A lesson in innovation: Community colleges finding ways to aid students during pandemic

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One community college delivered more than 3,000 kits packed with everything from blood typing chemicals to animal organs for students’ to conduct at-home laboratory work after classes were moved online because of pandemic-related campus closures. Another is holding a drive-through, outdoor art exhibition providing students a critical opportunity to experience the finer points of curating a professional gallery showing. A third is expanding a pilot program allowing food insecure students to order free groceries from the college cafeteria.

With registration under way for the spring 2021, semester, the region’s six community college districts are taking their innovative approach toward student success to an even higher level during a pandemic that shows no signs of abating. More than 200,000 students enroll each year at the six community college districts – Grossmont-Cuyamaca, Imperial, MiraCosta, Palomar, San Diego, and Southwestern – that make up the San Diego & Imperial Counties Community Colleges Association (SDICCCA).

From millions of dollars in federally funded emergency relief grants and free, drive-through, food-distribution events to laptop distributions and WiFi access for those on the other side of the digital divide, community colleges are helping students overcome an array of pandemic-related challenges.

“In these difficult times, it is imperative for our colleges to remain steadfast in offering as many ways as we can to help our students,” said Lynn Neault, president of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Community Colleges Association (SDICCCA) and chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District.

Spring semester at most college districts begin February 1; the spring start date at MiraCosta College is January 23, and the spring start date at Imperial Valley College is February 16. Almost all classes will continue to be held online, though some colleges are slightly expanding their in-person options. Community colleges, at just $46 per unit, also offer the most affordable higher education option anywhere.

Students said they were grateful for the colleges’ efforts to help them succeed in their classes.

Natalia Blake, a water studies student at Cuyamaca College, said she appreciates how frequently the college reaches out to inquire about students’ well-being and keeps them informed about emergency funding sources. “College departments have been very responsive as well,” she said. “I have reached out to financial aid and counseling. Student services, as well as staff have been very helpful.”

Such sentiments are shared throughout the region. “Between the CARES Act funding, which helped pay the rent, and a book grant, Miramar has been very supportive and very helpful,” said Miramar College student Ella Buchanan, an Honors Program student attending college through the San Diego Promise who was out of work for four months during the pandemic.

Among the strategies being employed:

  • To help students better access technology, Palomar College has developed a virtual computer lab enabling students to log in and use more than 40 software programs including Adobe Creative Cloud and Microsoft Office Suite. In addition, students enrolled in drafting, geographic information systems and fashion design courses can access the specialized software associated with their specific course in the virtual lab.
  • Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges are offering virtual help desks for students that offer Zoom sessions with student ambassadors to offer peer assistance on issues like applying for admission or filling out forms.
  • San Diego Mesa College is staging a month-long, drive-through, Outdoor Art Exhibition at a campus parking lot to showcase how three dozen California artists captured the dramatic events of the past eight months. This physically distant display was curated by a Mesa College Museum Studies class, which also engaged in public outreach and design.
  • Faculty and staff at MiraCosta College in Oceanside created and distributed more than 3,000 laboratory kits for students unable to come to campus for critical lab work. “This has been a monumental effort, a collaborative effort, among our faculty, instructional lab associates, and administrative services professionals to ensure our students are afforded lab instruction across the sciences during this pandemic,” said Mike Fino, MiraCosta College’s Dean of Math and Sciences.
  • As the pandemic continues to affect student well-being, Southwestern College has expanded its personal wellness services. The department now includes six mental health technicians and a case manager to help in following up with students, and it has launched several support groups, including stress busters and grief and loss. All college counselors are also expanding their services to help identify students who may be in crisis to refer them to personal wellness options. Southwestern this spring will also expand a pilot program that allows food insecure students to order free groceries from the college cafeteria.

A new report by the San Diego-Imperial Center of Excellence for Labor Market Research found local community college programs are at the forefront in training students for middle skill jobs that have proven both recession- and pandemic-resilient. In addition, programs such as San Diego Continuing Education’s new ICOM Academy (an acronym for Interactive Competency-based Online Microcredentialing) offer fast, free, and flexible job training and career services that can help those whose careers have been displaced. 

Further information about registration and deadlines can be found at the college websites.

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