Elms College Programs Keep Pace with Community Needs
In Perfect Alignment
When Sr. Mary Reap took the helm at Elms College in 2009, she arrived with a reputation for identifying needs and building the partnerships necessary to meet them. She has done all that and more at Elms, launching a number of new degree programs, expanding enrollment and employment at the Chicopee institution, and maintaining the service- and community-oriented character that its students have long valued.
Some might regard Sr. Mary Reap’s inauguration as president of Elms College in Chicopee as, well, a godsend.
After all, the former president of Marywood University in Pennsylvania had retired after serving at the first Catholic women’s university from 1988 to 2007 and establishing a wide variety of new programs at every level, including majors in physician’s assistant, art therapy, aviation management, biotechnology, information sciences, sports nutrition, and exercise science.
She came out of retirement to take the helm at Elms amid expectations that she could, and would, do the same for that Chicopee institution.
Indeed, soon after her 2009 arrival, Reap began to initiate positive change. But at that point seven years ago — as well as today — she simply viewed the position as an opportunity to put her honed skills to work.
“I arrived just in time; when I took office, Elms needed some updates, including new programs and structural work to the facilities,” Reap told BusinessWest. “Nineteen years of experience allows you to see things that can be changed, and the college was not only ready, they trusted me.”
From the first day she set foot on the Chicopee campus, she was highly impressed by the integrity of the staff and faculty and their willingness to do whatever it takes to help students succeed. In fact, it was one area where no improvements were needed.
“I viewed the job as a wonderful opportunity to take a very dedicated, caring group of individuals and move forward,” Reap said. “Our faculty is really dedicated to student success; we have a high retention rate, and it really amazes me to hear stories of what people here have done,” she continued, citing examples that include faculty members who have purchased books for students who could not afford them, cafeteria and housekeeping staff who know every student by name and give them “a little hug when they need it or make special food for them,” and others who have shouldered the expense of clothing needed by graduates for job interviews when they couldn’t afford it themselves.
Reap said these acts of kindness are done quietly behind the scenes, and she hears about them from grateful students. She attributes the altruism to an attitude that pervades the campus and its many new satellite locations and is passed from staff to students, infusing them with the desire to make an impact.
“Our students often begin their Elms careers with a passion for positive change and leave with the tools necessary to make change happen,” she said.
Her initial goal was to help individuals and the community by making it possible for more people to earn a four-year-degree in subjects that met the requirements of employers who were recruiting outside the area due to a lack of qualified local candidates.
“I looked at the demographics and found that less than 20% of the population in Western Mass. has a four-year degree,” she recalled.
These goals were bolstered by Reap’s belief that it is critical for her to be a good steward of the college and its resources — a commitment she takes seriously.
Her efforts to increase the numbers of graduates with bachelor’s degrees has been successful, and today, enrollment has increased by 400 students. Every building on the Elms campus has undergone renovations to keep up with the changing face of education, and 40 new jobs have been created, thanks to new programs at every level that resulted from collaborations and meetings with business owners, healthcare providers, representatives from the state’s community colleges, and data culled from the government and surveys that have been conducted in the community.
“Every new program has filled a need,” Reap said, using a word that surfaced repeatedly throughout the interview. For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest takes a look at the expansion that has occurred at Elms since Reap’s inauguration and how new collaborations have led to success.
Reap said that, after she arrived in Chicopee, she met with Holyoke Community College President Bill Messner and was pleased to discover he shared her vision of helping more HCC graduates earn a four-year degree.
“We formed a partnership in 2010-11 and launched our first completion program in the fall of 2010 in psychology, management, and accounting,” Reap recalled. “It’s a cohort model in which students start together and finish together on their own campuses. Classes are held on Saturdays, which makes things easier, and since that time, the program has expanded into other community colleges across the state.”
It is a popular program, and more than 90% of students who enroll graduate. “Right now, 230 students are enrolled, and we believe we have done a great service by making it possible for so many people to complete degrees, which enhances the workforce and puts graduates in line for job promotions,” Reap said.
Another new program instituted after Reap arrived at Elms allows registered nurses who are working in the field to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. The RN-BS degree-completion program came about as a result of a partnership with Berkshire Health Systems (BHS) in Pittsfield, and was launched in 2007. Classes are held on the hospital ’s Hillcrest Campus.
Reap said more than 100 people have received their four-year degrees, enhancing the level of care patients receive, and since 2007, RN-BS programs have expanded and are in place at four community colleges.
Reap noted that the baccalaureate program at BHS led to a master’s program, then a doctor of nursing practice program that was launched in the fall of 2014. Students can choose from two tracks and become a family nurse practitioner or adult gerontology acute-care practitioner.
The inaugural class included nine students from BHS and and nine from Baystate Medical Center, whose tuition was underwritten by the hospitals, and 22 additional students.
“We have helped fill the need for nurses with advanced degrees in a number of local hospitals,” Reap explained. “It was a natural area to grow, especially since the population here is aging. And these programs have an added value as many of the students are bilingual. It’s a great asset as there are so many Spanish-speaking people in the area.”
She noted that Elms received a $650,000 Health Resources and Services Administration grant to provide undergraduate scholarships for deserving, financially eligible Hispanic nursing students.
“We gave out eight awards last year, and 16 students will receive them this year in addition to other help they receive. It’s a wonderful way to meet the needs of the community,” she continued. “Last fall, we also began offering an undergraduate degree in Ethical Healthcare Management, which can be completed online or at some of our satellite sites.”
