By Lucas Southwell
Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink was the main speaker at an event Wednesday, Jan. 8, that welcomed faculty members back for the 2020 winter semester, gave updates on the college’s activities, and discussed the barriers to education faced by students with an emphasis on mental health and economic difficulties.
Pink was especially excited to announce a developing possibility regarding GRCC’s involvement in the Grand Rapids Public School District becoming a Promise Zone.
Promise Zones are designated school districts in which students from those districts can receive financial support to attend certain colleges and obtain a degree or certification.
Pink was excited because it is a possibility that GRCC will be selected as the exclusive college that students from the GRPS District will be able to attend and have their personal tuition costs paid for by the promise zone program. The Grand Rapids Board of Education is voting on this proposal Monday, Jan. 13.
Should the proposal be accepted, it would mean that any students going to high school in the district and living in the area will be eligible to receive financial support if they go on to attend GRCC. This could be implemented as soon as fall of 2020.
Many of the district’s highschoolers already end up going to GRCC, so Pink said he only expects a small bump in attendance, should the proposal be accepted. Pink said the major change would most likely be an increase in the average number of credit hours taken by students, since additional funding would enable students who could previously only afford to pay for a couple of classes each semester to be able to take on a larger class load.
Pink had more good news regarding the college’s application for a Title III federal grant.
GRCC’s first application for the grant, worth $2.1 million, was accepted, something Pink said was uncommon and a fantastic achievement for the college’s grants team.
Eric Mullen, Dean of Student Success and Retention, was called up to the stage and presented information regarding the grant.
According to Mullen the money from the grant will be spent over a five-year period and will boost GRCC’s advisory program through the development of a new software platform and increased human resources that will give GRCC the “tools and infrastructure” needed to be better “engaged” with students and help them “navigate” their way through the college experience. Before leaving the stage Mullen said this new system will also help on the back end through an increase in the available data for the college to use to make sure no students “fall through the cracks.”
During his presentation, Pink also gave an update on the GRCC construction and expansion projects.
He mentioned the Applied Technology Center building renovation, a project funded with the aid of state funding, that will create more classrooms and spaces for students, specifically for IT and Advanced Manufacturing classes.
Pink also talked about the work being done on Mabel Engel Hall and Lettinga House.
The Lettinga House is set to become Custard Hall and will house the GRCC Foundation and serve as an alumni house, while Mable Engel will have student facing offices.
Pink also added that he expected the sale of a former retail property in Holland to GRCC for the purposes of a consolidated lakeshore campus would be finalized in the coming days, with renovations beginning soon after. The property is a former JC Penney building at an open air shopping mall called The Shops at Westshore. Pink said that the College was “already getting ourselves in the fundraising mode out on the lakeshore” and that the property would allow the college to consolidate its four separate, small locations that it rents in the area into one large location that the college owns.
Pink said initial feedback has been positive with Holland residents expressing thanks for what the college is planning to do with the property, not just due to the increased access to higher education it will provide, but also because GRCC is taking “an empty box” and utilizing the space valued by the community.
This reusing of the old, vacant retail property was compatible with one of the event’s themes; sustainability.
The entire event was labeled a “zero waste” day and Pink said that everything being used at the event was “compostable.”
Pink also announced GRCC’s involvement in a national competition between colleges to see which campus can recycle the most material between Feb. 2 and Mar. 28. Pink hopes the event will motivate people on campus to not just recycle during the weeks of the competition, but instill a permanent habit of recycling. As a part of this movement, GRCC has installed new campus wide recycling bins.
Another topic of note in the president’s speech was the idea of disruption.
Pink has talked about being a “disruptor” to the status quo in past speeches, but this time he focused in on disruptors in the classroom who were changing and advancing teaching through new methods. In his presentation he portrayed several different new techniques GRCC professors were using in the classroom to teach their students in a variety of different subjects, emphasizing that they weren’t just thinking outside the box, they were “moving the box out of the way.”
As a part of this encouragement of disruptive thinking, Pink also announced a new program that would allow GRCC faculty members and staff to suggest changes and plans to improve the college directly to President Pink’s office. Through this GRCC Innovation Initiative, any faculty member or college staff member may submit a proposal to pilot a new and innovative idea and get it funded through a one-time grant.
Pink said this new initiative was important because the faculty and staff see things “that (he) never sees” and so it is important to ensure that they have a voice.
Another major topic of the event was the barriers students face in their pursuit of higher education.
At one point during the speech a short clip from Sara Goldrick-Rab’s appearance on “The Today Show with Trevor Noah” was shown, in which Goldrick-Rab discussed the growing concern for the economic barriers faced by college students. Goldrick-Rab claimed that 13% of community college students were homeless and also discussed the struggles many students have in feeding themselves. In the clip, Goldrick-Rab suggested an expansion of the National School Lunch program to include college students to help fight this issue. Goldrick-Rab was scheduled to speak to GRCC faculty and staff Jan. 9 about these sort of barriers faced by students and solutions for getting around those barriers that can be implemented at GRCC.
Following the clip Pink added his own words in support of Goldrick-Rab’s position.
“When we have so many students who are on free and reduced lunch when they’re in high school, when they’re in grade school,” Pink said. “What would make us think that just because they graduate that all of a sudden that problems no longer there?”
Another major barrier facing students today that was discussed was mental health problems.
Students at GRCC who are members of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society made a video presentation that was presented at the event. The video explained many of the challenges mental health can pose to a student’s ability to pursue an education and explained how professors could help by showing understanding and even reaching out to their students.
Lynnae Selberg, Associate Professor and Academic Advisor at GRCC, announced Phi Theta Kappa is also hosting a regional conference at GRCC between the 15 and 17 of May. According to Selberg the conference’s theme is “2020, building a vision for your future,” and during the conference a time capsule from 1995 will be opened and a new time capsule will be started that will be opened in 2045.
A panel of GRCC faculty members who deal with mental health issues and the counseling of students came onto the stage at the end of the speech and talked a little bit more about mental health and the barriers students face.
Dr. Andre Fields, a counselor at GRCC and a member of the panel pointed out that there has been an increase in the use of counseling services by students regarding mental illness in relation to depression, stress, and anxiety over the past several years and that most college students are between the ages of 18 and 25 which is a high risk subsection of the population when it comes to suffering from mental illness.
The panel discussed the many important institutional ways in which the college can help students deal with mental illness, including counseling and tutoring, but they also emphasized the impact an individual can have on another person. They talked about how reaching out to a person and showing that they matter can go a long way and how impactful relationships, both good and bad, are on a person’s mental health.
Panel members also discussed the importance of coping skills and how aversion to strong emotions and an unhealthy perception of oneself can lead to mental health problems.
The panel encouraged professors to actively engage with students and to try and reach out to them even in small ways.
“These students just need somebody to say, ‘hey, is everything ok?’,” said Ennis Young, Assistant Professor of Developmental Education and member of the panel. “These students need to know that they matter and sometimes when they’re in the midst of their depression or are dealing with anxiety issues they don’t feel like anybody’s there for them.”
Young encouraged professors to actively assist their students who face barriers get past those barriers through the help of the college’s resources and counselors.
GRCC students can find food, medical, dental, vision, emergency housing, and emergency funding resources at www.grcc.edu/studentlifeandconduct/gethelp and www.grcc.edu/counselingcareerdevelopment/mentalhealthwellness/communityresources.
GRCC Students can view all of the free counseling resources made available to them at www.grcc.edu/counselingcareerdevelopment/mentalhealthandwellness.