We recently had the pleasure to host Larry Schall, the new president of the New England Commission on Higher Education, at White Mountains Community College (WMCC). He and his wife Betty did “pit-stops” at 25 colleges over two weeks. His visit and how he captured it in his blog post served as a reminder that the White Mountains magic continues to make WMCC a special place to learn, work and grow.
Larry and Betty chose to divide and conquer during their visit. Larry spent some time with WMCC students in the culinary arts program on “sandwich day” and Betty visited our welding program. Their visit coincided with the recent announcement that with our 54% graduation rate, WMCC ranks 20th among over 850 two-year colleges across the country in seeing our students graduate in three years or less. More White Mountains magic.
Fighting above our weight class
His piece was a reminder that WMCC has this local and national recognition of our students’ success. We can’t wave that flag enough because – as a small school in New Hampshire’s North Country – we fight way above our weight class when it comes to student success, metrics of persistence, retention and graduation rates. This gives us reason to celebrate during the holiday season in a year like no other. Everything we do is about our students, whether it’s alleviating food insecurity with our new food service pantry or providing CARES Act funds to put money in the hands of needy students for gift cards and technology. These relatively small gestures can literally make the difference for a student being able to stay in school.
Our philosophy of providingwraparound support services for students from our staff and faculty has been tested in 2020. As a community of learners and educators, I believe we are passing this test. As everyone knows, when the stay at home order came and WMCC – like all colleges – switched to remote learning, we were in unfamiliar territory and survival mode. Nobody knew how long this would last and how we’d get through the semester. At some point it actually pivoted in the spring from surviving to thriving.
Staying connected remotely
To ensure that our student community was connected and cared for, we teamed up as a staff and every student received a personal call and point of contact. We began weekly open online meetings for students to drop in. I recorded videos on a weekly basis and sent them to students. They started out as somewhat formal, with me in a suit and tie in the office. After a while, they shifted to me recording in a t-shirt and hoodie out on the deck of my house. We started having some real fun with these and based on the feedback, our students really enjoyed being engaged in this way.
Everyone in our community stepped up and showed remarkable resiliency. If a student needed a laptop for remote learning, we got them a laptop. If anyone needed fuel assistance or food, we got it to them. We had this culture of caring before we shifted to remote education. We doubled down on it with the pandemic and people almost seem like they are more resilient and stabilized.
Over the spring and summer, we used this White Mountains magic to help ensure that our graduating students could complete their coursework. This was a huge undertaking and I recall thinking in March that you can’t learn to weld online, and you can’t learn to cook online either. I was happy to be wrong on both counts. This took a lot of out-of-the-box thinking for the many hands-on programs that we are known for. Our bread and butter programs such as culinary arts, welding, healthcare and others got seriously creative.
Our culinary team found technology and software through our learning management system to do demonstrations. They did live remote videos. They told students what supplies were going to be needed from the store. They were literally virtually teaching them how to professionally cook and bake online. Culinary figured it out. Nursing figured it out. And we adapted. Even welding shifted online and they did their remote OSHA safety training and blueprint reading online. They tried to get in what they could and were able to get back into the labs later on in the summer to complete those specific hands-on pieces that were required.
An in-person graduation
Fast forward to September 26 – we were so proud to be one of very few colleges to hold an in-person graduation. That day 171 students graduated and 75 were in-person. Seeing the families and the crowd was a wonderful thing. One highlight of that day was watching our oldest graduate, who is 76 years old, walk across the stage. As she’s walking across, I reach over and hold out her diploma and what I guess is her grandson who yells, “Nanna, you did it!” It was a very special moment. It was beautiful and magical.
Our student Senate president, who was supposed to give a speech, was in Canada and wasn’t allowed over the border and back. We made a life-size cardboard cutout of her. We put it behind the podium, and I stood there with my arm around the cardboard while we played her pre-recorded speech.
These are moments many of us at WMCC will hold close forever. They are the signs of a community that is resilient, nimble and even joyous. They are also signs that show the power of the White Mountains magic.
Dr. Charles Lloyd is the president of White Mountains Community College (WMCC). Located in Berlin with satellite campuses in Littleton and North Conway, WMCC is one of seven colleges in the Community College System of New Hampshire and offers Associate Degree and Certificate programs, plus training options, preparing students for 21st century job opportunities as well as transfer pathways to four-year colleges and universities.