Using the Power of “Team” to Create Pathways to Students’ Dreams

Using the Power of "Team" to Create Pathways to Students' Dreams

In 2002, servant leadership author John Maxwell published a book titled: “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Together We Can do the Impossible.” I have used this phrase often throughout my career, both as a personal reminder for me and as a motivator for the incredible community college teams I have been privileged to lead over the past 25 plus years. I believe in this philosophy so much, it was no surprise when this theme showed up in a recommendation in my doctoral thesis, and later in practice as a transformative model for advancing higher levels of community college completion and helping more students create a pathway to their dreams.

Community colleges serve as entryways to post-secondary education for literally millions of students each year. The access to the high quality, public higher education provided by these institutions is, in my humble (and mostly unbiased opinion), the best gateway to a brighter future for college students in the United States each year, including low-income, underrepresented, first-generation, and non-traditional, adult students. However, many community college students face inherent risk factors and barriers that place them at a disadvantage from the start, and all too often hinder their ability to complete their degree.  Within the United States, low numbers of community college students persist to complete their degrees, and this has become a significant higher education issue, presenting problems of greater societal consequence.

When I began my doctoral research in 2014, I knew I wanted to focus on understanding how community college services and interventions can effectively strengthen success for lower-income students. For me, it was personal. Not only have I spent more than a quarter of a century as a community college educator and practitioner, but I am also a former low-income, non-traditional, adult community college student. I personally understand why access to high-quality higher education is a critical need and a primary reason community colleges exist, but access alone is not nearly enough to help most low-income students reach their post-secondary academic goals. I personally understand that being academically unprepared or underprepared for college is only one barrier faced by poor students, and more often than not, it is not their greatest obstacle. I personally understand that students who are hungry or who are worried about how they will pay their rent or buy medicine for their babies cannot make college their priority.  These kinds of obstacles often trigger the end of community college students’ journeys, even though education is precisely what they need to become financially stable or to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

My qualitative research was aimed at: understanding the perceptions and realities of successful low-income community college students and revealing meaning constructed from the students’ understanding of what contributed to their ability to succeed. The study was guided by this research question: How do low-income community college students who are within six months of completing their degrees make sense of and explain their academic success? Most notably, my study clearly affirmed the positive impact of intentional, proactive and relational team-based support structures and systems. High-performing teams of community college staff and faculty intentionally working together to proactively support students by building strong and productive relationships with their students and each other, will see significantly higher levels of persistence, retention, and completion with substantially lower equity and achievement gaps. In short, teamwork makes students’ dreams work!

Over the next few weeks, between now and Thanksgiving 2021, I will share a series of blog posts, informed by data to demonstrate the power of intentional, proactive and relational teamwork in helping students create pathways to their dreams. The first step in achieving anything as an organization is to create an aspirational and inspirational vision that paints a compelling picture for everyone on the team of where you are attempting to go together. I believe we have done that at Forsyth Tech — our destination, Vision 2025, is clear:  Forsyth Technical Community College is a catalyst for equitable economic mobility, empowering lives and transforming communities. We know where we are going, now we have to cultivate and sustain a one college team structure and culture grounded by our core values — excellence, learning, innovation, diversity and integrity — to guide us to achieving our vision.

This blog series is intended to encourage us at Forsyth Tech to look introspectively at where we are as an institution with regards to our readiness to reach our Vision 2025. Additionally, I hope the data and ideas presented will help us internally identify institutional strengths that we can expand upon and weaknesses that we can improve upon, and possibly also help other colleges and colleagues consider the positive impact that intentional, proactive and relational support systems can have on their student success measures. Our students depend on us, and as public servants at a community college, we owe them, and each of the communities we serve, our greatest and best work. After all, they don’t call us Trailblazers for nothing!