‘Learning Communities’ help students succeed

June 12, 2018

Attending college can be a challenge. Personal finance, time management, language barriers and life’s everyday stresses sometimes lead students to drop classes or quit college entirely.

That’s where Learning Communities help make a crucial difference, as students discover they don’t have to face these challenges alone.

In 2012 instructor Tim Schell and Julie Belmore started CGCC’s first learning community, comprised of Reading 90, Writing 90, Career Guidance 101 and ALC 51, a three-hour per week lab where students work with their reading and writing instructors.

Learning Communities help break down traditional barriers between subject content, encouraging students to apply math skills, for instance, in everyday communication and, conversely, how reading and writing skills often apply to math problems. But most importantly, Learning Communities bring students and teachers together as a team, overcoming the sense of isolation many students feel with unfamiliar academic topics.

These days, Tim teaches Writing 90 and a Learning Community lab he shares with Reading 90 instructor Jenn Kamrar. Each instructor works with a group of students for 40 minutes, and then they switch groups.

“When it comes to teaching, we also cross pollinate our curriculum,” Jenn explains. “While we may be focused on writing personal narratives in the writing course, we’ll read and analyze personal essays in the reading course. Each class then reinforces and deepens the learning that happens in the other.”

Learning Communities’ effect on students is profound, as attested by two students who recently described their experiences to CGCC’s board of directors.

Cindy Vandeventer is an expansive, outgoing woman who came to CGCC from Mercy House, a faith-based, clean and sober treatment center she joined following prison. Mercy House encouraged her to go back to school, so she checked out The Dalles campus of CGCC; she was so impressed she signed up that day. Yet she found the first day of class intimidating.

“I felt like a fish out of water,” Cindy recalls. “I was the oldest person in the class, and I was nervous about coming back. I was considering dropping and taking all online classes where I wouldn’t have to be around other students.” But that changed when she met Jenn at the Learning Community. Jenn offered one-on-one help, giving Cindy the skills and confidence to succeed.

Brenda Perez is composed and self-possessed, but she had similar feelings about attending school. “I was super-nervous, and worried that I didn’t blend in,” Brenda explained.

She was pleasantly surprised by the Learning Communities and impressed by the support she discovered there. Brenda not only benefitted through her studies, but wanted to become even more involved by encouraging and helping other students in the class, calling upon her bi-lingual skills to explain content to her classmates, even translating when necessary. Getting to know everyone in the Learning Community made her want to stay in school and pushed her to do her best. When she started at CGCC Brenda intended to proceed quickly, obtain her certificate after a year and move on. But the encouragement she received from Tim and Jenn convinced her this should only be the beginning.

“Jenn makes me want more out of life,” Brenda said.

Life can be rough. After a close relative passed away, Cindy was overwhelmed by grief, falling into depression. She was ready to quit school, but Jenn gave her the encouragement to continue. “Jenn not only was helpful with my education, but I learned so much about myself, my inner self,” she recalls.

When students enroll in a Learning Community they join a cohort and stay together for three consecutive classes of reading and writing, spending the year together. “We really get to know each student and what they’re individually going through,” Jenn explains. “We also have the opportunity to offer them support in ways that other, more traditionally scheduled college courses might not.” Indeed, Tim and Jenn have each taken students to counselors, referring suicidal students to the Center for Living, a professional counseling service.

Personal tragedy sometimes also brings creative ways of coping.

“We had one student whose apartment burned down, causing her, her husband and three small children to flee in the middle of the night,” Tim said. “The student did a research paper about PTSD in children. She also said to us: ‘You really care about us.’”

The skills Cindy learned in class helped her heal. One of her assignments was a personal essay; she wrote an honest, brutal paper describing some of the challenges of abuse, domestic violence and addiction she has faced. As students read their essays aloud, hers resonated with others who had faced some of the same issues in their lives.

“I was so impressed by the young people in my class,” Cindy said. “They are breaking away from some of the same hardships I have faced and starting a journey toward a different life.”  Cindy is growing and changing also, now spending her spare time attending church, AA, and visiting her kids and grandchildren. She wants to be a counselor, specializing in drug and alcohol or sexual abuse. 

Brenda works with children while continuing her education. She is a hard worker who likes getting things done. Her diligence is paying off, as she completes her two-year associate degree in Science and Early Childhood Education. Next, Brenda plans to attend Portland State University. Her goal is to own and operate a preschool. (When time allows, she enjoys the beautiful outdoors, too.)

For instructors Jenn Kamrar and Tim Schell, Learning Communities are intense but rewarding. “My students are beyond inspiring,” says Jenn. “I’m humbled by their power, and I couldn’t be more proud of their accomplishments.”

“Teaching in these Learning Communities has been very rewarding because I can see the difference in these students’ lives,” Tim added. “Sometimes the biggest challenge is keeping a student in school, and when these students get to know each other — as they always do — they push each other to stay and work, and not give up. Another reward is we get to see students help each other in the lab. It sounds simple, but it is truly beautiful to behold.”