A Promise to the City,…a Beacon for the Country

Inaugural class, faculty and dignitaries at the convocation on the steps of the New York Public Library, near The New Community College.

By Barbara Fischkin

Mirella Laure, passionate about student government, had a reverie this summer that she could be the first class president of the first community college to open in New York City in 40 years.

“I’d like to start a student government,” she said. “You gather some students, find two or three people you’d like to nominate and move on from there.”

It is a dream that could come true for her this semester.

On August 20, with Mayor Bloomberg in attendance, Laure and 300 other students joined professors, administrators, staffers and counselors at the inaugural convocation of CUNY’s The New Community College, located across from Manhattan’s Bryant Park.

NCC — as the University’s seventh community college is already called — is, like its students, determined to make history.

With an innovative, issue-based and skill-intensive educational program, and with remedial assistance interwoven into course and counseling sessions, its goal is to become a model for community colleges nationwide.  These two-year colleges, although now considered vital to higher education, suffer widely from low retention and graduation rates — and from a reputation as being second rate to senior colleges.

Fixing this has support from on high. NCC has received grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Robin Hood Foundation and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation.  To help ensure success, CUNY searched for a president with a track record of turning around at-risk students. It found one in Scott E. Evenbeck, who did this on the senior college level, albeit with students who in another time and place might have — and perhaps should have — attended a supportive community college. When it comes to enabling academic achievement — and encouraging student persistence — Evenbeck is considered a national expert. When asked what community college students need, he gets right to the point: “Someone to help them connect the dots.”

The final stretch of the road to NCC’s convocation began a few weeks earlier this summer at one of several mandatory orientations session. During the program, as well as during its break, Mirella Laure and other students discussed their hopes and plans. The sessions were also attended by parents who were invited to be part of the process — and asked to help find internships for students at the businesses and offices where they work.

Incoming student Bernard Bright spoke about his own passion, a global issue:

“I want to stop human trafficking,” he said. “We can, as students, link up with other organizations, march peacefully, protest.”

For Stephen Icaza, another member of NCC’s first class, the issue is bullying — how to prevent it and help its victims.  During a “casting call” for a video about the college and in an interview, Icaza courageously related his own experiences as a middle and high school student who was the target of bullies, in part because he is overweight. He also spoke about his work as an intern for the Anti-Defamation League and with a cyber safety group. Icaza is considering a career in psychology and he is determined to start an anti-bullying club at NCC.

“I am very driven,” he said, assuredly.

Among NCCC students, he is in very good company.

NCC has a unique admissions process in which it purposefully tries to  help students understand what is expected of them — and the commitments they will have to make. The school did not reject any applicants; at community colleges, the City University of New York generally admits all who meet academic admissions standards. But NCC made demands that other community colleges at CUNY and elsewhere typically do not.

NCC’s admissions initiative begins with information sessions that prospective students are required to attend. If they do not attend, they cannot be considered for admission. After these sessions, 30-minute mandatory individual meetings with faculty or staff members or peer mentors are scheduled. At these meetings it is reiterated that to gain acceptance at NCC an applicant must attend school full time the first year, agree to take classes in either a morning or afternoon block and attend one of the orientation sessions as well as a 12-day Summer Bridge program. Students were given Metro cards and lunch vouchers to help with their finances during the Bridge Program this summer — and the Robin Hood Foundation provided each student with a $300 stipend since some might not have been able to work while attending he program. The Robin Hood Foundation is also providing students with stipends of $250 for the fall semester and again in the spring.

Students must also agree to participate in NCC’s innovative yet highly structured academic program, including working with other students in a group; community participation, which will use New York City as a learning laboratory; and to frequent communication with faculty and peer mentors recruited from other University campuses and Student Success Advocates, all of whom have Master’s degrees.  Prospective students are told their coursework will be unlike any other CUNY community college, with reading, writing and analysis centered on a topic. This first semester’s topic will be waste and consumption issues in New York City. The required first year mathematics class will be statistics — one which CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, a mathematician, believes is the most useful for all walks of life.