Elms College has also focused on expanding its science programs. “We know that more young people are needed today in these careers,” Reap said, adding that this knowledge spurred the construction of a new, $13 million Center for Natural and Health Sciences, which contains classrooms and laboratories.
And three years ago, the college responded to another need with a new post-baccalaureate science program for students who want to apply to medical or dental school. It can be completed in one or two years, depending on the student, and Reap said it attracts candidates from around the world in need of additional coursework.
“We’re drawing graduates from Ivy League schools, and they have been getting accepted at the best medical and dental schools in the country,” she noted. “It’s another area that was underserved where we think we are adding value.”
The needs of employers in the business community have also been addressed, and three years ago Elms launched an MBA program. Fifty students are enrolled this year, and they are taking classes on campus and online, which allows them the flexibility to work and earn a degree simultaneously. And, thanks to a generous gift from a benefactor, Elms is in the process of launching a new business center that will provide entrepreneurial and leadership programs at the certificate and degree level. Reap said the center will open officially next fall.
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“There are many small businesses in the area, and more open every day, and we were getting requests from them for workshops,” she told BusinessWest, adding that slots in the MBA program filled quickly and the school felt it was important to provide other types of education to business owners and employees working in an entrepreneurial environment.
Elms has always had a strong social-work program, and in the spring of 2012, it launched a bachelor’s-degree program in criminal justice. It was created in response to requests from students and an increased need for people to fill crimina-justice positions in the area.
“We work closely with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, local law-enforcement agencies, and the governor’s office, and have a nice relationship with the Soldier On program in the Berkshires,” Reap said, noting that Elms also has a strong legal-studies program and takes an interdisciplinary approach to these fields of study.
“The need is increasing for homeland security, and there are new approaches to criminal justice,” she continued. “Our emphasis is on helping to lower the recidivism rate of people released from prison, and the programs were driven by our mission to have a system of education with our philosophy and values. Respect for the individual is paramount, and it’s important to teach these people how to gain dignity as well as the skill sets they need to enter society again.”
Mirroring the Community
Reap said the student body at Elms and its satellite locations is representative of the community. About 20% of their students are Hispanic, and close to the same number are African-American.
“We also have a lot of religious diversity on campus, and most women feel very comfortable here because it’s a place where they feel safe and respected; plus, they like the idea of coming to a school with a value system similar to their own,” Reap said. “And we have been very entrepreneurial and flexible in adapting, maintaining, and enhancing our reputation for quality and excellence.”
Core values at Elms include faith, community, justice, and excellence, and part of the college’s mission is to educate students and inspire them to help others. It’s a practice that starts at the top and filters down to students who absorb the value, then pay it forward.
“Staff members take turns providing meals for students who can’t go home for the holidays or come back to campus early; I’ve had them in my own home on Thanksgiving,” Reap said, citing just one example of the support the students receive.
“It’s part of our culture, our expectation, and our environment, and we have nursing students who volunteered to use their spring break to serve the poorest of the poor in Jamaica rather than going somewhere like Florida,” she said, noting that they will pay their own travel costs.
In fact, community outreach is such an integral part of the Elms nursing curriculum that, in January 2013, a new program to serve the homeless was launched by Br. Michael Duffy, an assistant clinical professor in the School of Nursing.
It’s called the Elms caRe vaN, and free healthcare services are administered by students in the bachelor’s-degree program out of a 32-foot van that contains two treatment stations, a full exam room, and a five seat-waiting area, which doubles as a warming area. The care is offered in conjunction with St. Stanislaus Basilica’s Sandwich Ministry in Chicopee, and free lunches are distributed every week during the van’s stop in Chicopee Center. In addition, traditional undergraduate nursing students work with Duffy at Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen and Pantry every Tuesday.
Reap said the majority of majors at Elms College are service-oriented in keeping with the school’s tradition. For example, its communication sciences disorders program is very strong and was designed to serve the increasing number of children who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum or have speech-language problems.
“Every program we offer was developed in response to need,” Reap repeated. “Before we started our nursing-degree programs, Berkshire Medical Center was going to other states to recruit qualified nurses. We wanted to prepare young people who grow up here to take higher-level positions and raise their own standard of living, while meeting job requirements in the area.
“And we plan to add more flexible programs and formats,” she went on. “We will also continue to gather information from the Department of Labor and conduct needs assessments, surveys, roundtables, and talk to people, not only at the community colleges, but in the business world and at the Economic Development Council, which has been very helpful.”
In short, Elms has done a good job keeping up with the times.
“We know where we are going, and I am confident that whatever we do will be done well and successfully because of our staff and the strong ethical and value-based approach to education that the college provides,” Reap said. “We continually seek out scholarships and grants for disadvantaged students as they comprise the majority of the population in our community; 90% of our student body gets some type of financial aid, and we’re always looking for assistance to help students, many of whom have financial challenges.”
She told BusinessWest that, when she asks students what makes Elms special, the answer is always the same. “It’s the strong sense of community we have here. Commencement can be difficult because this is a place they call home, and it’s hard to walk away from such a supportive setting.”
So, as Reap enters the spring semester of her seventh year at Elms, she feels satisfied with the growth that has occurred. It has aligned perfectly with her own goals, and she is confident that need-based growth will continue.
Which is, indeed, a true godsend to students seeking the education they need to get a job that pays well — and has helped establish a pipeline of new, local, well-educated graduates for employers.