BMCC Student Cohort Programs Build Virtual Communities

BMCC Learning Academy virtual meeting

April 16, 2020

As Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) students and professors adjust to a distance-learning model, so do the college’s many small group, or cohort programs. 

Research shows that the more support students have as they pursue a college degree, the more likely they are to succeed. But how do programs based in great part on peer interactions, face-to-face academic counseling and an overall sense of connectivity to the campus community transform to a digital reality? 

The directors of four of BMCC’s cohort success programs shared how they are utilizing technology, creativity and ingenuity to bring their vital services to students virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Out in Two scholars support each other through Zoom

We are trying to mirror our virtual services as best we can, as if we were still working in the office,” said Jonathan Matamoros, coordinator of the Out in Two scholars program.

“We have bi-weekly check-in sessions on the (video conferencing platform) Zoom for our scholars to connect with their peers and with us in a non-structured setting,” said Matamoros. “A few of the students wanted to conduct activities during club hours, so now they will have an opportunity to get together every week for the remainder of the term.”  

Matamoros said he and his team changed their programming to cover time management as well as work, school and life balance.  

“We weaved that conversation into a general check-in as we sought to see how the scholars were coping” he said.  “Both April and May virtual community events will focus on wellness and celebrating success.”  

As his team gears up for Fall 2020 recruitment, they plan to host Zoom information sessions. They will also schedule virtual drop-in sessions for prospective students to meet the team and ask questions.  

“I’m very proud of my team,” said Matamoros. “We moved very quickly to brainstorm and shift our activities to an  online format, and now that we’ve done that, we’re learning how to facilitate online even more events and workshops.”

BMCC Learning Academy reaches out through a virtual office

At the same time, the BMCC Learning Academy (BLA), another cohort-based success program, has created a virtual office, which program Director Sara Crosby says maintains the team’s same cohesion and culture. 

To do this, they are utilizing platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, Connect2Success, OpenLab and one RingCentral phone line. 

“In our first month of being a virtual office, the team completed 347 advisement appointments, held daily recruitment info-sessions, and continued all of its weekly success seminars,” said Crosby. “We have also been working daily to pinpoint the right combination of outreach to engage our students now that they have a broader, changing spectrum of needs.”

She said the biggest challenges all relate to supporting students remotely during the pandemic.

“Specifically, we spend each day trying to contact students who have disappeared since March 19, helping them with the often bumpy, stressful transition to online learning, and disseminating clear, correct information about policies and processes,” said Crosby. 

Crosby surveyed her team and found that after a month of virtual BLA, they realized they are an adaptable team that can quickly reinvent the ways they support students.   

“They have learned new technology, self-discipline habits and scrappier investigation skills,” said Crosby. “They have also learned how to increase their level of responsiveness beyond advisement, such as physical and mental health, food and technology resources.” 

She adds that while it’s hard to keep energized and positive every day, “I am incredibly impressed with our team’s work and feel very lucky to be part of our daily mission with students.”

ASAP creates a virtual front desk and strengthens communications 

BMCC’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has adjusted several practices to strengthen communication and engagement according to program Executive Director Deanne Southwell.

“We have learned that creativity and flexibility are essential, and that we must embrace the use of technology not only for this climate but to develop innovative practices moving forward,” said Southwell. “

ASAP advisors are increasing contact with students that have been less responsive in the past, Southwell says. 

“Students inquire about their well-being, show continued interest in interacting with peers and the ASAP team and convey gratitude for the daily affirmations through Blackboard,” said Southwell.

She said ASAP is connecting with students through calls on Google Voice, email (Outlook and Hobsons Retain), texts (Club Texting), program database (Starfish) and Zoom Pro and Blackboard.

“Academic advisors use a combination of platforms based on student needs,” said Southwell.  “Zoom Pro is heavily used not only for academic advisement, but for professional development programming, financial aid support and engagement activities.” 

Over the past week, Southwell said almost 100 students participated in a meditation session, a small group session conducted in collaboration with the Counseling Center and a “Sip and Chat” event that focused on professional development in a social distancing climate.  

Students have also benefited from success workshops focused on the themes including self-regulation, as well as scholarship bootcamps — all on Zoom. It is important to enable the camera when using Zoom, Southwell says, to further connect with students in a time of academic and social isolation.

To help prepare for the incoming class, the ASAP operations team will be utilizing the Zoom waiting room, which serves as a virtual front desk for students who want to connect to ASAP staff members in real time. 

“The Waiting Room will be an instrumental resource for withdrawn students hoping to readmit to the program and college in the summer and fall,” said Southwell.  

Creativity and flexibility have been very important for her team as well as a mindfulness of student diversity, interests and concerns, Southwell says. “It’s  important to keep the lines of communication open, not only with the ASAP team, but with the wider college community and external colleagues to share best practices and ultimately, promote.

College Discovery counselors conduct “walk-in” sessions on Zoom

BMCC’s College Discovery counselors began an immediate outreach effort to the cohort program’s students as soon as the campus began to transition to distance learning.  Students were not only emailed, they were called and informed that the College Discovery team would be there for them throughout the crisis. 

“At the onset of a distance learning model, we also set up Zoom check-in,” said College Discovery Director Pedro Perez. “We did this over three-sessions and the students appeared happy to see us on camera. They had questions concerning advisement, next semester, professors, bills, and the list goes on.” 

During the transition to a virtual reality, Perez says he and his team have been learning new and innovative ways to demonstrate their commitment to the students in the midst of major world crisis. 

“All of our counselors have scheduled “walk-in” Zoom sessions for their caseload students where they are encouraged to visit, and ask any of their questions,” said Perez. ” We also arranged Zoom with our Black and Latino male students, as part of our MEN TALK initiative.”

College Discovery has also hosted well-being workshops focused on diet and exercise where students and counselors share best practices for eating right, time management and the importance of exercise.  

“Our students have expressed a sense of relief, knowing that we would be there, regardless of the changes in classroom delivery and on campus access,” said Perez.  “Our thinking is that we all must, and will, come out of this crisis stronger.”

  • Directors of four cohort program share best practices
  • Students and staff utilize numerous technology tools to stay connected
  • Directors say creativity and flexibility are important right now

share this story »