Helping staff and faculty SOAR

Clark State Community College's 2018-19 SOAR Class, with President Jo Alice Blondin (third from right) and Trustee Sharon Evan (second from right). (Photo: Clark State)

Clark State Community College in Ohio has about 650 employees; roughly 300 are full time. Though they are all partners in student success across the campus, silos exist.

This was particularly evident to Clark State President Jo Alice Blondin. She had several mechanisms for communicating and engaging with staff and faculty, including town halls and a blog, but it wasn’t enough to help people connect with their work – or the work of colleagues in other areas – in a meaningful way.

“Just talking about removing silos wasn’t working,” Blondin said.

And then, in fall 2016, an idea began to form. Blondin is a big proponent of mentoring. Done in a structured way, it could help employees better connect with the college, with their colleagues and with the community college sector. It also could help nurture “talent that needed an extra push,” Blondin said.

Working with the board of trustees and human resources, a program was born: Serving Our Own Through Advancement and Retention, or SOAR.

Blondin administers the program. In the first year, three Clark State faculty and three staff members were selected to participate. Having a cohort of people from different areas of the college works to “break down silos,” Blondin said.

An in-depth program

SOAR participants take a strengths-finder assessment, have textbooks to read and are given writing prompts. They attend board meetings and have monthly lunch meetings with vice presidents so they can better understand what each area is responsible for at the college. They also have one-on-one monthly meetings with Blondin.

“They’re hooked up all year in the activities of Clark State,” Blondin said.

But they also go off-campus, helping to advocate for the college — and for all community colleges — in the state legislature and attending national conferences. This year, SOAR participants attended the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) annual conference in Orlando.

They also have a capstone project, where they identify a challenge at the college and present a possible solution to the board.

The program is showing results, and not just in terms of advancing careers. For Nathaniel Walters, who participated in the first cohort during the 2017–18 academic year, SOAR helped to “expand our horizons on how Clark State does what it does, and why it does what it does.”

“It exposed us to a lot of other areas of the college we otherwise wouldn’t see,” said Walters, who is the college’s network and systems administrator.

For their capstone project, Walters’ cohort focused on ways to identify at-risk students and provide them with assistance. Their work paid off: the college invested in and developed the Office of Student Support, which houses wraparound services. A SOAR cohort member will lead that office in July.

SOAR and that capstone project “helped me do my job and understand where students are coming from,” Walters said. “It opened my eyes.”

The program also prepared Walters to take on a different role: he has served as staff senate president since last June.

Charting new goals

Crystal Jones has worked at Clark State for 11 years. When she started SOAR in fall 2018 as part of the second cohort, she had just transitioned from faculty to assistant dean of business and applied technologies.

As a faculty member, “I was in my area,” Jones said. “I focused on my students and my program.”

Like Walters, Jones said that SOAR helped her understand her role better and the roles of others. She gained an understanding of “how I can add value college-wide.” She also got to participate in the AACC John E. Roueche Future Leaders Institute, where she expanded her network of peers.

Another highlight of SOAR: the time Blondin devoted to participants.

“She demonstrates the open-door policy,” Jones said. “We can have open conversations to talk about real issues.”

Those conversations begin with honesty, according to Blondin.

“We’re very candid in our conversations,” she said.

Jones also appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with others. Her cohort includes the college’s conference services manager and an assistant in workforce development. For their capstone project, the group is looking at enhancing professional development opportunities through a center for teaching and learning.

“SOAR builds confidence in yourself and what you can do, and what you can do as a team,” Jones said. “We hold each other accountable for the goals we set, and we support each other.”

Jones’ goals include getting her doctorate and moving into a higher administrative role, or perhaps even taking on a role at the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, where she can advocate for higher education.

But she’s also making a difference in the present. In March, the American Association for Women in Community Colleges selected Jones as a member of the Women Under 40, class of 2019. This distinction goes to women who are making a difference for their college and community.

Coming to the table

Theresa Lauricella, also part of the current SOAR cohort, is making goals for her future, too. She serves as Clark State’s associate professor of theater and program coordinator for theater and music. Now she is thinking about how she can elevate her leadership role.

Thanks in part to SOAR, Lauricella is “taking ownership of my passion for community colleges.”

She said she also better understands — and appreciates — her current role at Clark State. There’s a lot of focus on workforce development in the community college and Lauricella “kept thinking that theater doesn’t fit that mold.”

“SOAR taught me I need to change the prism and look at it from another angle,” she said. “Not all students want to go along the more traditional path. Some want to do a more creative field.” And for those students, she is helping provide a career path.

Lauricella has liked having the opportunity to interact with peers in a new way. Their lunch meetings allow her to step away from her desk and literally come to the table and break bread with colleagues. When they come together and start discussing issues openly, “you start finding solutions where you least expect them,” she said.

Through these meetings and other SOAR activities, Lauricella said “it opened my eyes to ways to use my strength for improvement and bring my ideas to the table.”

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.