturing, and health careers. Staffers are also on hand to help people with résumé writing, job-interview and application advice, and soft skills that all employers seek.

“They might need help with a résumé, or they might need additional classes, either for college credit or workforce-training classes to get certification for a new job. Or there might be questions about how to apply for financial aid,” Cuddy said.

“We have several computers and robust broadband service,” she added. “It really has become what we envisioned it to be — an education-to-employment center. We’ve had several ServSafe classes to help people step into the hospitality industry, which also helps local restaurants. We did some training with the Mass. Gaming Commission to prepare for casino jobs. We’ve also done manufacturing training with MassHire folks from the Franklin-Hampshire region.”

In addition, local employers have come to E2E looking for skilled workers, and sometimes matches are made through job fairs, she said. “We also have a local veterans’ group that meets there once a month. It really has become a vibrant and vital community resource and a respectful place for people to come to learn.”

Hayden agreed, citing efforts like a business-led program aimed at instilling workforce training and soft skills in the 16-to-24 age group. “They’ve also done programs at the QVCDC where they help people save money to start businesses. They do computer classes, literacy classes, financial-literacy classes, and we’ve done some of that stuff as well out there. It has become very active.”

It’s all supplemented by the Quaboag Connector, a mini-bus system that brings people back and forth between Palmer, Ware, and the other Quaboag communities for jobs, classes, and other things, Hayden noted. “That’s been extremely effective. Oftentimes, we think of the poverty in the urban core of Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, and we don’t necessarily think of the rural or suburban poor, especially in the communities out east, where the challenges of transportation, day care, and elder care are the same as in urban communities. Getting to work on time is a challenge without buses and vans to make it work.”

Baystate Health’s Eastern Region, which includes Baystate Wing Hospital and Baystate Mary Lane, is one of the Quaboag Connector’s partners, providing $90,000 in funding to the transportation initiative.

“The consequences of the lack of transportation and unemployment elevate the importance to invest in these local initiatives. Both provide good options for our young people,” said Mike Moran, Baystate’s Eastern Region president. “Baystate Health is strongly committed to the many communities in our region and will continue to work with our community partners to focus and grow programs and initiatives that promote wellness, education, and workforce development.” 

Natural Fit

Surveying the growing roster of programs run through E2E, Hayden said the partnerships forged among higher education, the business community, and other groups, all of whom are seeking similar outcomes when it comes to building a vibrant workforce, have come together naturally and organically.

E2E offices

Country Bank donated space on Main Street in Ware to the QVCDC for the E2E offices.

“It doesn’t feel forced at all; it feels like people really want to work together to make something happen,” he told BusinessWest. “The challenge is always financial resources. None of us singly have enough resources to make it work, and even jointly, it would be difficult to make some of these initiatives work, but we’ve all been working together to find those resources.”

The needs remain significant, Cuddy added.

“We have a number of manufacturers, small and large, based in our region that are facing the challenge of a workforce that’s aging out. I know a company with more than 100 employees, and within five years, 50% of those employees will be approaching retirement age. I know everyone is having difficulty finding people who are certified to be CNAs, especially as the population ages, and other healthcare careers are having the same issues — the aging of the existing workforce and training newer folks needed to take up these careers.”

That’s why Education to Employment makes sense, and is needed, she went on.

“These community partnerships really speak to Western Mass., whether it be out of necessity or creativity or a general spirit of neighborliness. Especially in the smaller communities, there’s a recognition that all of us working together accomplish a whole lot more than we could individually.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

More Than a Head Start

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

The new $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield is focused on education, obviously, but parental involvement and workforce development are key focal points within its broad mission.

Mary Walachy calls it “Head Start on steroids.”

It’s a term she has called upon often, actually, when speaking to individuals and groups about Educare, an innovative model for high-quality early education that’s coming to Springfield next year — only the 24th such center in the country, in fact.

“You have to work with a Head Start partner. That’s a requirement in every Educare site across the country,” said Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, one of the lead partners in the effort to launch the local Educare school. “The base program meets the Head Start national requirements. But then there’s a layer of extensive higher quality. Instead of two adult teachers in the classroom, there needs to be three. Instead of a six-hour day, there needs to be eight or 10. There are higher ratios of family liaisons to families.”

Then there are the elements that Educare centers have really honed in on nationwide: Parental involvement and workforce development — and the many ways those two concepts work together.

