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A college campus can be an intimidating place for a student, particularly those just starting out. There are classrooms to find, books to buy, and services to navigate. Caring Campus, an initiative being offered at community colleges in Orange County and across California, is enlisting classified professionals and other college employees to provide a helping hand and a smiling face to students.
Irvine Valley College, Cypress College, and Saddleback College are among the California community colleges that are participating in Caring Campus and more will soon be joining, said Brad Phillips, president/CEO of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, which developed the Caring Campus program.
As the IEBC website explains, “Caring Campus is based on decades of research documenting that students who feel connected to their college are more likely to complete and succeed in their courses, persist from semester to semester, and achieve their educational goals.”
According to Phillips, Caring Campus is based on a simple goal: “To help students feel welcome and have a sense of belonging when they enter their education at a community college.”
In California, Caring Campus focuses on “classified professionals,” those crucial staff members who perform a wide range of functions ranging from financial aid and admissions office staff to the maintenance workers who ensure campuses look clean and inviting.
“Who do students first contact when they come to a community college?” Phillips asks. “It’s a staff member. When that staff member shows care and kindness, they feel welcome at college.”
Irvine Valley College, with about 13,000 students, was one of the few community colleges among a cohort of four-year universities whose participation was supported by a $1 million grant from the Ascendium Education Group, one of the nation’s leading higher education philanthropies.
Desiree Ortiz, president of the college’s Classified Senate, Caring Campus Classified liaison, and a senior administrative assistant in the Financial Aid Office, said Caring Campus is a huge venture at IVC.
“It’s a reflection of what we do every day, from classified professionals to faculty to administrators,” she said. “It’s how we care for not only each other but for our students. It’s the everyday work that we do and the passion that we show. It’s how we help our students succeed.”
Caring Campus began at IVC in the Fall 2019 semester, just before the pandemic shut down most on-campus classes in Spring 2020. Amy Hunter, a previous Classified Senate president and senior administrative assistant for the School of Business Sciences, served as the first Classified liaison between the campus and Phillips’ organization. She was named Classified Employee of the Year by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office this year, in part because of her leadership with Caring Campus.
Hunter said the training sessions with Phillips reinforced the important role that classified professionals play no matter their job.
“There are employees or departments that may initially think, ‘Well, I’m not really directly involved with students,’” Hunter said. “But if you look at it across the oard, you are helping students in one way or the other. Caring Campus allows our staff across the campus to be involved in a movement.”
Staff working on campus wear blue T-shirts and name tags so that students can easily identify someone who can help them. A document with frequently asked questions and a list of employee contacts was distributed to all employees so they can answer students’ questions and direct them to the person who can best assist them.
When drive-through events were held to assist students with food and supplies, classified professionals stepped up to volunteer. “There was a sense of real community that we were all able to participate and show up for each other,” Ortiz said.
The Caring Campus team is now working on a video to explain to students and staff what the concept means. Caring Campus is demonstrated in countless ways – from reassuring a student worried about losing her financial aid or walking a lost student to a campus building instead of just pointing to it on a map.
Through Caring Campus, classified professionals are also taking a higher profile role at IVC. The college is immersed in Guided Pathways, a structured approach that provides students with a clear pattern of courses, and a team of classified professionals is working to help achieve that goal.
“It’s what we do every day to show our passion and our care for students,” Hunter said. “We are here for them, we are real, we are connected, and we are interested in their success.”
This article first appeared in the News Center for Career Education in the Orange County Region’s community colleges.