Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. | Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

This week marks the beginning of February and brings us a brief respite from the freeze and snow that characterize an Erie winter – my first in my new home state, so I’m still acclimating to the reality of lake-effect snow! A couple of hours southeast of us, the great groundhog prognosticator Punxsutawney Phil proclaimed a couple of days ago that six more weeks of winter remain ahead of us, but there’s nonetheless a palpable change that occurs on every campus as January loosens her grip and packs her bags.  The days continue to grow incrementally longer, and as we gear up to begin our twelve-week courses next week, students who began sixteen-week courses are just about a quarter of the way through.  First papers have been written and submitted; first exams have been taken and graded.  For some students, February brings the realization that they are struggling in their courses.  

To some degree, this is to be expected as college is a different type of learning; it’s harder than high school because it requires a different kind of thinking, and many students come to us underprepared for the rigors that college work entails.  Higher education has set up structures designed to help students who need that extra push, and one of those is the concept of weekly faculty office hours.  The idea behind office hours is that faculty make themselves available outside of classes specifically to help students who have questions or need extra support.  This is time intentionally set aside by faculty each week when they are not engaged in teaching, scholarship, or committee work; they are to be present in their offices and available for student inquiry.  In other words, it’s time designated specifically FOR students, and faculty routinely tell me how rewarding it is to work with students in this individualized way.

Unfortunately, many students often do not avail themselves of this valuable resource for any number of reasons:  they don’t understand that this IS a part of faculty members’ jobs and feel like they might be imposing; they feel embarrassed at needing extra help; their work or family schedules don’t mesh with their professors’ availability; etc.  Part of my commitment to building EC3PA around student needs is to ensure that we convey adequate messaging around office hours.  I’m dedicated to helping make sure that our students know that our faculty are there to help them succeed, and office hours are one vehicle available to them.  More on this in a moment.

In addition to the midwinter thaw and groundhog meteorology, the arrival of February more significantly marks the beginning of Black History month. This is the 96th year that we’ve celebrated the achievements made by and the important role that African Americans have made in shaping the United States. This month of celebration will also serve as the official kickoff for Erie County Community College’s focus on diversity. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll highlight portions of EC3PA’s planned diversity activities and share why celebrating diversity is so critical to our mission.

Our students deserve a culture of belonging; it makes us stronger. And we will not settle for less.  Here are just a few examples of the types of work we are doing to ensure EC3 celebrates diversity:

  • Starting with a panel entitled “The Black Experience” that explores identity as a person of color, EC3PA will begin to celebrate and recognize various holidays, remembrances, celebrations, and reflections of the rich cross section of American culture. From Veteran’s Day to Pride Month to Autism Awareness, we will use these special days to highlight and celebrate our collective diversity.
  • EC3PA has hired Lamont Higginbottom to serve as our Diversity Officer to ensure that we build a culture of belonging and inclusivity while also ensuring that we don’t enact one single, unnecessary barrier to any of our students’ educational endeavors. This is a big task, but Reverend Higginbottom is not alone as I and all other senior leadership are determined – damned determined! – to ensure that is exactly the type of college that we build together. 
  • Our faculty have championed the idea of sharing how contributions to academic fields come from diverse groups of folks rather than just the one or two authors traditionally represented. To illustrate, think forward 200 years: if the current trend continues, our rich modern cultural elements will be boiled down to one or two artists/singers/cultural elements that will serve as “the” art representing early 21st century America.  We are committed to seeing the bigger picture.

We are also engaged in crucial conversations, reflections, and activities that allow us to better understand one another’s perspectives and become more aware of our own biases and privileges. If we are to be true to a commitment to diversity, we must begin by accepting another’s truth as their own. This is easy when we share the truth or belief being expressed, but it’s much harder when we disagree. But that is exactly what we must do.  We must start by accepting that it is real to those whose experiences differ from our own; if we dismiss their reality, then we have dismissed them wholly. 

