Sections Supplements

Focused on the Big Picture

At GCC, Students Draw on Their Experiences
Bob Pura

Bob Pura, president of Greenfield Community College, says new programs at GCC are aimed at economic and social stability locally and globally.

There’s construction underway at Greenfield Community College, and a temporary hallway connecting the campus’ north and south wings has been adorned with drawings, quotes, song lyrics, and signatures by its students.

It speaks to the strong arts programming at the college, and perhaps also to the sensibilities of many of its students; a large blue peace sign stands out from the rest of the largely good-natured graffiti.

Bob Pura, president of GCC, isn’t surprised by the composition of the makeshift exhibit.

“Our arts programs are all very strong, and I’d say among the finest of all college arts programs,” he said. “I say that as objectively as I possibly can. It’s based on what I’ve seen at our portfolio days; four-year and arts colleges have come to the campus literally with checks in hand, ready to award scholarships to our students.”

GCC offers a number of arts-related degree and certificate programs, including Fine Art, Graphic Design, Dance, Digital Media, and Theater. Some course tracks fall under the Commonwealth Transfer Compact, which allows students to transfer their credits to state colleges or UMass (50% of GCC students move on to a four-year institution), while other classes, such as painting and photography, are offered in conjunction with the Massachusetts College of Art.

The strong arts component at GCC is also derived in part from the Franklin County region, which has a robust creative community. However, Pura, who has served as GCC’s president for seven years, said the community has other strengths, opportunities, and needs that the college is also well-positioned to address as the only community college serving the county.

“We are the only point of access to higher education in Franklin County, and as such we feel a sense of responsibility to meet the needs of the community,” he said.

To that end, GCC has long offered a wide range of courses in health care and health sciences. It serves as the primary training center for future EMTs living and working in Franklin County, and its nursing program has the highest pass rate among community colleges in the state. In addition, the college also offers a certificate program in massage therapy, and degree tracks in occupational therapy and the so-called ‘healing arts.’

About 5,000 students, largely from Franklin County, attend GCC; about half of that number are enrolled in credit-bearing courses, while the remainder take part in non-credit, professional-development, and continuing-education courses ranging from accounting to software development to the politics of the Middle East.

Pura said creating a pipeline from the community to GCC is an ongoing effort at the school, regardless of its status as the county’s only college.

This April, a community-access scholarship fund designed to reach students, as he put it, “at risk of not continuing on to higher education,” will be rolled out, awarding scholarships to about 40 individuals. The fund was started by two anonymous donors, both living in Franklin County.

“They saw a need, as we do, to underscore the importance of the associate’s degree to economic and social stability in our world today,” said Pura. “We truly believe that the associate’s degree is the new standard, and this fund is important in getting the word out. Too many people in our community have been told that they don’t have to continue their education beyond high school, or that they can’t.”

But Pura believes the bond between GCC and the county it serves is only strengthening, and that bodes well for the campus, the community, and a number of new initiatives that are broadening the scope of educational options for people from all walks of life.

Pura said each program is aimed at the broad goal of creating a social and economic impact on the community and the world through a strong, liberal arts-based education.

“We’ve been working aggressively to create collaboration within the community that addresses workforce needs,” he said. “Our students learn in a hands-on manner, in order to be an asset to the workforce, but they’re also taught to see the big picture.”

Power to the People

Part of that picture is ecological responsibility, said Pura, and a number of initiatives on the GCC campus have ‘green’ components to them. These new green practices are being put into play in ways both small and large. In an effort to reduce the number of plastic water bottles used each day by students and faculty, for example, water fountains are being fitted with spouts designed to refill them, as often seen in health clubs, as part of the current construction projects — largely renovations and improvements to existing buildings, funded in part through GCC’s annual campaign, which last year raised more than $1 million.

But on the other side of the spectrum, a more far-reaching endeavor is gaining steam: a new focus on sustainable energy, introduced last year, strives to prepare students for the jobs of the future.

“Sustainable energy is getting a lot of attention, and we’ve already been identified as a model for the state,” said Pura. “We’re working with individuals and businesses to educate and train people in sustainable fields, such as solar power. As these fields emerge, employers will look to our graduates to perform the work they need.”

Pura said GCC received a grant four years ago from Northeast Utilities to develop and teach a course called ‘Sustainable Energy: Theory and Practices.’ As the need for workforce education in this field grew, the college began seeking funds for an expanded sustainable-energy program, and last summer garnered a $372,000 grant from the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund for a Sustainable Practices in Construction (SPC) project, administered by the Commonwealth Corp.

The grant paired GCC with local businesses to defray tuition and materials costs, allowing local employees to take renewable energy courses.

In October of last year, the program expanded again, this time through a $50,000 grant from the Mass. Technology Collaborative that trains high-school educators through GCC courses that teach renewable-energy technology techniques and theories.

In turn, the teachers who are taking courses at GCC can then create equivalent courses at their schools, which students will be able to take and receive credit from GCC.

Pura said the college is also constructing a new teaching greenhouse that will assist in delivering the key concepts of sustainable energy, but will also serve as a showcase for sustainable practices.

“This will be the greenest of all greenhouses,” he said. “We are developing a strong curriculum for teaching sustainable energy, but at the same time, we’ve made a commitment, like many colleges across the nation, to increase our energy efficiency, and to learn as much as we can to reduce our own footprint. We call them ‘role-model practices.’”

Overall, said Pura, the sustainable energy program is indicative of an ‘act locally, think globally’ model that has long been in place at GCC.

“It’s probably one of the best examples of how we’ve stayed engaged in the community in order to learn what’s needed, so our graduates are sought after,” said Pura, noting that in recent years, GCC has identified several economic clusters in Franklin County that are poised to welcome college-trained professionals. “We’ve filled gaps in health care, especially through the nursing program; we’ve worked with artists and writers to create networks of support, and we’ve created a very technology-focused business program.”

Peace of the Puzzle

Moving forward with that mission of community-minded, globally focused student and resource development, Pura said there’s another academic program blossoming at GCC: a degree-bearing suite of courses in Peace and Social Justice that was also unveiled last year.

The program evaluates the concepts of peace and conflict through an interdisciplinary studies option, which includes courses in mediation and conflict-resolution and seminars addressing nonviolence and social action.

Through this program, which awards an associate of arts degree, students are presented with eight tenets of a culture of peace: respect all life, reject violence, share with others, listen to understand, preserve the planet, rediscover solidarity, work for women’s equality, and participate in democracy.

“It may not be a big program, but it’s one that elevates the definition of student success,” said Pura, explaining that often, a barrier to higher education is the inability on the part of the student to answer the question ‘what do I want to be when I grow up?’

“At student orientations, I often ask how many students don’t know why they’re here,” he said. “After an uncomfortable silence, usually a few hands start going up, then a few more.”

Peace and Action

“I tell them they don’t have to have everything figured out,” he continued. “They’re here to learn how to learn, and through education, they can find their purpose and meaning. They’re here to find out what brings meaning to their lives.”

That could be a career in art, or installing water-conserving spouts on public drinking fountains. It could be a job in health care, or a mission to promote peace around the globe.

The writing on the walls at GCC suggests that anything is possible.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]