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful,” Walachy said. “However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

The takeaway? Early-education programs must engage parents in their children’s learning, which is a central tenet to Educare. But the second reality is that families often need assistance in other ways — particularly Head Start-eligible families, who tend to be in the lower economic tier.

“We must assist them to begin the trajectory toward financial security,” Walachy said, and Holyoke Chicopee Springfield (HCS) Head Start has long done this by recruiting and training parents, in a collaborative effort with Holyoke Community College, to become classroom assistants, who often move up to become teachers. In fact, some 40% to 50% of teachers in HCS Head Start are former Head Start mothers.

“So they already have a model, but after we get up and running, we want to put that on a bit of a steroid as well,” she noted. That means working with the Federal Reserve’s Working Cities program, in partnership with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to steer Head Start and Educare families onto a pathway to better employment opportunities. “It’s getting on a trajectory for employment and then, we hope, financial security and success for themselves and their families.”

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful. However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

She noted that early education evolved decades ago as a workforce-support program, offering child care so families could go to work or go to school. “We’ve shifted in some ways — people started saying, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t just child care, this is education. We are really putting them on a pathway.’ But now we’ve got to circle back and do both. Head Start was always an anti-poverty program. More recently, it’s really started focusing on employment and financial security for families.”

By making that dual commitment to parent engagement and workforce training, she noted, the organizations supporting the Educare project in Springfield are making a commitment to economic development that lifts families — and, by extension, communities. And that makes this much more than a school.

Alone in Massachusetts

The 24th Educare school in the U.S. will be the only one in Massachusetts, and only the second in New England, when it opens next fall at 100 Hickory St., adjacent to Brookings School, on land provided by Springfield College.

The $14 million project was designed by RDg Planning & Design and is being built by Western Builders, with project management by O’Connell Development Group.

Mary Walachy

Mary Walachy says that while it’s important to educate young children, it’s equally important that they go home to strong families.

Educare started with one school in Chicago and has evolved into a national learning network of schools serving thousands of children across the country. An early-education model designed to help narrow the achievement gap for children living in poverty, Educare Springfield is being funded locally by a variety of local, state, and national sources including the Davis Foundation, the Gage Olmstead Fund and Albert Steiger Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the MassMutual Foundation, Berkshire Bank, MassDevelopment, the MassWorks Infrastructure Program at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Florence Bank, Capital One Commercial Banking, and the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Grant Fund through the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care in collaboration with the Community Economic Development Assistance Corp. and its affiliate, the Children’s Investment Fund. A number of anonymous donors have also contributed significant funding.

Educare Springfield will offer a full-day, full-year program for up to 141 children from birth to age 5, under licensure by the Department of Early Education and Care. The center will also serve as a resource in the early-education community for training and providing professional development for future teachers, social workers, evaluation, and research.

Just from the education perspective, the local need is certainly there. Three years ago, the Springfield Public Schools Kindergarten Reading Assessment scores revealed that preschool children from the Six Corners and Old Hill neighborhoods scored the lowest among city neighborhoods for kindergarten reading readiness, at 1.1% and 3%, respectively. On a broader city scale, the fall 2017 scores showed that only 7% of all city children met all five benchmarks of kindergarten reading readiness.

Research, as Walachy noted, has proven time and again that kids who aren’t kindergarten-ready are at great risk of falling further behind their peers, and these same children, if they’re not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, are significantly less likely to graduate high school, attend college, or find employment that earns them a living wage.

Breaking that cycle means engaging children and their parents — and it’s an effort that could make a multi-generational impact.

Come Together

That potential is certainly gratifying for Walachy and the other partners.

“I think we’re really fortunate that Springfield got this opportunity to bring in this nationally recognized, quality early-childhood program,” she said, adding that the Davis Foundation has been involved from the start. “There has to be a philanthropic lead partner in order to begin to explore Educare because it does require fundraising, and if you don’t have somebody already at the table, it makes it really hard to get anybody else to join the table.”

The board of Educare Springfield, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, will hold Head Start accountable for executing the expanded Educare model. Educare Springfield is also tackling enhanced programs, fundraising, and policy and advocacy work associated with the model. A $7 million endowment is also being developed, to be administered by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, revenue from which will support operating costs.