Yes, this is hard! However, for years, I have heard my friends in the Black community share how often they are harassed by police. I wanted not to believe it; I thought that it must be a fluke or an exaggeration. Make no mistake: this was my own privilege at work.  And then the increased sharing of the videos providing visual evidence of discrimination started being shared en masse, and I realized that I had for too long ignored others’ truth! Shame on me! I sought to avoid my own discomfort rather than confront a reality that is brutal and harsh.  I have learned that I need to keep working to do better and have committed to understanding someone’s truth even when it is uncomfortable to do so or contradicts my own. 

EC3PA is singularly committed to ensuring that our faculty and staff are as diverse as is the community that we serve. And we’re doing it. Our senior leadership team is comprised of three African-Americans, one Latina, and two white administrators. We are a group of four men and two women. We come from different areas of the country (our poor Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs joined us from Arizona, but I didn’t warn him about the snow!).  We come from different socio-economic classes, different family cultures, different world views, and hold different spiritual truths. Collectively, the racial and ethnic diversity of our students and staff is outpacing Erie County demographics three to one, with the Black community representing the largest minority group.  And we are better for it!

But, why diversity? Because it’s the right thing to do. That’s a big old period at the end of that sentence. There is a mountain of data showing that education in the United States systemically underserves diverse student populations. For example, roughly 50% of people who start college with the intent of completing a baccalaureate degree do so within six years. While that number is low itself, it becomes abysmal when we talk about students of color: only 39% make it. Yes, according to these data, barely one in three graduates. Similar data exist on students who are poor, need accommodations, are first-generation college students, or have other unique qualities (e.g., veteran status, identity issues, work status, access to quality primary and secondary education, etc.). While grit and perseverance are critical for any student to succeed in college, many students from underrepresented groups simply aren’t granted the head starts that others are.  Check out this video to understand the reference.

For many years, higher education has been trying to increase access to colleges for the traditionally underserved. But, as Dr. Anthony Jack describes in his research, “access ain’t inclusion!” Let me explain: we can create institutions that are intentional about increasing access. At EC3PA, we’re open admission, meaning anyone can attend. We are supported by state and local resources, making us more accessible financially. We’re in your neighborhood, making us accessible geographically. But, as Jack articulates much better than I even could, just letting underserved people in isn’t enough. He cites that the system is still designed for a “typical” student who has gone to a preparatory high school and has both the familial and financial support to wade through four years of paying thousands of dollars in a city far away from everyone s/he knows. Instead, we need to recognize the head start that the traditional student was given and stop assuming that that is the baseline for everyone. Challenge accepted, Dr. Jack!

Jack shares how traditions such as closing the campus for a week of spring break disproportionately negatively impacts poor students who lack the means to travel to their homes – or those that don’t even have homes to go to. Not only does this tradition alienate poor students who can’t return home or take a spring break trip, but then colleges shut down the cafeterias and support systems as well! Sometimes we even close the dorms, booting students out for a week without any other options available! Jack shares a story of one student who relied on the tradition of men paying for meals and increased her online dating temporarily just to ensure that she had food during the week of spring break.  Things like this should not be happening. 

But what does inclusion look like? I’ll argue it is recognizing and tearing down those barriers (or better yet, just not erecting them in the first place). This brings me back, as promised, to my discussion of office hours above.  When a well-intentioned colleague asked Dr. Jack how her college could better serve poor students, he said, “Start by explaining what office hours are!” Poor students and students of color always use office hours less frequently than do students with more traditional advantages. Why? No one knows for sure, but maybe it’s because students who weren’t brought up being trained on “How to College” have no idea what an office hour is!  

Professors share when their office hours are, but why not share why the office hours exist and how students can work individually with their professors? This is our challenge: how do we find and undermine every single one of these assumptions that starts from the premise that students just come to us inherently knowing “How to College.” I’ve shared my story where I went to my local bank to get a student loan, only to be laughed at until someone explained what a financial aid office was.  It happens everywhere, and we don’t even know it. From requiring a $5 application fee, only accepting online applications, or expecting that all students are solely focused on higher education to cavalierly using words like syllabus, FAFSA, grad school, methodology, and professionalism (to name a few), we college folk assume that everyone knows the game and the secret handshake. Instead, let’s start with the assumption that everyone is learning the game. Let’s exhibit more patience, increase grace, and give more dignity to those who are trying to improve themselves. Our students deserve it; our community needs it.