Building an Adaptive Transfer Culture in California

Three years ago, I toured the Oxnard College library when I participated in a regional community college faculty exchange that served as a meet-and-greet event among community college neighbors. Oxnard College is situated in Ventura County’s City of Oxnard, which is located at the crossroads of well-to-do upper-middle-class residents and tightly knit working-class families, where yachts and prime shoreline real estate rest mere yards from strawberry fields tended day-in and day-out by hard-working laborers. I was happy to see students hard at work at Oxnard College’s newly constructed library, where I encountered bright open spaces, tall ceilings, easy access to technology, and . . . Alyssa, a former student of mine from Santa Barbara City College (SBCC).

What?

“Dr. Ramirez! Hi! You’re far from Santa Barbara!”

I was happy to see her, but it took me a few moments to place her. I found myself a bit flummoxed, finding none of my usual surroundings to cue my memory of Alyssa. I was so involved chatting about her plans to transfer to neighboring California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI), and her ambitions to pursue a master’s degree, that I decided not to ask her why she was at Oxnard College. In that moment, it was just good to hear of her good fortune and hopeful outlook. After all, her education is what she makes of it, what she wants it to be, or—at the very least—what opportunity allows it to be. In retrospect, however, not investigating why she was at Oxnard was a missed opportunity to learn more about the path Alyssa would traverse to finish her degree.

The encounter left me wondering: In all the time she was my student at SBCC, was she always a neighbor of mine in Oxnard? Was she making the drive to Santa Barbara, a lengthy thirty-five-mile one-way trip that often turns into a two-hour commute? Could it be that she needed to complete a class or two to finish her transfer requirements that she could only take at Oxnard College, whether as a matter of convenience or because it was just not offered at the campus I call home? Was she starting a new degree? Or did she feel she belonged at Oxnard College in a way she may not have felt at other schools (Santa Barbara City College included)?

“What ifs” and “shouldas” aside, I was happy that she was making her way through the different tiers of higher education. This encounter left the teacher in me stewing over questions about the lived-in realities of our students and what we could do collectively to be more student-ready. From campus to campus, our curricula are similarly rigorous, but our students’ divergent life circumstances are characterized by deep inequities. Maybe Alyssa got what she needed from her time at SBCC. Maybe she found a new home in Oxnard College. Whatever her situation, as a regional learning community, it is our shared responsibility to help her and other students like her on their trajectory to degree completion.

Toward One Degree

Santa Barbara City College is one of four community colleges working with a regional university partner, CSUCI, to develop guided curricular transfer pathways for students to transfer to upper-division study. In 2016, faculty and counselors at SBCC developed a program known as iPATH, funded by a Developing Hispanic-Serving Institution Title V grant, with the goal of removing barriers to timely transfer and degree attainment. The iPATH program directors recognized for some time that students across the Ventura and Santa Barbara County regional hub were sometimes taking a break or sometimes moving from institution to institution and patching together their education. The iPATH grant, written with CSUCI as a transfer partner, funded the work of Project ALAS (Aligning Learning and Student Success).

The initial areas of emphasis for Project ALAS were (1) to encourage curricular alignment and teaching practices between CSUCI and SBCC to reduce the likelihood of students’ transfer credits being adrift, (2) to alleviate culture shock that students experience moving to a new college, and (3) to align campus experiences from one institution to the next. In doing so, iPATH’s and Project ALAS’s mutual efforts were intended to help students move closer to normative time to degree by refining and streamlining CSUCI’s breadth requirements and general education transfer pathway. This entailed smaller class sizes; guaranteed enrollment in core courses critical for transfer; dedicated counseling services; classes bound by a coalition of willing faculty that sought an open exchange of innovative best practices; and regular, frank, and supportive discussion about student progress through the course of the program. The program was also intended to create an adaptive transfer culture to help underrepresented students find their place at the college level. iPATH faculty met regularly for professional development on affect-sensitive (“noncognitive”), culturally responsive pedagogies that leverage what community cultural wealth students brought to the classroom.

As iPATH developed, instructional faculty needed to shift their mind-set from a focus on best practices in the classroom to an increasing awareness of student equity issues by acknowledging (1) students’ need to belong, (2) many students’ first-generation status, and (3) students’ need for peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student mentorship. These efforts culminated in SBCC’s Affective Learning Institute (ALI), a three-day, in-house, faculty-led series of workshops that invited faculty, staff, and counselors to gain exposure to student equity issues and introduced them to affect-sensitive teaching strategies—a sort of reorientation program to life at SBCC.

Lastly, iPATH’s faculty coalition also nurtured a core group of SBCC faculty leads who were plugged into a regional conversation with their disciplinary counterparts in the Ventura County Community College District and at CSUCI, and who collaborated in a joint effort to promote student transfer success and equity—the Cross-institutional Learning Community.

Regional Transfer Fellows: a Cross-Institutional Learning Community

Project ALAS’s Regional Transfer Fellows (RTF) program invited faculty from campuses across Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties to encourage networking and build collaborative efforts to refine or re-engineer teaching practices in the classroom. On its inaugural run, for some faculty cohorts this translated concretely into (1) students collaborating with their counterparts at other campuses on undergraduate research, writing, peer review, and other long-term projects, and (2) agora-style academic exchanges on the CSUCI campus where prospective community college transferees from across the region could hop from student discussion to student discussion in outdoor academic open forums. These forums allowed community college students to preview life as an upper-division student. Other cohorts engaged in teach-the-teacher forums to help faculty adopt and adapt emerging humanizing technologies and online community-building teaching strategies that re-envisioned online teaching from correspondence courses to forums for belongingness.

iPATH's instructional faculty involvement with the RTF program started as a collaborative professional development opportunity to discuss pedagogical techniques and other innovations in the classroom, with the hope of creating a regional culture of instruction with our colleagues in the Ventura County Community College District. In calling our regional colleagues to action, the RTF program’s efforts gradually evolved into a larger conversation about our collective desire, will, and mandate to develop general education pathways from dual enrollment, to university transfer, to degree completion.

Faculty Professional Development, Institutional Culture, and Community Outreach

Project ALAS’s RTF faculty meetings were very impactful, rotating from campus to campus in our regional hub and giving faculty an opportunity to find familiar ground as they toured each other’s campus (hence, my memory of touring Oxnard College’s library) and learned about each other’s respective instructional culture. These meetings were as much about addressing students’ sense of belonging as they were about inspiring a sense of belonging among the community of professors. These meetings provided the opportunity to air out the occasional concerns about curricular territoriality perceived as upper-division versus lower-division microaggressions; full-time versus part-time faculty conditions (“Faculty conditions are student conditions,” an English colleague remarked); and all-too-familiar challenges to shared governance on our respective campuses. Faculty needed to feel they were truly higher education peers, despite teaching in a tiered system where maintaining rigor presents evolving challenges for working with students who come to higher education along divergent paths and face different economic or cultural perils.

Our RTF faculty could agree that successful writing is a critical transferable skill—a “passport” students could take from one discipline to the next—and that encouraging undergraduate research projects in lower-division study might help students develop the stamina and grit to weather long-term projects and the occasional collaborative missteps in upper-division study. That was all well and good, but we also eventually came to a moment of meta-awareness that the best of our attempts to reinvent the wheel on classroom intervention practices made all the sense in the world to faculty who were A students to begin with, but we were still no closer to addressing deep-seated inequities that contribute to student achievement gaps.

Amid the friendly exchanges of humorous anecdotes and sarcasm about a day-in-the-life of an academic—some much-needed peer bonding among our academic neighbors—our personal anecdotes about our day-in and day-out interactions with students were a litany of unmet student needs that our pedagogical savvy had yet to address. These included the facts that time-in-seat was an emerging equity issue for students who sustain more part-time jobs and more family responsibilities than any generation should; that the best of emerging digital practices, noble in their intent, may not be enough to bridge the equity gap in retention and success for students who have been historically disadvantaged both economically and digitally; and that some of our students feel they have little sense of personal connection to their institution’s campus communities.

These collective exchanges among RTF faculty led Project ALAS directors to make yet another shift in mind-set, moving the focus of conversation beyond the classroom to create regional forums—a series of mini-conferences—and inviting instructional faculty, including K−12 teachers, counselors, deans, and executive leadership to congregate around our regional communities’ shared mission to effect successful strategies to improve student success, retention, and transfer.

The development of equity-minded classroom practice continued in parallel with discussions about institutional culture and our role in the public sphere. This gave faculty a chance to flip the narrative on our respective institutions’ approach to community outreach. Merely providing information about access to financial and learning-support services to prospective college students—largely a conventional recruitment strategy—was not enough. Project ALAS sponsored the Ventura County Community College District Chicano Studies Summit (one of several mini-conferences debuting in year three of this cross-institutional partnership), a prime example of how faculty and administrators can accomplish more by joining prospective students and their families as educational partners and advocates rather than treating them as mere educational consumers. That very practice of calling in our neighbors was most recently paid forward and demonstrated by iPATH-RTF faculty alumni whose recent cultural competency series invited SBCC faculty and students, and community members outside the campus, to weigh in on courageous conversations about race relations, equity gaps, and students’ lived experiences that either propel or imperil the prospects of historically disadvantaged groups on college campuses.

If Project ALAS’s goals were to build a coalition of instructional and counseling faculty and administrators to regularly congregate under a single roof—if not to agree, then to dialogue—then Project ALAS succeeded abundantly.

A Neighborhood Conversation About Alignment

Project ALAS’s oft-used remark about aligning academic requirements “toward one degree” pointed to our regional hub’s evolving struggles that caused students’ academic credits to not always be recognized at the time of transfer across California’s three-tier public higher education system. In parallel with Project ALAS’s RTF, and as part of SBCC’s subaward for the iPATH Title V grant, CSUCI and SBCC faculty leads were funded by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) project to meet regularly with representatives from state university and community college transfer hubs in Indiana and Texas to develop and implement joint activities around transfer success. Locally, CSUCI and SBCC facilitated ongoing coordination over curricular changes and alignment by discipline (biology, history, communications, economics, and psychology). Additionally, CSUCI’s faculty leads worked with SBCC faculty to assess challenges faced by transfer students in these disciplines and help identify potential solutions. CSUCI’s faculty leads provided iPATH faculty with a side-by-side comparison of SBCC’s curricular offerings and those from other local community colleges, with qualitative data from informal interviews with transfer students, faculty, and staff, and data from a formal survey of SBCC students’ post-transfer experiences.

Finding an Academic Home

The iPATH program partnered with SBCC’s Transfer Academy to focus students’ attention on claiming their own space in the transfer process. As a community, iPATH faculty came together to offer faculty-student socials; special courses as part of students’ first-year experiences, such as a semester-long guest speaker series that introduces new college students to social sciences and STEM; and visits to universities in and out of state (CSUCI among them). Additionally, SBCC’s iPATH courses conducted a yearlong peer mentor ambassador program pilot in which CSUCI peer mentors visited regularly with SBCC students at key points in the semester (e.g., Welcome Week, midterms, and finals). In an attempt to replicate the robust success of the CSUCI’s Peer Mentor Ambassadors program, the CSUCI-iPATH peer mentors were important for offering iPATH students advice about college success with the “hidden curriculum” to help acclimate students to college general education study and student life, and to help students preview life after transfer and to envision their place in upper-division study.

It is one thing to call iPATH a transfer pathway program, but really it was an adaptive transfer culture at SBCC that we hoped would live on at CSUCI post-transfer. Ending its fourth year, and beginning its sunsetting fifth year, the iPATH program planned to adopt CSUCI’s Latinx community outreach effort, Noche de Familia, which is traditionally an open invitation by CSUCI to Ventura County residents to visit the campus for a festive night of faculty, staff, and student speakers and performers. Like the endeavors of Project ALAS’s RTF, Noche de Familia invited families who may never have visited a university campus before to see themselves and their children as having a second home in a welcoming academic environment. SBCC’s iPATH faculty leads acquired funding from The Endeavor Foundation through AAC&U’s GEMs Pathways project, allowing them to host a similar event alongside CSUCI’s outreach efforts that would invite Latinx families from the neighboring city of Goleta to visit SBCC.

The Next Conversation

With community colleges in California adopting their own approach to Guided Pathways, the conversation about shifting academic instructional culture moved toward integrating smaller grant-funded initiatives like iPATH together. SBCC was (and still is) home to several grant-funded programs that have come to a greater meta-awareness of their sometimes overlapping and duplicated efforts. While this largely benefited students, allowing programs to leverage each other’s resources, this also came with the occasional headache where students periodically wondered, “I’m in what program, now?” With efforts to streamline campus support programs, guided pathways quickly became the focal point for conversation about students’ timely graduation, transfer, and degree attainment. While the iPATH branding did not become a mainstay of the campus, our iPATH faculty leads have persisted in bringing their experience to the guided pathways table. After the sun set on iPATH’s sponsoring grant, our faculty (not all, but a growing number) increasingly recognized students’ sense of belonging as a critical component in retention and success. This also meant that discussions on cultural competency—following a long-acknowledged need to celebrate diversity—needed to be complemented by a deeper dive into historical trends of institutionalized racism. The kind of wrap-around services that iPATH tried to secure and strategic scheduling that met the needs of part-time and working students were all critical to their ability to thrive amidst the shifting grounds of academia. While our guided-pathways faculty leads discuss how to organize our academic disciplines under the rubric of meta-majors, we have not forgotten to consider our university neighbors and how these “interest areas” (we are still trying to come up with a better name) will live on post-transfer.

I’m pleased to report that we still talk with our Ventura County neighbors. I still get calls from my CSUCI counterparts in psychology asking to update, exchange, and align our syllabi and course records. I, in turn, occasionally ask for a letter of recommendation or feedback about the next grant application from my CSUCI counterparts. And yes, we now “like” each other’s vacation posts on Facebook, knowing that we may occasionally need something to talk about when we run into each other at conferences or Whole Foods. It’s the neighborly thing to do.

Acknowledgments

Special thanks go to project and grant directors, Tina Kistler and Elizabeth Imhof, for their tireless stewardship of the iPATH program and its sponsoring Title V grant. Additional thanks go to our university partner colleagues—Amanda Quintero, Michelle Hasendonckx, and Geoff Buhl—from Project ALAS at the California State University Channel Islands, for their generosity of time, spirit of inclusiveness, insights on all things grant-related, and modeling of equity-minded institutional change.

 


Joshua Ramirez, Chair of the Department of Psychology, Santa Barbara City College

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