“We did not want to develop a building that we could then not pay to operate,” Walachy noted, adding that Head Start’s federal dollars will play a significant role as well. “We want to develop a program kids in Springfield deserve. They deserve the best, and we think this is one of the best, and one this community can support.

“No one argues that kids should have a good experience, and that they begin learning at birth,” she went on. “But nothing good is cheap. And I will tell you that Educare isn’t cheap. But it sends a policy message that you’ve got to pay for good programs if you want good outcomes.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Culture Shock

Emily Rabinsky guides two HCC students in a lab project.

Emily Rabinsky guides two HCC students in a lab project.

As she walked BusinessWest through one of the brand-new labs in Holyoke Community College’s Center for Life Sciences, Professor Emily Rabinsky said there’s plenty for students to appreciate.

“Our old lab space was very outdated and not very conducive to learning,” said Rabinsky, who coordinates the Biotechnology program at HCC. “There were two long bays with a tall shelf in between that made it very difficult for the students to see what the lecturer was referring to, and the equipment was very outdated.”

Not so today.

“At our recent open house, some students happened to walk by, peeked in, and said, ‘wow, this is amazing,’” she said. “I think this facility could rival many of the four-year colleges.”

Take, for example, the only certified cleanroom at any Massachusetts community college, and one of very few at any college or university in Western Mass.

Once it’s fully operational, the cleanroom will have a certification rating of ISO 8, which means air quality of no more than 100,000 particles per cubic foot. Inside the cleanroom, there will be a hooded biosafety cabinet where the sterility will increase to ISO 7, or no more than 10,000 particles per cubic foot.

“It’s pretty unique at the community-college level,” Rabinsky told BusinessWest. “It’s something commonly used in many of the life-science research areas. Students will learn how to minimize contamination and keep the space sterile for any kinds of cells they’re working with.”

Take, for example, a class she’s currently developing called “Cell Culture and Protein Purification,” which will make copious use of the cleanroom.

“We’ll be training students in the cell-culture class in how to maintain mammalian cell cultures, because they can be easily contaminated with bacteria or other microbes that are in the air,” she explained. “Mammalian cell cultures are commonly used in any kind of research studying cancer, or studying new drug therapies, so it’s a good skill to know.”

The cleanroom will also be utilized as a training facility for area professionals — for instance, in how to monitor the air for microbial content, commonly known as particle count.

“In a cleanroom, there should be fewer particles in the air because we have a special kind of filtration. So it has to constantly be monitored and verified,” she said. “Any cleanroom at UMass or any kind of industry has that monitoring done for them, so if someone wants to go into that kind of field, they could get that training here.”

So, while students are being trained in laboratory settings similar to what they will experience in industry, making them more competitive for the biotech job market, Rabinsky said, HCC serves a local workforce-development mission by training non-students as well.

“A lot of these local biotech companies that do this kind of work, they find it can be very costly for them to train new employees at their facility, and at the same time, they’re risking contaminating their facilities with these new workers that are just learning the technique, so why not do it here where it’s not such a high risk?”

On the Cutting Edge

HCC recently staged a grand-opening ceremony for the 13,000-square-foot, $4.55 million Center for Life Sciences, located on the lower level of HCC’s Marieb Building. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center awarded HCC a $3.8 million grant for the project, which was supplemented by $750,000 from the HCC Foundation’s Building Healthy Communities Campaign, which also paid for the construction of the college’s new Center for Health Education on Jarvis Avenue in Holyoke.

“Those grants outfitted the biotechnology program but also all of the programs that fit in around it, including microbiology, general biology, and genetics,” Rabinsky said, noting that the new space includes two labs, the cleanroom, a prep room, and a lecture area.

Grant funds and donations also paid for new equipment, including a high-end, research-grade fluorescent microscope, like those used in the pharmaceutical industry; a micro volume spectrophotometer, used to measure small amounts of genetic material; and an electroporator, for genetic engineering. Meanwhile, a cutting-edge thermocycler can take a small sample of DNA and make billions of copies in an hour.

About half of Rabinsky’s students are interested in going into biotechnology, with most of those specifically interested in medical biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, as well as medical devices, an industry with strong roots in Western Mass. and the Boston area.

“I also have students who are just interested in the life sciences, interested in research, and just want to be exposed to all the different areas of biotechnology,” she went on. “A lot of these skills can be applied to many different fields. They may be interested in going into genetics, for example. I would say one of the challenges is drawing in the kids in who may not have thought about biotechnology or biology.”