As a bonus — but not actually a requirement — Vera Senese, NCC director of Financial Aid and Student Financial Support, has vowed to make the college’s students financially literate.

“By the time you graduate you are going to have your own checking accounts because I am going to help you manage your money,” she told a group of students during an orientation.  Keeping in mind that many students will qualify for grants, she also itemized the cost of The New Community College at $5,321 a semester and $10,642 a year, including tuition fees, books, transportation and other expenses. This follow the same tuition and fee structure as other CUNY community colleges.

The first NCC admission process began with 855 prospective students who attended those required information sessions.  Of that group, 504   continued the process with the individual meetings. At the end, 492 met all of NCC’s requirements, and 322 who attended the convocation — and who are almost evenly split among men and women — signed up to be in the first class.

Rebecca Walker, associate professor of mathematics, addresses students on opening day.

In speaking about the admission process, Jennifer Lee, NCC’s director of College Admissions and Access noted that the “goal is to help students understand the commitment and expectation. . . . In other words, if a student wants to come here merely because it’s in a good location, this is not for them.” She added that during the admissions process students were asked to consider if work or caretaking responsibilities would make it hard for them to fulfill the college’s requirements.

Nationwide and at CUNY community colleges, students are diverse and often of the first generation in their families to go to college.  The ethnicity of NCC students mirrors that of other University community colleges. Of the students enrolled at the college, the ethnic breakdown is: Latino, 35 percent; black, 27 percent; white, 21 percent; and Asian, 11 percent, with the remaining 6 percent declining to identify ethnicity.  Academically they ranked about the same as students at other CUNY community colleges. Geographically they come in equal numbers from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens, with about 1.5 percent from Staten Island.

“I am incredibly impressed by how motivated and on top of things they are,” Lee said of the new student body. “The students coming are just so nice and very respectful of one another. And they are very proactive and in tune with social issues. Many of them want to graduate from here to do other things.”

President Evenbeck, a professor of psychology, comes to CUNY from Indiana, where he was the founding dean of University College at the public Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). He loves New York, and with relatives in New Jersey, often visited the city. At one NCC orientation session, he spoke of how he would go out in the evening to photograph the Stonehenge effect of light shining through the buildings of New York. He hopes to join students on their field experiences in the city — and speaks with reverence about his first New York bagel, brought to him by a fellow graduate student with whom he once shared an office at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

About his new position at CUNY, which he began last year, he says: “It was such a good fit for everything I had been working for, for a long time.”

He reflects on when he began at IUPUI. “Our retention rate was abysmal. Our graduation rate was worse.”  Efforts to correct this began in 1997 and, Evenbeck says, that by 2005 there was a palpable turnaround. “We doubled the graduation rate. We vastly improved our retention rate, particularly with African-American male students. And what we learned is that options don’t work with students.” He also disagrees with colleges “that let everyone in at the last minute. Last minute deciders almost never succeed.”

Hence the structure of NCC, from which Evenbeck emphasizes he hopes to learn more — and to learn how to make it replicable.

To commemorate the opening of the college on August 20, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was honored with CUNY’s Chancellor’s Medal, the University’s high executive honor, which recognizes extraordinary contributions to CUNY, commitment to education and outstanding public service. Past recipients have included Jonas Salk, Robert F. Wagner Jr., Coretta Scott King and John Cardinal O’Connor.

In presenting the award, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein noted that the Mayor has supported the idea of NCC from its inception three years ago. “There is no more urgent task in higher education than to find ways to help more community college students succeed,” the Chancellor said.

The mayor replied that in launching NCC, “We’re creating a potentially game-changing model for community college education in New York and throughout the nation.”

The creation of the school, which is also the University’s first new college in more than four decades, was approved by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sept. 20, 2011, as an amendment to CUNY’s long-range master plan and subsequently by the New York State Board of Regents and the University’s Board of Trustees.

