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Impact of Community Colleges in Iowa (Web Exclusive)

posted on February 4, 2008

The Iowa Journal looks at the role of community colleges in the state from education, training and workforce development.

IPTV’s Paul Yeager talks with Deb Walker from Humanities, Jim Elias from business management and Ellie Sweet from the nursing department of Muscatine Community College. This is a round-table discussion between IPTV’s Paul Yeager and Muscatine Community College employees. Deb Walker has been in the humanities department for 18 years. Jim Elias is in business management. He's fresh from the “real world” of advertising and marketing. Ellie Sweet has spent 15 years in the nursing department.


PAUL YEAGER: What is typical student like in your 18 years that you've seen? Has it evolved?

DEB WALKER: I would say it's evolved over time. I used to have more traditional students and now I get a blend. It depends on the semester too, and I teach in so many different areas. For example: in the ESL area, sometimes I've had all Spanish speaking people, other times I've had no Spanish speaking people. Sometimes I have had refugees, we have a ball team, we get some from Puerto Rico, and so I never know for semester to semester. So it kind of makes it exciting, really.

PAUL YEAGER: Jim, you come from the real world -- you're doing more in the business management area.

What's it been like in that transition, and how do you feel that you've been able to bring what you've done to the classroom and to your students?

JIM ELIAS: Well, I don't bring a very typical academic approach. We do a lot of hands on applied stuff. My students are a real blend, like Deb was saying. My first year teaching, I had students from 15 to 55 years old, and so that was really difficult for me to get in to that for starters. But we do a lot of practical hands on things, and the students appreciate that, because they know I'm not pulling that right out of text books. It's things that I had experience with in business.

PAUL YEAGER: Ellie, you've been in nursing. There's a huge demand in the medical field. Does that help keep students aware? Because they know: I really have to be in my game, because I'm going to an area that's highly technical and I can't make mistakes. Does that help bring up the student level?

ELLIE SWEET: I think we have primarily women. Most of them have children at home. Most of them are still working part-time. Some of them are having to work full-time because they're the only breadwinner in the family. So when they come in, they're usually really motivated to do well. They know that they have a very short period of time to learn a huge amount of information.

So they really put forth a lot of time and effort, which can put a bind on them financially, because they can't work the 50-60 hours a week that they would like to bring in money. So this is where they can come, they can get that education quickly, they can earn an excellent living, and doing something that they really love to do.

PAUL YEAGER: You hit on a couple of things about typical students -- there is not a 'typical' student at a community college. For someone who is trying to balance a family life at home, how much of it is a struggle is that? Do you see that in both of your departments as well? How do you try to be sympathetic to someone who's got someone at home and say: no, but this is your academic life?

JIM ELIAS: I have a perfect example. The next two classes I have coming up -- a student emailed me this morning and said: "Is it okay if I bring my daughter to class today?" Yeah, you bet. I think she's nine or ten something like that. And so it will be interesting to see the perspective that a small child gets from college. I get that a lot. I have lots of moms and dads that have kids at home. And they can't make it to class because there are things going on with their kids sometimes.

DEB WALKER: Yeah, it's a constant. I have to remind myself, too. I've taught traditional high school before, and it's just a different thing. Because these people have other lives, they're here for different reasons, and sometimes it's amazing that they make it here because of the things that get in the way. And they still keep trying. But most of us have a pretty laid back attitude about stuff. Because they'll get it if they want to, and if they don't, then they fail. It's kind of a self-discipline type thing. They take charge.

JIM ELIAS: Yeah, if you have a student and you know that they're engaged with the class, they're going to do the work, and they're going to get what they need to out of it, whether they're in class or not.

ELLIE SWEET: Well, and my students are a little bit different. There are definitely things that they have to know. It's not like if they don't get it, they'll get it somewhere else. Our curriculum is very stringent. It's high intensity: a lot of information in a short period of time.

I think one of the things that our college offers, which is incredible, is resources for them. We do have a learning needs specialist available to them if they are having difficulty or they're trying to figure something out. The learning needs specialist and the instructor can work together to figure out how can we best help this student become successful. Because for many of them, this is their only option. If they aren't successful here, they're not going any place else. They drop out and figure they're not going to be successful anywhere else. We feel very strongly that they can be successful if we give them the resources to help.

PAUL YEAGER: Does that put the pressure back on you to know that you are their chance? You are their chance to maybe break out of the cycle of poverty or something that their family has not had before?

ELLIE SWEET: But at the same time, how exciting is it that you know that you can be someone that can help them? They may have never had that kind of empowerment before. I think what we hope we do is empower them to know that they can do those things. We have a student right now who is going through a horrible family situation, and we just keep telling her: "You are smart enough to do this. You just need to believe in yourself. You need to understand, when you come to class, you're prepared; you have the correct answers. Don't let somebody else at home tell you that you're incapable of doing that, because we know you can. Let's see what we can do to help you with whatever."

