The 2015 Borough of Manhattan Community College Leadership Fellows cohort took on its second problem statement this past January. The group was asked to come up with solutions on campus that might foster stronger engagement among the BMCC student population. Students who are more engaged in campus activities have been shown to have higher overall retention levels.
This was the latest challenge handed to the group of 15 mid-level BMCC staff members. It is one of three challenges the group will face in the yearlong multi-faceted BMCC Leadership Fellows session.
The Fellows program starts with an intensive boot camp that lasts for a week followed by a series of targeted workshops sprinkled throughout the spring semester.
Program nuts & bolts
While a wave of baby boomer senior staff exits are expected to bring structural changes in departments across the BMCC campus, the core of the school’s mission remains the same, teaching and learning. The program takes participants who work in a variety of departments, and through exercises and challenges, helps them recognize their own leadership potential within the institution.
The leadership program culminates with the group making formal presentations to the Cabinet in September, when they'll identify and present new strategies and potential recommendations to their assigned problem statements. The Cabinet then weighs those recommendations and will incorporate some of the proposed reforms into the college’s strategic plan.
Unique to BMCC
BMCC Dean of Development John Montanez says the BMCC program is unique among the greater higher education community because a portion of the fellow’s recommendation actually gets embedded in the strategic planning at the college. He also said the program’s participants went through a very selective process.
“In other words, people didn’t volunteer to join the program, it was not an open search, this was done by invitation,” said Montanez
This latest group was selected from a pool of 260 applicants who were eventually selected by the school’s executive cabinet. According to Dean Montanez, the group is highly intelligent in terms of academic achievement, but they also bring a level of maturity and humility that is unique among their peers.
“One of the things the president and Cabinet made clear to those selected was that this is leadership training. It is about getting them to think globally, and understanding that what they do within their respective department, impacts the many moving parts in the college’s mission,” said Montanez.
As fellow Annete Bhatia, a grant writer at BMCC’s Office of Grants and Research Administration said, college leaders and senior administrators should think globally since everything they do impacts a greater global community.
“I think there are a lot of changes happening internationally that affect us here at BMCC. Having a large international population on campus, by its very nature, brings a whole different perspective to our classroom environments,” said Bhatia.
A BMCC succession plan?
BMCC E-Learning Center Instructional Designer Ruru Rusmin said the Fellows program showed her the college is serious about its succession planning. She said she appreciates the program’s recognition of staff member contributions to the bigger goals of the college both now and in the future.
“If we as a cohort become the leaders at BMCC in five to ten years, we will have established good working relationships with each other through programs such as this one,” Rusmin explained.
But she said it’s important for the cohort to agree on its mission, and how we can be more effective in delivering the results.
Working outside one’s own sandbox
According to Fellow Deborah Harte, the school’s Student Life Manager for Single Stop, the experience is giving her the chance to not only enhance her knowledge about BMCC, but also insight into the thinking of senior managers across the campus.
“The value so far is beyond my expectations. It’s a chance for us all to be introspective and recognize that we can bring value to the institution as a whole,” said Harte.
She said in an organization as vast as a college campus, staff members have a tendency to work in silos.
“But, when you’re doing a group project, you have people with different strengths and from different departments coming to the table, the interaction, the getting to know each other helps create some cohesiveness,” she said.
The value of a team setting
BMCC Chief Diversity Officer Iyana Titus agreed, adding that she finds in her current position that much of her time is spent problem solving on a one on one basis. But part of the appeal of the Fellows program is to learn what her colleagues do, and share aspects of her own role on campus.
“When working on a group project, you have people with different strengths coming to the table from different departments, I think it helps create a sense of cohesiveness. We’re able to come with things that impact the institution and hopefully, trickle down and impact our students,” she said.
Diffusing student frustration
Indeed, one of the goals in student engagement is to keep student frustration at a minimum.
“Meeting that challenge means streamlining the process,” said Director of the Upward Bound Project Antonette McKain.
For example, if a staff member in financial aid gives one answer to a student, it’s important for that student to receive the same answer in another office, be it at the registrar or academic affairs.
McKain pointed out that the school is currently home to a younger student population, meaning, and more students that are fresh out of high school.
“Eighteen year olds are very different from 26 year olds. They are seeking instant gratification, better technology and they aren’t necessarily accustomed to waiting in long lines,” explained McKain.
She said it is up to staff members such as those in the Fellows program to strategize on how best to change the ways the school operates and better meet the needs of this younger generation.
Thinking as a community
Alexandra Pyak, Freshman Learning Academy program supervisor explained that a sense of community among various departments and staff members is one of the more important aspects for working effectively.
Pyak said BMCC is one of the nation’s largest community colleges and the school is struggling to create smaller communities within the larger institution. Those communities could support student club participation, civic engagement or other interests.
Likewise, community among staff might include partnerships and stronger interdepartmental relationships that synchronize messages to students and make it possible to assist them right on the spot.
“Very often we do reactive approaches to situations where we need to diffuse a situation,” she said.
But Pyak said during the down times, it’s crucial that various departments come together and plan ahead, and create a more seamless path for the student’s journey at BMCC.
The issue of the day; Retention
BMCC Instructional Computer Services Coordinator Gregory Farrell says if students get involved on campus, they’ll benefit so much more, from their education.
“I think of myself when I was a freshman, I didn’t involve myself at all, and after my first year, I left college and took off a semester. It wasn’t until later that I decided to come back.” He said he got involved with the basketball team and joined a student club, which connected him even more to the college community. He feels that sense of engagement helped him be a more successful student, first earning a bachelors and later, a masters degree.
The responsibility is ours
BMCC Counselor Robert Cortes said student engagement boiled down to getting students to be invested in themselves.
“Today we talked about our specific roles and how we could be effective in supporting student engagement at BMCC.
Often times, it becomes college leaders responsibility to set standards that students haven’t set for themselves already, because they’ve not had the support or exposure, he said.
As a college, “We can inspire them to help create visions for themselves, we can help them carry that through to fruition,” said Cortes.