Notes from the President

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

In educational institutions, personnel costs like salaries and benefits make up the bulk of the annual budget. In other words, we collect and expend funds to hire people to teach the classes that our students sign up for and to staff the offices that support that mission to help our students succeed. The students are the reason that we are here doing what we do after all. This is all common sense, right? Well, partially.

There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about the phenomenon known as quiet quitting. While definitions vary as to what exactly this is — it could be everything from setting firmer work/home boundaries to doing the bare minimum required to earn a paycheck at work — it’s one of the many fallouts from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting Great Resignation that still hasn’t fully resolved. Employees nationwide are taking a big step backward, it seems. Here at EC3, our team is doing exactly the opposite. Our faculty and staff are leaning in and taking a huge step forward to support our students, now more than ever.

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that mental health has reached crisis levels among American teens with respect to self-harm, suicide, anxiety, and depression. You may have heard the term “emotional labor,” which refers to the ways in which certain groups of workers are confronted with the emotional struggles of others and become participants in shouldering that burden as a result. College classes often invite students to share their challenges, and our faculty and staff at EC3 have stepped in and stepped up to try to help our students when they struggle. Emotional labor is a real thing in higher education. Unfortunately, it’s not just teen students who struggle, and we’re seeing that as well.

We haven’t quite reached midterms week for our sixteen-week classes, but we are getting close. The result is that some students are starting to encounter real difficulties with their classes. As someone who’s spent decades in higher education, I’ve come to realize that this is a thing that predictably just happens at this point in the semester. But why is that? I have a working theory, and please note that I’m speaking in broad generalizations here: the first few weeks in many courses are where students learn the basics of the subject they are studying. There will be assignments, but they are often low-stakes, formative assessments designed to help students develop and practice fundamental skills that they will master and apply later in the semester. They are learning “how to college” and acclimating to their new surroundings. They’re getting their sea legs, to use a nautical metaphor.

As we move past the introductory and foundational material, the critical thinking and application phase of the curriculum begins. This is a move from lower-level to higher-level thinking skills that requires a significant shift. It requires students to think harder and in different ways, many of which are new and unfamiliar. Midterm exams, notably, are summative assessments designed to check the degree to which the skills practiced in earlier formative assessments have been mastered. By the time this happens, faculty have tried to prepare students for this transition, and they remain willing to help students who struggle; however, they often need more support than individual faculty can provide. Because most faculty teach five classes a semester, many of which have struggling students, there needs to be a broader institutional support system. I remain committed to providing this extra support.

Part of the message that our EC3 family has increasingly been delivering to our students in the past few weeks is that we are here to help. From help with research in the library to planning classes for next semester, our students are not going it alone. We have a Student Services office available to help students overcome any barriers that might disrupt their progress. We meet with struggling students virtually and in person, and we want to stress that we take our commitment to helping students as they progress seriously. In the run-up to midterms week, I expect the frequency of these meetings to continue to increase, and I’m so proud of the way in which we provide consistent support to our students. We know this point in the semester can be predicted, and we’ve been proactively preparing so that we are not caught unawares. And ready we are!