To that end, in her introductory biotechnology course, she incorporates activities that students can relate to their everyday lives.

“Last week, we did a fun lab where he tested for the presence of genetic modification in things like cheese fries and Cheetos,” she explained. “Food producers aren’t required to list the presence of GMOs unless it’s above a certain percentage. So they’ll grind it up, extract the DNA, and test for the presence of GMOs. That was fun — they could have a hands-on experience and test for something that is very commonplace that we’re all aware of.”

Important Evolution

Rabinsky admitted some might not see the new center as a necessity since HCC already had a functioning facility upstairs, but said it was important to keep the college on the cutting edge and attract more students to give the life sciences a look.

“This makes them excited about the field, and it’s more a conducive space for learning, with these small tables that make working in groups much easier. Then we have newer technologies and new equipment to train students on, which are very similar to what they’ll in the field.”

Of course, it all starts with the instruction, and on that front, Rabinsky said the Center for Life Sciences will continue to prepare students to enter what is certainly a growing field from a jobs perspective.

“I’ve had students that have gone on to UMass and said that they learned things here they haven’t learned there, and that our equipment properly prepared them for graduate research,” she said. “That’s really nice to hear.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

The New College Try

Diane Prusank

Diane Prusank

Diane Prusank says Westfield State University is a few years behind the other Massachusetts state schools in adopting the so-called ‘college structure’ for its Division of Academic Affairs.

In most respects, that’s a good thing, she told BusinessWest, because it has provided the 180-year-old institution with an opportunity to learn from what those other schools have done and shape a system that reflects what amounts to best practices. And that’s important, because going from 25 academic departments to four colleges is a significant change for students and faculty alike.

“It takes time for people to see how this works, time for people to talk with those at other institutions and say, ‘how did this go for you?’” said Prusank, who last spring was named WSU’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “So, in some ways, coming later than our sister institutions was really beneficial.”

Elaborating, she noted that the delay, if it can be called that, in adopting this structure resulted from, among other things, apprehension that it might create silos at the university at a time when greater collaboration between the departments was and is the goal, as well as an additional (and perhaps unwanted) layer of bureaucracy.

But over the course of a 15-month planning period — one that included examination of what’s happened at the other state universities and other institutions of higher learning after they adopted the college system — it was determined that these fears were mostly unfounded.

In fact, that review showed the college structure fostered greater communication among faculty members within various programs, and also new collaborative efforts.

Jennifer Hanselman

Jennifer Hanselman

Juline Mills

Juline Mills

Emily Todd

Emily Todd

Once you place faculty essentially in proximity to each other in the kinds of meetings and events that colleges put together, they create a chemistry with each other that you don’t see when they’re spread out across 25 different departments,” said Prusank, who joined the university in 2008 as dean of Academic Programs and Accreditation.

“When there are eight of them in the room, they start to talk about things they have in common,” she went on. “And they start to create connections. Sometimes people worry that when you create the college system you’ve made silos, that these colleges will separate themselves from each other. But the truth is that those deans have conversations with other, and they make connections.”

Under the new system, WSU now has four colleges — the College of Graduate and Continuing Education, the College of Mathematics and Sciences; College of Education, Health, and Human Services; and College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

Three new founding deans were also appointed in June: Jennifer Hanselman, former chair of the Department of Biology, was appointed interim dean of the College of Mathematics and Sciences; Juline Mills, most recently a professor in the College of Business at the University of New Haven, was named dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Services; and Emily Todd, former chair of the Department of English at WSU, was named interim dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

As for Prusank, she brings a great deal of experience to her new role as provost and vice president of Academic Affairs — and the process of bringing the college system to fruition.

Before coming to WSU a decade ago, she served as a faculty member, associate dean, and assistant provost at the University of Hartford. At Westfield State, in addition to her work as dean of Academic Programs and Accreditation, she’s served as dean of Undergraduate Studies, chair and faculty member in the Department of Communications, and chief of staff in the President’s Office.

Thus, she brings a number of different perspectives to the shift from 25 departments to four colleges. And from the lens of both a faculty member and administrator, she said it brings with it considerable promise for enhanced collaboration and innovation, as well as greater operational efficiencies.

