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Unlocking a New Future

A key to unlock graphic.Throughout the COVID-19 global pandemic, Howard Community College continued to be agile in its approach to education and to changing workforce dynamics. At the same time, the pandemic highlighted the need to effectively support students remotely, and to continue to create the most efficient pathways for students from classroom to employment.

Howard County residents experiencing job loss or lower salaries due to the economic slowdown must get back to work quickly or pivot in their careers to find new opportunities. And employers need to quickly find employees with certain skillsets to fill empty positions.

In this effort, alternatives to typical degree programs provide students with skills, ready them for employment more quickly, and allow them to continue to work toward additional skills or a degree while earning a living.

New Paths from College to Employer

While general education and degree programs continue to be essential offerings at HCC, additional opportunities are available to support students in finding the right path and in moving from school to career as quickly as possible.

One such initiative is guided pathways. The concept takes a collaborative approach to student success by bridging student services and academics, said Minah Woo, associate vice president of continuing education and workforce development at HCC. It recognizes students may not know the exact path they want to take in their education or may need to take breaks due to work, family or financial demands. 

Students receive targeted assistance throughout their onboarding process with connections to the services needed to help complete their degree. Services including counseling, financial aid and scholarships, service learning, and others are wrapped into the experience, Woo said.

Separately, HCC has a long history of listening to employer needs, and many are scrambling as they look toward the post-pandemic future. They are looking to hire employees with a specific set of skills rather than a full degree in some cases, Woo said. Students, at the same time, may not arrive at HCC thinking about a certain degree or whether they need credit or noncredit courses. Instead, they are thinking about an area they want to study or a job they hope to pursue. HCC is helping students tailor their experience to fit their needs.

Within the radiologic technology department, for example, Assefa Fisseha, chair of radiologic technology, said students can pursue discrete certifications, beginning with a radiographer certification. Adding CT or MRI certifications on top of that allows students to gain skills, see an increase in pay, and move toward a more advanced degree if they choose.

“They can do this while working,” Fisseha added. “This is a good opportunity for students to make themselves more marketable.”

Opportunities such as these provide milestones students can reach quickly, while at the same time allowing them to work in their field of interest.

“During that time, they may have to take breaks from their education, but they’re working in a related field so it’s easier for them to come back to school – and their employer may be able to help with tuition,” Woo said.

Straight to Work: Apprenticeships Allow Learning on the Job

Apprenticeship programs at HCC meet the needs of employers who are seeking defined skill sets. They offer students the opportunity to earn a living while learning on the job and are available across disciplines from biomedical engineering technology and software development to heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration among others. Students complete their program to receive a certificate and the skills they need to secure a job.

The biomedical engineering technology program, for example, partnered with the continuing education and workforce development division to create an apprenticeship program, said Mark Edelen, chair of engineering and technology. Students take courses to earn an A.A.S., while working for an industry employer who pays for their tuition.

“It’s a great opportunity for those students,” Edelen said. “They finish with a degree and a job, and their education has been paid for.”

All of these initiatives provide students the opportunity to gain skills, get to work faster, and then earn a living as they continue to work toward their degree. “A lot of companies were seeing that COVID-19 accelerated the pace of everything,” Woo said.

“This need for short-term skills and competency training has accelerated, and employers need to fill that void now.”
Infused throughout these various initiatives is a focus on the entrepreneurial spirit and development of the soft skills that are also key to student success.

“Employers talk a lot about soft skills and about using the language of entrepreneurship skills,” said Betty Noble, acting dean of business and computer systems. “They are looking for communicators and problem solvers, with leadership skills, who are resilient and willing to fail.”

The infusion of entrepreneurial teaching into classes will help send all HCC students out into the world with these soft skills, Noble said. One such example, culinary students will now create a business model for a food truck start up.

“We should be educating the whole person,” she said. “Even if you fail, what did you learn along the way?”

Meeting and Expanding Access Through Online Education

Though it is difficult to consider, there may have been some benefits to the past year’s COVID experience. All faculty are now fully trained to teach online, and many courses that transitioned online at the outset of the pandemic will continue to be offered online or in a hybrid format going forward. This positions the college to reach more students.

In construction management, for example, Edelen said students locally and out-of-state have inquired for several years about completing the program partially or completely online. “Now that we’ve gone through two-and-a-half semesters online, we see that we’re equipped to do it,” he said. “We saw enrollment increase as a result. That’s encouraging and something that we’re going to leverage in the future to satisfy the needs of all students.”

Providing more online education opportunities was already a strategic goal, however, the pandemic moved up that timeline.

“Our faculty have become very skilled at engaging students online,” Noble said. “We’ve had great success rates across the college, and in our division.”

HCC continues to focus on best practices in online teaching to engage students in ways that go beyond just Zoom classes.

“If you had told me two years ago that I had to put my program remote, I don’t think that I could have done it,” said Susan Seibel, chair of dental hygiene. “Being thrown into it and having to do it, we really learned how to manage it well.”

Dental hygiene is a hands-on program. Exams for licensure, pre-pandemic, involved a live patient in a clinical setting. The pandemic shift involved the use of more simulations versus live interactions, and licensure exams switched to the use of a mannequin, she said. 

In that case and others, the pandemic helped differentiate between programs or segments of programs that could and could not be offered online. A hands-on chemistry lab is one scenario that simply isn’t safe to be replicated at home, Edelen said. However, the future holds hybrid models of education where some portions of the course take place online.

Helping Faculty and Students Face New-World Challenges

In the midst of fast-changing times, HCC continues to place emphasis on addressing the challenges that both faculty and students faced during the pandemic and will continue to face as the pandemic recedes.

Faculty continually seek best practices for delivering content and supporting student learning. Dr. Yang Yu, acting associate dean of social sciences and teacher education, launched a mentorship program in her division this year, asking faculty who are interested in mentoring to note their area of expertise and then pairing them with another faculty member seeking extra support. Areas this program addresses so far include online learning and student engagement strategies, inclusive teaching, and designing successful breakout rooms in remote classes, Yu said. 

“We all have learned new tools and developed new strategies or enhanced previous strategies or tools to help our students succeed in a remote learning environment,” she said. “This is an opportunity for our colleagues to learn from each other, establish a professional learning community and foster faculty collaboration in our division.” 

These strategies are important for instructors to create positive learning environments for students, develop supportive relationships with them, and connect and engage with all students.

Yu is also working to ensure faculty are aware and empathetic to the challenges students have faced during the pandemic and may continue to face. She witnessed students dealing with all kinds of struggles, and she encourages faculty to think about how to support students, especially those who are at risk of falling behind or dropping out. “For faculty, this might involve modifying assignments, designing alternative assessments, adjusting expectations, and becoming more flexible and lenient based on each situation,” she said.

During HCC’s professional development week in January, Yu presented two sessions on inclusive teaching, speaking to faculty about the importance of increasing empathy in their teaching and empathetic communication with students. And in March, during HCC’s diversity week, she and Dr. Rosemary Williams, associate professor of history, co-facilitated a student panel discussion, “Lessons from Students During COVID-19 at HCC.”

“Our goal is to create intentional avenues to give students opportunities to share their experiences and perspectives, and for us to understand their needs and situations so that we could best support them during this extremely difficult time,” Yu said. 

New pathways putting students to work faster, coupled with continued emphasis on student and faculty support showcase HCC’s ability to think and plan ahead, and ensure it will continue to lead in the post-pandemic world 

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