Reach Higher Massachusetts comes to FSU

(Participants of the Reach Higher event posed for a picture. Photo by Kayllan Olicio.)

Framingham State hosted the 2017 Reach Higher Massachusetts on Wednesday, Aug. 9.

Massachusetts and out-of-state faculty, staff and administrators from secondary and post-secondary education attended a series of sessions geared toward helping students succeed in their chosen paths after completing secondary education.

Bob Bardwell, Reach Higher team leader, said the organization was founded in 2014 by former First Lady Michelle Obama.

According to Bardwell, “Michelle Obama said ‘We need to do more. More for our students who aren’t graduating high school, our students who are not going on to higher ed and even those who do but don’t persist. Those rates are not acceptable and what can we do as individuals, as organizations, as schools, as communities to do more?’”

Julie Heinz of Reach Higher said the organization is based on Obama’s own personal experiences. She added Obama saw herself in students who were and are struggling to complete post-secondary education.

She said Obama “wanted to do everything in her power to inspire those students to reach higher. … We refer to her as the school counselor in-chief.”

Bardwell added, “If you believe … that we have more to do. … If you believe in that philosophy then you’re going to say, ‘I don’t have any more time. My plate is full but I’m going to do one more thing to try and help.’”

Heinz stressed that the work the organization is doing will continue beyond the administration that created it. “We are happy and healthy living in Washington, D.C.,” she added.

Lorretta Holloway, vice president of enrollment and student development, expressed the importance the work both universities and K-12 educators do.

She added, “I love having events like this on campus – partly because people can get together and see Framingham State, because that’s part of my job, but I really appreciate when we get to talk to teachers and talk to guidance counselors because you are essential to the work we do here.”

James Peyser, secretary of education and keynote speaker said, “We do have a lot to be proud of here in Massachusetts when it comes to college education. … In part, we have gotten used to patting ourselves on the back with some good reason.”

According to Peyser, Massachusetts’ dropout rate over the last several years has dropped by almost 50 percent and the state’s graduation rates are high and well above national averages.

He added, “We have the highest percentage of adults who have a post-secondary credential, which is about 55 percent. We have the highest percentage of adults who have a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is almost 40 percent. We are the most highly educated state in one of the most highly educated countries in the world.”

In one session, presenters from MassBay and FSU discussed their current collaborations and partnership.

Shayna Eddy, associate dean and dean of undergraduate admission at FSU, said partnerships with community colleges led to high numbers of transfer students. “We have about 400 transfer students that come in every year.”

Lisa Slavin, assistant vice president of enrollment at MassBay, added the institution sends many students to FSU through the MassTransfer program.

Eddy said an important factor in partnerships is having staff who believe “that starting at a community college or partnering with a community college is the best for some students.”

According to Eddy, part of the FSU and MassBay partnership and collaboration is offering a campus life experience to MassBay students. MassBay students can live on the FSU campus while attending classes at MassBay.

Slavin said due to FSU and MassBay attending college fairs at local high schools together, they are able to demonstrate the seamless transition between a two- and four-year institution.

In another session, LaDonna Bridges, associate dean of academic success, spoke about how social class can shape a first-generation student’s academic and social experiences in college, leading to a higher graduation rate.

She said social and academic integration presents a “distinct difficulty for first-generation students.”

Bridges shared her story of being a first-generation student. “I fast realized that I didn’t have a clue about the world I had entered academically, socially, economically.”

She recalled how during her college career, she felt as if she was never good enough. Bridges said she felt as though “it would be just a matter of time before someone found out that I didn’t actually belong at that school.”

Bridges discussed how she would “fake it” socially, and she became adept at not talking about her family and home life. She said she was living in two separate worlds.

“When I went home to the Ozarks, my language changed, my dress changed, what I talked about changed. I never talked about anything at school because I didn’t think anyone would get it, and they never asked those questions. When I went back to school, I adapted back into that, and I didn’t know what I was doing at that time,” she said.

Bridges added most first-generation students share her experiences and feelings of living in two worlds, and those feelings are more prevalent if they attend an elite school.

There are some best practices to help first-generation students transition and navigate the road to graduation, Bridges said.

There needs to be acknowledgement that first-generation students “may have a different road map to success than continuing and second-generation students.”

She added one of FSU’s practices is to try and involve faculty and staff by encouraging them to identifying as first-generation. “We give them posters to put up outside their doors. … We want our faculty to put stickers on their door that say, ‘I’m first. Ask me about it.’”

Bridges said there needs to be communication with students “that they are always going to live in two worlds and that is OK.”

Bridges added first-generation students deserve recognition for “the tremendous strength that they bring to us. They are perpetual border crossers. They navigate situations better than so many people because they had to. … They have resistance capital. They are not going to go lightly or easily. They are not going to be beaten down easily, and we need to acknowledge that.”

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