Posted: August 28, 2008
Becky Wai-Ling Packard knows first-generation, ethnic minority, and working-class students can face some daunting challenges while pursuing a college education. In upcoming months, she hopes to identify the obstacles for these students, along with the supports that will insure their success.
Packard, an associate professor of psychology and education who has long focused her work on helping first-generation students achieve their goals, is currently recruiting female students from Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, and other urban community colleges in Massachusetts for a study that will analyze community college experiences, with emphasis on student success strategies and college support resources.
According to Packard, more than half of first-generation college students choose to attend a community college. Last year she was awarded a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $427,000 to fund a study of working-class women using community college pathways to pursue four-year STEM degrees--that is, degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math--all heavily in demand in the work force.
"We're trying to increase the diversity in the pipeline, but we can't just focus on four-year colleges. These students stop before they get that far," she said.
Both HCC and STCC have transfer agreements with several four-year schools, and Packard's research will look at various aspects of the transfer experience. Through retrospective interviews, she'll examine how students transferring to four-year institutions arrived at this transition point.
"They're navigating community colleges successfully, so we want to know how they got on track," she said.
Throughout 2008-2009, she'll follow the same students through their first year in their transfer college to monitor their retention and determine how their experiences differ from those of traditional college juniors. She'll also be recruiting new community college students who've decided to pursue a bachelor's degree to learn about their first-year experiences.
"How should we support them, and what's the best pathway for them?" she said.
Packard noted Mount Holyoke has already taken some steps to ease the transfer process, and the College has a successful track record in shepherding transfer students to success. The Frances Perkins Program, established for women over the age of 24, offers a part-time option to accommodate women with competing family and work responsibilities. MHC has also partnered with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to support high-achieving, low- and moderate-income community college transfer students, strengthening its relationship with HCC through enhanced outreach, course support, and student financial aid.
"These innovations in higher education increase access for students and strengthen colleges at the same time," said Packard. "Most of my research assistants are first-generation college students and transfer students, and I could not do this important work without their insights and dedication."
Since most first-generation community college students work while attending school, Packard is also investigating what organizational supports are available to them in the workplace, and if and how those supports play a role in the student's educational success. For the past year she's been reaching out to community employers--large and small manufacturers, banks, and the grocery/food industry--to determine what support they offer employees who are also pursuing their education. These companies recognize the importance of educating the local work force and want to contribute to the development of better workers with needed skills.
"They've been surprisingly receptive. They've enhanced their education policies to allow for better flex time and reimbursement policies," Packard noted. "They're responding well and want to know what other companies are doing. A couple of companies have formal partnerships with Springfield schools and their programs are especially innovative."
While her current research is focusing only on women, Packard expects to follow up in the future with a coed study. This is her second grant from the National Science Foundation. Her first was through the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development program (CAREER). She was recognized by the White House with a Presidential Award in 2005.
"As a first-generation college graduate myself, I feel fortunate to study a topic close to my heart with such generous support," Packard said.
Area transfer students or businesses who wish to participate in or learn more about this project should contact Packard at firstname.lastname@example.org call her team at 413-538-2363.