In the nursing department, we have a students’ needs facilitator. She deals with non-academic issues. We had a student come in one day: I got kicked out of my housing last night. I have two kids, I don't know where to live and I've got clinical in a day or two. So that person helped them to find housing or to find childcare. Financially, we had a student that came in as the first graduate from college ever. She came in and said she had to drop out, four weeks before she's done with the program. So Jenny helped her find some financial resources to get her through to where she could graduate.

PAUL YEAGER: Does that happen at the big schools? That type of thing?

DEB WALKER: This school especially is small enough. It's been here a long time, and it's known for being a very welcoming school. In talking to the president, the MCC family. It's kind of a joke, but there's a lot of truth to it. I started my career teaching at a university. I've taught at a small high school; I taught at Bettendorf High School. I came here 18 years ago, and I get much more satisfaction in what I do here. I make less money, but the satisfaction is just great.

You get to see working with ESL students, working with people taking their first foreign language, just coming to school for the first time, trying a class, and having success. Certainly there are disappointments. It's not all perfect here, but this has just been a really great place. I really feel a strong support for the community college, and I never went to a community college.

My husband was a community college teacher, and he kept telling me: Oh, you've gotta try it, this is a great place, you'll love it. And I really didn't have a connection with it, and if you don't have a connection with it, you're not going to understand it. But having been here this long, it's really been a great place.

ELLIE SWEET: It's so rewarding when I'm out in the community and I see students out there. Our students are in clinicals today at the hospital and at the long term care facility. When we take our students there, 30 to 50 percent of the staff are students that we've had here at the college, and so they stay here. They have a commitment to their community, and I think that is what we provide. We provide that workforce for our community. We don't want them going to Florida. We don't want them going to New York. We want them staying here. We want them to feel that they are truly important to this community.

PAUL YEAGER: When you see the Governor or any of the lawmakers talking about budgets, and… it's not a cut this year -- it's 2% -- how does what goes on politically affect how you try to do your job? Do you have to push that out to the side? It's always a fight for dollars, a fight for students…

DEB WALKER: We've always felt like the poor step-sister or whatever got Cinderella, and so we're kind of used to it. But we don't like it.

JIM ELIAS: I think from my perspective, and I think that faculty that I know here, we're not here to make a lot of money. We're here to make an impact on the students. And so yeah, when we're in the classroom, that not coming into our consciousness. It's pushed to the side.

But it's disappointing when we hear that the state legislature supports community colleges with just a little bit, and the Regents universities are getting lots more money. And the K-12 teachers, they deserve the raise, but we're kind of stuck in the middle. And it's like: okay, there's a huge gap there. Because a lot of our young people in Iowa can't afford to go to the universities and can't afford to go to private colleges, and they need this stepping stone. They need to come here first or to get some practical skills to go out in the workforce.

ELLIE SWEET: I think in nursing especially, we all know about the nursing shortage. One of the issues that we're in right now is that the nursing shortage just isn't in the facilities. It's not just in the hospital; we also have a shortage of nurse educators. So with when we hear that we're getting this little amount, it's hard to get a nurse to come to education from a hospital because their salary drops so significantly. And once again, they have families, and it's hard to say: please come join us in education. It's a wonderful experience; you'll love the impact you have on students and health care, but we're going to drop your salary fifty percent. That's really difficult, and so that's where I think at some point, we're going be in a crisis. We're not going to have enough people to come in and teach the health care students to be able to go out and provide care.

PAUL YEAGER: Because you need to do it on real life experience. It can't be out of a book. It's something that you'll never have credibility in your field to say: well, when I was in the field… okay, that was 40 years ago. You can say: well, last week this is what happened.

ELLIE SWEET: Well, clinical instructors are traditionally still working in a health care facility and they teach with us part time. But there again, we just can't meet their salary requirements, the expectations that they have for what's actually going on. Thankfully, there are nurses out there who do love education, they do love that impact, and they're willing to do that because they know that it's going to better the community. Most of our instructors come from the community that our students are in. So they really do feel that that's important.

PAUL YEAGER: Anything else?

ELLIE SWEET: No, it's just a wonderful experience. It's a wonderful place. The community college provides something that no one else will ever be able to provide. Without the community college, you will have students who will never get an education.

DEB WALKER: Basically, we're finding a trend. We've got connections with other countries and programs where they're trying to learn what community colleges are like, because they don't have anything like that or they're just starting it. I think we must being doing something right, because they want to learn how to do it, and they're setting up their own. India, Ukraine, numerous countries. We're just one school doing this, but I think we must be on to something.

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