“You get a lot of points of sharing that you didn’t have before,” she said, referring, again, to what happens when you bring the chairs of eight departments together for meetings of the individual colleges. “You get a lot of synergy, a lot of collaboration, and a lot of sharing. And that’s great for our students because it opens up more opportunities for them.”

Elaborating on the nature of these opportunities, she said they come in many different forms, from greater collaboration on curriculum and potential new programs of study to creation of new events, to the broadening of existing events, such as alumni gatherings, which might now involve graduates of several different (but related) programs instead of one.

“You get a lot of points of sharing that you didn’t have before. You get a lot of synergy, a lot of collaboration, and a lot of sharing. And that’s great for our students because it opens up more opportunities for them.”

“There’s synthesis and collaboration that opens doors for students that might not have been there before,” she explained.

Prusank told BusinessWest that a shift to the ‘college’ format is something that’s been under consideration at the university for some time.

“Westfield State has had this conversation periodically over the past few decades, as most institutions have,” she explained. “Eventually, the college structure found its way onto college campuses across the country.”

Discussions were ongoing when Ramon Torrecilha took the helm as president in 2015, she went on, adding that he essentially took the conversation to a higher level, asking the advisory committee on academic planning to research the college format, talk with campus constituencies, look at what other schools had done, and make a recommendation on what should be done moving forward.

The eventual recommendation was to take this step, she said, adding that what followed was a lengthy implementation period involving work to determine, among other things, how many colleges would be created and the composition of each one (the specific departments). When that work was completed, searches were conducted for the deans that would lead each college, as well as for the provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.

While there will be a period of adjustment to the new system, Prusank said the many types of benefits are becoming increasingly apparent to students and faculty alike. Chief among these benefits for students is greater access to assistance when its needed.

“With the older structure, when we had a dean of Undergraduate Studies, students who had academic issues or problems would have to go to that dean, and there are 4,500 full-time undergraduate students looking for one person,” she explained. “Now, with the four-college structure, there are four different points of access; it’s easier to get that individual quicker.”

There are many other benefits to this system, she told BusinessWest, adding that, while WSU may be the last school in the state system to embrace this structure, it is already making up for lost time.

— George O’Brien

Education

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]

Education Sections

Life’s Work

Lisa Rapp

Lisa Rapp says many biotech students find inspiration in the fact that their work may someday make a difference — for example, in developing a key new drug.

For college students — or career changers — seeking a career path with plenty of opportunity close to home, biotechnology in Massachusetts is certainly enjoying an enviable wave.

For example, drug research and development — one key field in the broad world of biotech — has been surging in Massachusetts for well over a decade, and isn’t slowing down, according to the annual report released in November by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, or MassBio.

According to that report, Massachusetts has more jobs classified as biotechnology R&D than any other state (see table below), with 34,366 currently employed — a 40% increase since 2007 — barely edging out California, a state with six times the Bay State’s population, and a well-defined high-tech landscape.

Meanwhile, the total number of biopharma workers in Massachusetts rose by nearly 5% in 2016, to 66,053, a 28% growth rate since 2007, which was the year former Gov. Deval Patrick launched a 10-year, $1 billion life-sciences investment program. More recently, Gov. Charlie Baker renewed the state’s commitment to the industry when he announced a five-year, $500 million ‘life sciences 2.0’ initiative.

stateemploytrendsbiotech0118a

“Massachusetts is historically one of the first states that got into biotechnology, then Deval Patrick made a real financial commitment, and provided funding, to try to keep it here,” said Lisa Rapp, who chairs the associate-degree Biotechnology program at Springfield Technical Community College, adding that Cambridge has long been the key hub, but biotech companies can be found throughout the Commonwealth.

Still, while the industry is growing rapidly, Rapp noted that biotechnology often is not on the radar of people considering their career options. Biotechnology encompasses a broad range of applications that use living organisms such as cells and bacteria to make useful products. Current applications of biotechnology include industrial production of pharmaceuticals such as vaccines and insulin, genetic testing, DNA fingerprinting, and genetic engineering of plants.

“I don’t think many students are aware how many jobs there are in the state. There are more jobs the farther east you go, but there are absolutely jobs here too,” she said, noting that research and development companies tend to cluster closer to Boston, while Western Mass. tends to be stronger with biomanufacturing.

