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Transforming the Education Process

students working in a garden

Ten years ago, the general rule of thumb in corporate America was that a young adult with a college degree would start in an entry-level job. New professionals often took their first steps into a work environment on their first day of employment. After all, before that day, they were simply college students.

The meaning of entry-level job has not changed, but the number of companies considering candidates with no experience, skill set, or industry qualifications absolutely has. In fact, research shows that new graduates can struggle to find jobs unless they have coupled the theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom with practical, hands-on learning experiences.

That is precisely why apprenticeships and internships have become so critically important to college students and hiring managers. They have essentially replaced the entry-level job concept, giving aspiring professionals a sneak peek into a “real world” job and sometimes even a foot in the door at a place they would like to be hired.

Fortunately, Howard Community College (HCC) is doing much more than keeping up with the pace – it is setting a new standard for educating today’s workforce. Career planning support, personal development opportunities, and job readiness resources are plentiful, growing, and evolving on campus, making a positive difference for HCC graduates as they venture out and begin their careers. As a direct result of these resources, the next generation of professionals in Howard County is entering the job market more prepared than ever before.

The Apprenticeship Model

HCC student Robert Wright HCC student Robert Wright demonstrates just how empowering the apprenticeship model of learning can be. After working as a middle school teacher for seven years, Wright craved a career change. He felt confident that working in a trade field would present him with new challenges, as well as an opportunity to increase his annual income.

But he was stuck. He needed to return to school in order to be qualified to work in a different field, yet he could not afford to stop working while he earned a new degree.

Then Wright learned about the new heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVACR) apprenticeship program offered at HCC. Students who enroll in the program complete a combination of on-campus courses and 8,000 hours of paid field work in partnership with a local HVACR firm, over a period of four years. Also appealing was the job stability that comes along with such a career track, with more positions available than technicians to actually fill them in the local job market. Wright was inspired. He applied and started fall 2018.

“It was exactly the type of program I was looking for because it would allow me to go to school and be trained, while also earning money for my family,” recalls Wright. “I’m not sure I would have been able to make a change like this without the HVACR apprenticeship program.”

The stars aligned for Wright a few weeks into the semester when he was recruited by Rowan Heating and Air Conditioning, based in Highland, Maryland. As an apprentice, he works a standard 40-hour work week for the company, shadowing experienced technicians and assisting them with the technical aspects of their day-to-day projects. This left his evenings open to take the classes HVACR apprentices are required to complete.

“I immediately started seeing the connection between what I was reading about or discussing in class and the work I was doing day in and day out on the job,” said Wright. “I’m learning something new every day and I’m excited about it. It confirms I made the right decision.”

Minah Woo, associate vice president of continuing education and workforce development, says that many students are like Wright; motivated and willing to work hard, but with a need to generate income as they are pursuing their education. Woo is quick to clarify that the benefits attached to the “earn while you learn” model extend far beyond a weekly paycheck. Of equal importance, students also have the potential to build professional relationships and networks that position them well for success, both short and long term.

“The apprentices are paid for the time they spend on the job, which helps them financially while they are in school and reduces some of the debt that comes along with being a college student,” said Woo.

“Another huge benefit is that the students and the companies that hire them typically go into this intending to form a long-standing relationship – one that includes an official, full-time hire once the apprentice completes the program and is licensed. That agreement and commitment is invaluable to both the student and the employer. The student has a guaranteed job. The employer gains a well-trained new hire that will come out of school with the right skills, as well as knowledge of what their company is all about.”

Another way HCC is paving the way for the future is by introducing apprenticeship programs for students who wish to pursue careers in fields outside of the standard trade industries.

“When people think of apprenticeships, they tend to immediately think of jobs that require more technical skills, such as HVACR, electrical, and plumbing,” said Woo. “But this model is now being applied and working well in other industries too; professionals in the construction management, information technology, nursing, and hospitality industries benefit when they can hire recent graduates who come in with some relevant experience, and a working knowledge of what it takes to get the job done under their belts.”

