Increased student engagement despite pandemic

By Mount Wachusett Community College

Engagement is up at a Massachusetts college due to strategic steps enacted at the start of the pandemic.

Mount Wachusett Community College has long been recognized for its civic engagement, service learning and robust student involvement. During the pandemic, rather than falling off, engagement is up, with ten-fold increases in participation in virtual dialogues and speaker events in addition to non-academic related activities.

Community college students are far more vulnerable to isolation than students at four-year institutions, making an increase in engagement outside of the virtual classroom vital to impacting these students sense of belonging. Once the initial shift to remote learning was executed, student engagement professionals at MWCC took rapid, strategic steps to address what they anticipated would be a long time before return to campus.

A new student engagement portal was implemented, social media and email efforts were invigorated, and new partnerships were formed, all with the goal of keeping students, their families and supporters involved in the community. Armed with the new portal “InvolveMount,” MWCC’s Student Life Assistant Director Kathy Matson has brought students together, engaging more of them – and their families – than ever before. From contests to discussions, Student Government, e-Sports tournaments, even a Zoom Winterfest fundraiser and holiday party, campus life online is robust and reaching more students than ever.

“The students who are showing up are different than the ones we normally see. We are engaging with more student parents, students from our other campuses, and more part-time, evening students who would never have been on campus for an in-person activity. Many of these students are the vulnerable ones we don’t often see and who don’t normally reach out,” adds Dean of Student Affairs Jason Zelesky.

“I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to have a campus experience,” says Skyla Nolan, a high school junior and dual enrollment student. “I’m really happy that I get to experience that a little more. I really liked the trivia night and participating with students from all over.”

This expanded reach was recently highlighted by the MWCC’s Gateway to College Tea Time Speaker Series event “Leadership is Not a Title, It’s an Action” which was jointly sponsored by MWCC Student Life, Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina and Gateway to College and Career Academy at Riverside City College in California. The virtual event which featured nationally known speaker Erika Gilchrist, drew over 150 viewers from 12 states, dwarfing attendance numbers from pre-COVID events.

Engaging with the broader community

It is not only student affairs that has seen an increase in participation and engagement, the Brewer Center for Civic Learning and Community Engagement has seen participation in its discussions expand, starting with virtual dialogues following the death of George Floyd and continuing into the fall with weekly discussions covering topics including race relations, the Supreme Court, voter suppression and how to vote during the pandemic.

“The engagement we have had with the broader community, especially over the summer, was amazing,” states Shelley Errington Nicholson, director of the Brewer Center for Civic Learning and Community Engagement. “We have had hundreds of faculty and staff logging on during our community conversations, giving people space to talk, or just listen, about difficult and challenging things.”

Pre-COVID, in-person community dialogue events were held monthly with an average attendance of fifteen to twenty students, primarily those who had on campus courses on the day of the event. Now held weekly, the virtual dialogues hosted by the Brewer Center are drawing over 50 attendees, some as high as 250, often including other members of the student’s household as well as students from other community colleges.

“My peers and I at the other community colleges have a joint spreadsheet of events, and pop into each other’s events to learn and bring back the knowledge and experience to our own programs,” notes Nicholson. “We have always had relationships with our peers at the other community colleges, but now we have a cohesive group sharing resources and coordinating efforts to reach wider audiences. These activities have strengthened the relationships and opened the door to collaborations that will continue beyond the pandemic.”

Students in the MWCC Early College dual enrollment programs have always been consistent participants in these programs, they are required as part of their programs. However, Fagan Forhan, assistant dean of K-12 partnerships and civic engagement, has noticed that the students are more prepared, they have done research and have questions ready.

“Many of our Early College students have transportation challenges or responsibilities at home. The elimination of some of these obstacles has opened up time for students to prepare differently for these events,” adds Forhan. “Our GearUP Fitchburg program has also seen increased engagement, with sessions offered in both English and Spanish in the evening, ensuring that parents are able to participate.”

“The work we are doing here at MWCC is being seen across the Commonwealth as exemplary,” notes President James Vander Hooven.

The transition to remote learning forced by the pandemic has not hampered the work of student affairs and civic engagement professionals, it has freed them from the confines of not only their campuses, but their geography. The increased collaboration between community colleges across the Commonwealth and beyond has opened a door to enriched engagement and broader understanding for students and the greater community.

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Mount Wachusett Community College

is located in Gardner, Massachusetts.