The research and development job gains come as the state’s collective pipeline of drugs is rapidly expanding. According to the MassBio report, companies headquartered in the state have 1,876 drugs in various stages of development, nearly half of which — 912 — are being tested in human trials. That’s a significant increase from last year, when 1,149 drugs were in development, including 455 in human trials. Treatments for cancer, neurological disorders, and infections are among the most popular.

“There are more opportunities now than ever to get good jobs in Massachusetts,” Rapp said. “The state has the highest concentration of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in the world.”

“We’re in the middle of a genomic revolution right now, on the cusp of this brave new world,” said Thomas Mennella, associate professor of Biology at Bay Path University, who directs the master’s program in Applied Laboratory Science & Operations, which has become a key graduate degree in the biotech world (more on that later).

“My read on the field is that no one is sure where this is going to go, but everyone believes it’s going somewhere special,” he went on. “This generation now coming out will advance that revolution, and we’re preparing them the best we can to make them as adaptable as possible and follow the flow wherever the field leads.”

Meeting the Need

Since 2012, Rapp said, STCC has received $375,000 in grants to enhance its Biotechnology program, and especially the cutting-edge equipment and supplies on which students learn current techniques in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

“Our curriculum is designed to meet the ever-expanding need for trained biotechnology personnel, she added, noting that students who complete the two-year program can apply for jobs in the biopharma industry, or may advance to four-year institutions to pursue higher degrees in biotechnology.

“The career-track associate degree is meant to lead to direct employment in the field, and then we have a transfer track for students looking to transfer to a four-year college and get a bachelor’s degree or additional education,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s about half and half, but the last few years, there has been a little more interest in the transfer pathway.”

Bay Path’s bachelor’s-degree program has evolved over time, Mennella said, first in response to industry talk that students nationally weren’t emerging with high-tech instrumentation skills, and then — when programs morphed to emphasize those skills — that job applicants were highly technically trained, but not thinking scientifically.

“Our degree here is meant to bridge that gap, meet in the middle,” he explaned. “They’re graduating with the best of both worlds.”

But he called the master’s program in Applied Laboratory Science & Operations the “cherry on top of the program,” because it sets up biotech undergrads with the tools they need to manage a lab — from project management to understanding the ethical and legal implications of their work — which, in turn, leads to some of the more lucrative and rewarding areas of their field.

“We’ve packaged four courses together as an online graduate certificate program, so even students who just want to learn how to manage a lab and manage people can take those four online courses as a graduate certificate,” he explained.

The idea, Mennella said, is to make sure graduates are as competitive as they can be, in a field that — like others in Massachusetts, from precision manufacturing to information technology — often has more job opportunities available than qualified candidates. He wants his graduates to demonstrate, within six months to a year, that they can slide into lab-management positions that, in the Bay State, pay a median salary of almost $120,000.

“The state is hungry for highly skilled technicians that can do the day-to-day work to keep the lab running,” he noted. “We want them geared toward the really good technical jobs in this area, but have that second [managerial] purpose in mind. We’re striking both sides of the coin.”

Cool, Fun — and Meaningful

Rapp noted that many students are looking for a challenging role in medical research that doesn’t involve patient contact, and a biotechnology degree is a clear path to such a career.

“Generally, they have some underlying interest in science — they think science is cool and fun, which, of course, it is. And with laboratory jobs, they might have an interest in science and not necessarily in patient care,” she explained. “And they like the hands-on work in a laboratory setting.”

Whether working for pharmaceutical companies, developing and testing new drugs, or for biomanufacturing companies working on medical devices, or even in a forensics lab, opportunities abound, she said.

“I feel like many students want to feel like they’re doing something meaningful here,” Rapp added. “If they’re involved in designing or testing drugs, helping some future patient, I feel that’s a message that reonates with the students — that maybe they’ll be doing a job that helps someone in some way.”

At a recent Biotechnology Career Exploration Luncheon at STCC, professors from area colleges discussed opportunities in the field, and agreed that job reports like the one from MassBio may only scratch the surface when it comes to opportunities in a field that grows more intriguing by the year.

“Biochemistry and molecular-biology principles are critical in a number of growing fields in health and technology,” said Amy Springer, lecturer and chief undergraduate advisor at UMass Amherst. “Having a fundamental knowledge in these topics provides a student with translatable skills suitable for a range of areas, including discovery research, medical diagnostics, treatments and engineering, and environmental science.”

As Mennella said, it’s a brave new world — and a story that’s only beginning to unfold.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]