HCC will launch a construction management apprenticeship program this summer, making it the first and only construction management apprenticeship program in the state. Over the course of two years, students will earn 34 course credits by participating in a series of classes, labs, seminars, and field trips, while also completing 4,000 hours of on-the-job training with local construction companies. Collectively, course work and field training will prepare each apprentice to take the Construction Manager-in-Training (CMIT) certification exam, giving them the credentials to work and advance professionally in the field. In the past, construction managers, also known as general contractors, may have worked through the ranks from carpenter or field technician to management. Today’s technology and business models mean that construction managers are highly trained professionals in all aspects of the construction industry.

Centeria Dow is majoring in human services and dreams of starting a nonprofit organizationSimilar to the HVACR program, the construction management apprenticeship aims to make meaningful connections between students and companies that have a need to recruit new talent.

“Educational institutions have the responsibility to foresee and adapt to the changing needs of society and workplace in a proactive manner. At HCC, we take great pride in serving our constituents by providing them a meaningful and engaging experience and this construction management apprenticeship is a perfect example in that direction,” says Patricia Turner, dean of science, engineering, and technology division. “Our construction management faculty create a challenging and engaging environment in the classroom by bringing in real-world project exercises, which provide the students with practical experience and knowledge of real-world situations.” 

For HCC, these two programs are only  the beginning. The college is looking to add more apprenticeship-based programs in the future.

Impactful Internships

Centeria Dow is majoring in human services and dreams of starting a nonprofit organization to serve and support children who are victims of abuse. Last year, she worked as an intern at HopeWorks of Howard County, a nonprofit agency that provides resources, support, and a place of peace and comfort for victims of sexual and domestic abuse. Working in the Safe House, Dow spent most of her time taking phone calls from people who were trying to get away from their abusers and who had mustered up the courage to make that phone call to ask for help.

“I heard some truly heartbreaking stories,” said Dow, who served in the United States Air Force prior to enrolling at HCC. “But it affirmed that this is exactly what I am meant to do, and I learned so much. Listening to the person on the other end of the line and helping them figure out how to navigate the process and break away is one thing, but my job was to provide support and confidence, so I needed to be strong and positive. I really had to think about how to control and separate my own emotions.”

Diagnostic Medical Sonography studentsAdditionally, Dow took notes on many of the little things that make a big difference for people who are most vulnerable; a box filled with bus tokens to simplify the transportation process, a closet filled with diapers and baby wipes for the new moms, and a pantry stocked with basic foods to supply meals for those who are hungry.

“These are all things I will remember when I am ready to open the doors of my own nonprofit,” said Dow. “They are good ideas, and I intend to adopt them someday.”

Carla Lawson, health promotion and human performance instructor, says internships are especially valuable for students like Dow, as well as those who intend to pursue careers in the fields of social work, counseling, and therapy. Every semester, she helps her human services students connect with representatives from agencies in Howard County that serve the community. HopeWorks, the Center for Social Change, Athelas Institute, Way Station, and The United Way’s 211 Line top her list of go-to partners.

 “Our students are getting real-world exposure and a new perspective,” Lawson said. “They get a chance to observe professionals in action. They gain a new level of understanding for what it means to be dealing with a true crisis, and how to respond in those situations. They are working with really diverse people, with really diverse needs, and from that they learn how important it is to be flexible and adaptable. It’s one thing to talk about hunger in class. But when they are out there seeing how it affects people in their own community – it has a whole new meaning.”

Internships create powerful learning experiences for students from all fields of study at HCC. Beth Hendler-Friedman, clinical coordinator of the diagnostic medical sonography program, says that clinical internships are critical because they teach her students how to operate equipment, communicate with patients, adhere to compliance and privacy guidelines, and handle follow-ups. Collectively, these experiences prepare diagnostic sonography graduates to enter the workforce knowing how to handle various patient scenarios.

“Through our internship program, our students are exposed to a wide variety of images. They learn what to look for and how to interpret the difference between what’s normal and what’s not,” said Hendler-Friedman. “The learning curve that new graduates have when they are just getting started in their careers still exists, but the likelihood of being thrown into a situation they have never experienced in any way is greatly decreased. At that point, they’ve logged at least 1,700 hours of clinical experience time so they go out with solid footing.”

