Community college leader innovates and offers students support

Community college leader innovates and offers students support

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - In an informative Memphis Rotary Club address, Dr. Tracy D. Hall, President of Southwest Tennessee Community College, shared some of the challenges of her 8,500 students and bright new promise for Southwest's future. Hall announced the Tennessee Board of Regents has approved Southwest as the first public institution in the state to offer a Funeral Services Education Program. Hall said she met with 15 or 16 funeral directors last week.

"They were a lively bunch, no pun intended, "Hall said.  "Funeral directors came together to say we need this program. It'll be located at our Whitehaven Center," Hall said while noting that the funeral program start date is now set for spring 2018.

Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam's first in the nation effort to offer community college or technical school education tuition free, has prompted an uptick in enrollment. But retaining community college students in Memphis remains an ongoing challenge. Many have grown up in generational poverty and have little or no family history of aspiring to academic excellence. Hall explained that most of the students who attend Southwest (more than 50%) are first in their families to attend college.

"They have no idea how to navigate the higher education landscape,' Hall said. The Southwest student body is comprised of 75% minorities and nearly all the students (83%) would qualify for financial aid. "Many need remediation out of high school in reading, math, and English," Hall said.

Hired on July 13, 2015, Dr. Hall said she and her team began a careful study of when and why many students suddenly stop their studies and simply quit school.

"We have to address more than just the academics of students. When students come to us facing things like hunger, homelessness, child care, domestic violence, these are areas that we have not delved into because we have no experience in that. We're educators," Hall told Rotarians.

So Southwest has added a mental health counselor to the college staff and contracted with the University of Memphis so that graduate students earning masters and doctorate degrees in counseling can serve Southwest students and help them address whatever challenges they face.  "In community colleges, we cannot say: we don't do that. We can't say that," Hall said of the kinds of emotional support and guidance services her students need instead of referring them to services off campus. "When students need, they need it where they are. Most of the time if you refer them somewhere they don't seek help at all. What they do is stop coming to school, "Hall said. In an aggressive effort to retain students, Hall says Southwest will create an emergency student fund to help financially strapped students pay for a flat tire repair, for example.

"They can't have an emergency every month, "Hall said. "Some of our students don't have the internal fortitude to keep going. Some of them have so many challenges in their lives, this is just one last straw (attending classes)  and if they have to give up something, they'll just give up going to school. Because they can't see that if they keep on going to school, they can improve their family's life later on. Right now it's the immediate need they're focused on. So whatever we can do to assist them in addressing their needs.

That is what we are planning to do. Social and emotional support are things that we're focusing on, "Hall said.  But the community college president stressed that the ultimate goal is to produce graduates who can fend for themselves. "We want students to be able to advocate for themselves. If a student comes to us that first semester freshman year and they need a lot of help, and by the time they graduate, they still need the same level of help, we have failed them. The goal is not to create permanent people who need help.

The goal is to help yourself. But we have to provide the academic and social and emotional support life skills, critical thinking, advocacy, the kinds of things we hear employers say they want from our students," Hall said.

Hall was hired by the Tennessee Board of Regents after a national search that produced 65 candidates and four finalists. A native of St. Louis, Hall served as Vice President of Academic Affairs at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park from 2011 to 2015. She devoted five years of her career at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley in Kansas City, MO where she was Vice-President of Academic Affairs and six years as Associate Dean of Instruction while also teaching speech, mass communication, and intercultural communication. Hall also worked as minority student retention services coordinator at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. She started her teaching career at St. Louis Community College-Meramec from 1993-97 as a Communications instructor.

"This is my third urban community college. The challenges are the same. It's about changing lives, that's what we do," Dr. Hall told Rotary members.

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