A site visit, which is expected to lead to accreditation, could not be conducted by the state Department of Education until August, since no new college can be accredited until its first students are enrolled.

This posed an interesting situation for the college regarding tuition, since financial aid cannot be offered until a college is accredited. CUNY, however, is insuring that the NCC’s first students receive the same amount of aid from Pell and TAP programs to which they would otherwise be entitled if they attended another school at the University. Students do need to complete the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  Once accredited, Federal and New York State financial aid will be available to NCC students.

Evenbeck’s team includes a mix of those who have experience with a diversity of students and with both traditional and nontraditional educational techniques, including assessment and technology and experiential learning.  José Luis Morin, vice president for academic affairs and provost and a former administrator at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, once headed an initiative to recruit Latino faculty to the University.

Verlene Herrington, chief librarian and director of academic technology, most recently worked at Bronx Community College where she managed acquisitions, collections, serials and electronic resources. But before that she was Command Librarian of the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corp in Arizona, and also received the 2008 Library of Congress Federal Librarian of the Year award.

This summer she talked about her new mission, as she was putting together “a different kind of library” – referred to as the Information Commons — in which the traditional library environment has been replaced with a collaboration center, where students can work in groups at Mediascape workstations, enabling them to plug in laptops and share their work on a common screen.  Instead of rows of shelves with books that rarely circulate — research indicates that up to 80% of books in a library never get checked out – it enables students to access books either electronically or in a physical format from other libraries. The library space is mainly used for social learning and collaboration.

The Information Commons will, though, have a small collection of books linked to the curriculum and students can also access  eight million books available from the other CUNY campuses.  Students also have virtual access to over 120 databases, thousands of electronic journals and e-books. NCC also has a partnership with the New York Public Library, located down the street.

NCC has been in its planning stages since 2008, and throughout the city high school guidance counselors and college advisers have been following the process. NCC students often say that they first heard about the college from those counselors, while the counselors, in turn, mention that they approach the subject of community college tentatively, because parents often have their hearts set on sending their children to four-year colleges and view community colleges as a fallback choice.

And yet for some students a community college — albeit one with the right support — is the best place for them to be.

Kay Rothman, the director of college counseling at Manhattan’s public Lab School for Collaborative Studies, worked with Stephen Icaza and knew NCC would be right for him.

“Stephen came to mind almost immediately,” she said. “Because he had an academic path and he absolutely knows what he wants.  But I knew that his test scores would be low and his grades were not that high. I also knew that he needed people to help him to be better. And I knew that was what this school was going to be.”

And so, the members of the first class of The New Community College have begun their studies.

Reina Osoria and Ryan Ramirez on a field trip to Chinatown

They include Mirella Laure who would like to not only be the first class president but also study public policy. She, too, was made aware of NCC by a college adviser at the University Neighborhood High School. She is ready to start the process of creating a student government, to get out the message that “everyone’s thoughts can go into the process of making the school what it will be.” She suggests that a swimming pool and a basketball court would be welcome additions to the Bryant Park area office building where the school is now located and then, perhaps like a real politician, added: “But it could take awhile.”

Bernard Bright, meanwhile, dreams not only of doing something about human trafficking but also of starting an orphanage and a school. He is already thinking about continuing his education at Baruch. He, too, was guided to NCC by a counselor at the Martin Luther King Jr. educational campus of the Urban Assembly School for Media Studies.

“People told me to aim for the stars,” he says.

And that is exactly what President Evenbeck would like his students to do. To aim for the stars — and to be able to explain which stars and why and how they are aiming.  It’s what the students’ parents want as well. Or, as one put it at the orientation session, “My son doesn’t have to be perfect but I hope he will be open to everything that is available to him.

To that President Evenbeck adds: “The whole experience for them is not just about knowing the facts but also being able to present them in a fully engaging way.”

The New Community College Convocation: