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Transferring Talent

Community-college students hit the ground running

Stephen Williams '11 has been at Dickinson barely a semester and already is a student senator and junior-class treasurer. A political-science major and former student-government president at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), he was tapped to advise an ad hoc committee reviewing the Student Senate’s constitution and governance documents. Oh, and he just joined the Liberty Cap Society, the student tour guide group.

Nadia ElFallah '11 of Germantown, Md., is embracing her first Dickinson semester by also joining the Liberty Cap Society—as well as Relay for Life (a cancer fundraiser), Alpha Phi Omega (the college’s only coed service fraternity) and the Multi-Organizational Board (MOB).  She is a double major in international studies and Middle East studies.

Minh Nguyen ’11, who transferred in the spring from Montgomery College near his Clarksburg, Md., home, is a double major in biochemistry & molecular biology and chemistry. A member of the Chemistry Club, he also is a lab teaching assistant and a participant in a faculty-student research project with David Crouch, associate professor of chemistry.

Williams, ElFallah and Nguyen belie the conventional wisdom surrounding community-college students—that they’re not as academically inclined as their liberal-arts counterparts or are less likely to be involved in student life. From the moment they stepped onto campus, they set out to make an impact.

Clearing a Path

Last spring, Dickinson signed agreements with five institutions as part of its new Community College Partnership Program: HACC, Montgomery County and Northampton community colleges in Pennsylvania, and Montgomery College and Howard County Community College in Maryland.

The partnerships’ aim is to provide a seamless process for honors-program students interested in transferring to Dickinson. Through one-on-one academic advising, mentoring programs and streamlined financial-aid packages, more students will have access to the college’s distinctive educational experience.

“Many community-college students feel there’s no other transfer option but to a state university,” says Dottie Scheneman, director of transfer admissions. “We want to encourage these students to think outside the box—introduce them to the concept of the liberal arts.”

Although Williams, ElFallah and Nguyen are not part of the new program, they all hail from partner schools—Williams from HACC and ElFallah and Nguyen from Montgomery College—and are representative of the students that Dickinson expects to admit through the new program next fall.

“These students are very committed,” says Scheneman. “They are very talented, very goal-oriented, and when they arrive on campus they are ready to be engaged.”

According to Assistant to the President Norm Jones, who is overseeing the transfer partnership initiative, reaching out to community colleges helps Dickinson attract a more diverse student population.

“Our philosophy is intentionality,” he adds. “We’re paying attention to the system we already have in place for transfers in general. We’re also [discussing] best practices and how we can cultivate something that is appropriate for this particular population.”

Crossing Bridges

Community-college students can face some challenges in their transition—though none are insurmountable. According to Brenda Bretz, associate provost for curriculum, and Phil Earenfight, associate professor of art and director of The Trout Gallery, the issues are less about academics than crossing cultural bridges.

“The students are from honors colleges,” Bretz says. “They already know what academic work is and they have experience with small classes and seminars. Some already have had the opportunity to take leadership roles.”

Earenfight, who attended a community college and later taught at two community colleges in New Jersey, notes that “they’re going to transfer into a more closed environment where students have much more in common with each other. At a community college, you have lifelong learners, trade-school students, military veterans—a very wide range of people and ages.”

Not only do transfer students face a community where relationships already have been forged through first-year orientation programs and seminars, they also are arriving on campus when many of their peers are studying abroad.

“There have been some difficulties in making new friends,” Minh says. “But the college has been really welcoming.” He adds that he much prefers living on campus to his hour-long commute at Montgomery College. “At Dickinson, it’s five minutes,” he says with a smile.

According to Jones, plans are in place to conduct individual interviews with current transfer students to gauge their academic and social experiences so far and with focus groups in the spring as a follow-up.

He says the program is a pilot, with the goal of admitting about five or six students from each partner institution. “We want to keep it manageable because we want to dig into student experiences to make strategic decisions. Expansion doesn’t always mean numbers—it will be in the context of the overall admissions picture.”

Meanwhile, Williams and ElFallah—who juggled full-time jobs with their classes prior to Dickinson—are happy to focus their energy on being college students. “I’m just living in the moment and enjoying everything Dickinson has to offer,” says ElFallah. 

Published November 24, 2009