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 — students discover they don’t have to face these challenges alone. Learning communities bring students and teachers together as a team, encouraging peer support and an understanding of how academic subjects relate to each other: For instance, how math is used in communication, and how reading is important to work through a math problem.
The word “community” is what’s most important: Students learn as a team, not in isolation.
When students enroll in a learning community, they join a cohort and stay together for three consecutive classes of reading and writing.
“We really get to know each student and what they’re individually going through,” said Jenn Kamrar, who currently works with the program.
“We also have the opportunity to offer them support in ways that other, more traditionally scheduled college courses might not.”
In 2012 instructors, Tim Schell and Julie Belmore started Columbia Gorge Community College’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.
The 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.
These days, Schell 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,” Kamrar explained. “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.”
The 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,” She 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 Kamrar at the learning community. She offered one-on-one help, helping Vandeventer gain the skills and confidence she needed to succeed.
Student 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,” Perez explained.
She was pleasantly surprised by the learning communities and impressed by the support she discovered there. She not only benefited in her studies, but wanted to become even more involved by encouraging and helping other students in the class, using her bi-lingual skills to explain content to her classmates and even translating when necessary. Getting to know everyone in the community made her want to stay in school and pushed her to do her best, she said.
When she started at CGCC she intended to proceed quickly, obtain her certificate after a year and move on. But the encouragement she received from Schell and Kamrar convinced her this should only be the beginning. “Jenn makes me want more out of life,” Perez explained.
Both students faced challenges while at the college. After a close relative passed away, Vandeventer was overwhelmed by grief, falling into depression. She was ready to quit school, but Kamrar 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 said.
Indeed, both instructors have referred suicidal students to the Center for Living, a professional counseling service, and taken them to counselors.
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,” Schell said.
“The student did a research paper about PTSD in children. She also said to us, ‘You really care about us.’”
The skills Vandeventer 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 those issues in their lives.
“I was so impressed by the young people in my class,” Vandeventer said. “They are breaking away from some of the same hardships I have faced and are starting a journey toward a different life.”
She 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, alcohol or sexual abuse.
Perez is working to complete her two-year associate degree in Science and Early Childhood Education, and works with children while continuing her education.
She plans to attend Portland State University, with a long-term goal of owning and operating a preschool.
“Teaching in these Learning Communities has been very rewarding because I can see the difference in these students’ lives,” Schell said of his work with students.
“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.”
Rose Kelly is bookstore manager at Columbia Gorge Community College. A former manager of Waucoma Books in Hood River, she also worked as a wind turbine technician after graduating from CGCC’s Renewable Energy Technology program.