Building Community During the Pandemic and Beyond
Centering Student Experiences
The Community College Academic and Student Support Ecosystem initiative began in 2019 as part of the Ithaka S+R research portfolio focused on understanding, measuring, and increasing student success at community colleges through a variety of departments and service providers. We have had the great fortune to work with a group of outstanding student advisors from across the country who contribute unique and vital perspectives as we shape recommendations for college leaders and staff.
Today, we are excited to begin a three-part Q&A blog series, Centering Student Experiences, to amplify these students’ perspectives regarding their experiences throughout the pandemic and to share what they need from their institutions as many return for in-person, hybrid, and virtual instruction this fall. We are beginning the series with the topic of how colleges have built community during the pandemic and how institutions should continue to think about fostering community going forward. As our student advisors discuss below, it’s critical for colleges to intentionally involve students as they navigate their responses to current events. Our advisors also highlight the need for colleges to co-create activities with—and not just for—students, and the necessity for institutions to generate specialized programs and services for particular student populations as they look to foster connection and belonging.
Colleges across the country have had to take new approaches to building a sense of community and belonging for their students during the pandemic at a distance. How has your college tried to accomplish this?
Mitchell Fountain (he/him)
Over the course of the pandemic, Stephen F. Austin State University has taken steps to help build this sense of community. This has primarily been done through the college’s student involvement office. By creating safe, social-distanced activities for those on campus as well as virtual activities for all students both in-person and remote, the student involvement office has been the primary department leading the charge. The campus library has also made efforts toward this too. By creating activities and coming up with fun, book related competitions, the library has really been helpful in reaching those both on campus and off.
Christina Lehua Hummel-Colla (‘o ia/she/they)
Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC) has held semi-regular virtual “town hall” meetings to discuss important issues with the student body, including the role of policing and law enforcement on campus. While I have been unable to make it to these meetings, I appreciate that they are occurring, and that the college is putting in the effort to have an open dialogue with students. LAVC also sent out a survey on the role of policing and law enforcement on campus, which I was able to fill out and return. I am thankful for that.
Earlier this year, I also attended an informational session, and applied for the Hawai’iloa program through Windward Community College which leads to an associate of arts degree. in Hawaiian Studies. The program is fully online and based around cohorts, to facilitate a sense of community between enrolled students. I hope to embark on a voyage with a cohort in the Hawai’iloa program starting this fall. Words cannot even begin to describe how excited I am about this opportunity to reconnect with my lahui and learn about our culture, history, and language.
Jacob Bunch (he/him)
Prior to the pandemic, the majority of community oriented projects at Hillsborough Community College were spearheaded by the Student Government in my opinion. During the pandemic a lot of that focus shifted to try to directly affect the students and keep them involved. It was definitely a long and hard road to travel, but I think our SGA did a sufficient job given the circumstances. Hopefully in the coming year, they will be able to refocus and make the community a priority again. One thing we did manage was a socially distanced drive-in movie theater, where we invited all members of the community to come and watch a movie monthly from the safety of their own vehicles. The attendance wasn’t always high, but for those that did attend, they were definitely thankful to have something at no cost to get a slight feeling of normalcy during uncertain times.
Are there any specific departments, people, or services that have made you especially feel a part of your campus community?
My professors at Los Angeles Valley College are the people who have directly helped me feel like a part of the campus community, followed closely by my fellow students. The techniques that instructors have utilized to create a classroom community in an online environment have been vital. Whether through video calls, recorded lectures, or text-based discussion forums, creating and maintaining that connection in the virtual classroom has made a world of difference.
When I attended an information session for the Hawai’iloa program, I saw a virtual room filled with people who look like me and my relatives for the first time in my life. I heard and spoke and read ‘olelo Hawai’i and had the opportunity to discuss and engage with other potential members of my cohort. We talked story and shared about who in our lives we would be bringing with us on our voyage. We discussed not only the program and application process, but the system of knowledge that we would learn from during the program, and the deeper meaning of Hawaiian ontology. In early August, I will be visiting Hawai’i while I complete a class titled “Libraries and Social Justice: Through an Indigenous Lens” through the California Rare Book School. I look forward to visiting with family, engaging in place-based learning, and getting to know the islands better. A visit to the community college campuses will fit perfectly into the itinerary.
Our student activities department directly affected me the most. I can confidently say that without our SGA and student activities staff (Ryan Brown and Quawn Carter), I would have almost definitely taken a break and not graduated on time. Because of their dedication to the students and keeping us involved, I was able to complete my degree, and I am very thankful to have had them to help me through the pandemic emotionally.
Looking toward the upcoming academic year, in what ways would you like to see your college continue to make improvements in building community?
I have no doubt that focus will be shifting back to making the students of HCC feel a sense of purpose. Although I think the college did a great job under the circumstances last year, this coming year will be even better and will allow the students to have a more physical involvement in the day to day activities.
My best recommendation to the college would be to continue promoting student involvement in clubs and organizations as they hold activities both virtually and in-person. As students have likely felt a great detachment from their fellow students and their teachers during the pandemic, the best vehicle, in my opinion, to help reverse this is by encouraging them to get involved in the various organizations we have on campus. Many of these organizations were founded upon the common interests of students, and have allowed for students of all backgrounds to connect with one another around a shared enthusiasm. By encouraging students to get involved with these organizations, I believe that the college would begin seeing a greater sense of community and involvement among students.
I hope that my community college, and community colleges across the nation, will continue the work they have been doing to build stronger communities. I hope that there will be open lines of communication between community colleges, so that colleges can share the ideas and practices they have implemented with one another, collaborate, and continue building on and improving the work in progress. In my experience, community colleges have already made great strides in this area, and I look forward to seeing where their work goes next.
Up next in this blog series, we will be delving into the digital infrastructure mechanisms that have helped our student advisors succeed as well as their needs and expectations going into the upcoming academic year.
Please note responses were voluntary and have been lightly edited for clarity. For more information on all of our student advisors, click here to read about their personal and institutional backgrounds.