Teaching the Next Generation of TeachersThose same benefits ring true for Ryan Young, a student whose previous experience in public affairs for the U.S. Marine Corps inspired him to pursue a job in marketing and public relations. Eager to fit a part-time job into his busy weekly schedule, Young began searching HCC’s website for on-campus job opportunities and instead found information about a paid internship in the college’s public relations and marketing office. He is currently working alongside the on-campus team to write press releases, create content for the website, support planning and promotion of events, and assist with videos to boost the college’s social media presence.

“I was originally looking for something that would just be convenient, and instead I found a job on campus that is helping me build a great portfolio and is supporting my career goals,” said Young. “Everyone here is so supportive and makes me feel like I’m part of the team.” The on-campus internship program is managed by Amy Crawford, internship and co-op manager at HCC. Currently, a total of 10 on-campus internship opportunities are available, a number Crawford expects to increase. Another new initiative on campus will eventually convert traditional workstudy jobs into on-campus internships with additional duties.

“We know that our students are searching for solid, practical, hands-on internships, and we are now making those opportunities available right here on our campus,” said Crawford. “We’ve added a lot of structure, requiring that our interns develop three measurable learning objectives, write a mid-semester and final paper describing their experience and their key takeaways, and participate in professional development activities. The positions we posted initially were filled very quickly so the potential is there for us to grow this program and make on-campus internships available in more departments, as we move forward.”

Teaching the Next Generation of Teachers

Students in HCC’s teacher education programs are able to gain field experience in a variety of ways, including a lab school at the Children’s Learning Center (CLC), an on-campus child care center for children ages eight weeks through preschool. The CLC lab school provides opportunities for students to make lesson plans, observe children, practice skills taught in the classroom, and share the activities with young children.

Student Ram Par with children in HCC’s Children’s Learning CenterA very special partnership also exists between HCC and the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) – one that gives future teachers who are studying 10 Howard Community College at HCC a glimpse into what life will be like when they are one day assigned a classroom of their own. Every teacher education student at HCC spends a minimum of 45 hours in classrooms at elementary, middle, and high schools across the county, as well as at Cedar Lane School, designed for students with developmental disabilities. Those hours are devoted to observation, as well as hands-on collaboration with teachers and their students. This process helps HCC students narrow and clarify the path that is best for them.

“When our students go into the schools, they learn a lot about what it takes to be a teacher; what happens day-in and day-out in a classroom, the kinds of issues that come up, the types of needs students have in different grades … and it helps them make some important decisions,” said Liz O’Hanlon, assistant professor in the division of social sciences and teacher education.

HTML Patty Otero, facilitator in the division of human resources and professional development for HCPSS, agrees wholeheartedly.

 “I get to work with students every day who want to become teachers,” she said. “Our goal is to help them see it from the other side. There is a big difference between working with a class of kindergarteners and teaching math to a group of 10th graders. Sometimes that exposure to both really gives teacher education students the direction they need.”

Erica Hamilton can attest to that theory. In May 2020, she intends to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in art education from Towson University. It was her time as a HCC student, when she was completing her field observation requirements, that solidified her career vision and goals.

“I am a visual learner, so having the ability to sit in the back of a classroom and watch a teacher in action taught me so much about the kind of teacher I want to someday be,” Hamilton explains. “I also got to create art lessons for a special education class, with a mentor right by my side to offer perspectives and insights on how to handle different situations that could come up in the classroom. By the time I transferred, I felt like I had a solid base that gave me a bit of an advantage amongst my peers.”

An Evidence-Based Strategy

Erica Hamilton with her mentor at Atholton High SchoolDave Tirpak, associate director of career and employment counseling at HCC, says all signs point to the fact that HCC is doing a lot of things right. The whole purpose of going to college, he says, is and always has been to eventually graduate and have the qualifications necessary to obtain jobs. The evidence-based strategies HCC has put in place to merge classroom learning with real-world experience is helping HCC students land those jobs and truly shine.

“When a motivated student really takes advantage of all of the resources we make available to them here on this campus, you can see quickly and clearly how it all comes together,” said Tirpak. “Students come back and tell us that they were selected for an internship they really wanted, or landed their dream job, all because of the start they got at HCC. It’s extremely rewarding to hear those personal stories, and to know that HCC has been part of making them possible.”

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