Princeton invigorates ties with New Jersey’s community colleges

Natalka Pavlovsky (left), a Princeton graduate alum and music professor at Rowan College of South Jersey, chats with her teaching mentee and current Princeton graduate student Sophie Brady. Brady shadowed Pavlovsky and taught her own music class at Rowan College last fall as part of Princeton’s Community College Teaching Partnership. (Photo: Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

Since the 1970s, Princeton has nurtured connections with New Jersey’s community colleges, offering community college instructors opportunities for continuing education at Princeton, while sending graduate students — the next generation of Princeton-educated academics — to teach the wide range of students seeking two-year degrees at county colleges.

The programs have had many reciprocal benefits for community college instructors seeking professional growth, for Princeton graduate students looking to hone their teaching skills, and for enrollees at the state’s community colleges who have the opportunity to connect with some of the top emerging scholars in a given field.

This article, which was first published on the Princeton University website, is reprinted with permission.

In recent years, these programs have been reinvigorated, especially with the launch of the GradFUTURES initiative at the university’s Graduate School which seeks to expand professional development opportunities for graduate students. This academic year, Princeton will send 20 graduate students — its largest cohort — to teach courses at Mercer County Community College, Camden County College and Rowan College of South Jersey through the Community College Teaching Partnership, which offers teaching fellowships to current doctoral students.

The university also is improving benefits for the community college instructors who mentor Princeton graduate students. Through the Community College Faculty Program, instructors at any of New Jersey’s 18 community colleges can apply for reduced tuition to take classes at Princeton, and as a new incentive, Community College Teaching Partnership mentors will be eligible for a free course each semester at Princeton.

“It’s a win-win when universities and community colleges collaborate — and these programs are outstanding examples,” said Eva Kubu, associate dean for professional development and director of GradFUTURES. “Princeton’s goal of building closer ties to public higher education institutions and community colleges in New Jersey is part of our shared commitment to increased access, social mobility and continued innovation within our state and throughout the world.”

Different sectors working together

Kubu said through the teaching fellowship program, Princeton’s graduate students are not only mentored by seasoned community college faculty members but also gain exposure to cutting-edge pedagogical approaches designed to meet the unique and evolving needs of a highly diverse student body.

“This type of substantive teaching experience is invaluable for all future faculty and introduces Princeton graduate students to best practices for engaging low-income, first-generation and nontraditional learners,” she said.

The Community College Teaching Partnership and Community College Faculty Program grew out of a long relationship between Princeton and the state’s community colleges initiated by history professor Theodore Rabb in the 1970s. His longstanding interest in what he called “the enterprise of higher education” prompted him to launch the Mid-Career Fellowship Program, which gave community college professors the opportunity to recharge their intellectual batteries, and the Community College Internship Program, which enabled Princeton graduate students to launch their teaching careers at local community colleges.

Rabb, who died in 2019, directed both programs during his years at Princeton. He spoke frequently about the need for different sectors of higher education to work together, noting the important role of community college faculty, who serve many first-generation and nontraditional students including military veterans and returning students seeking to change careers.

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In 2016, Princeton’s Office of Community and Regional Affairs assumed responsibility for the original Mid-Career Teaching Fellowship, now the Community College Faculty Program. The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, in partnership with the Graduate School, took over the original internship program, transforming it into today’s Community College Teaching Partnership. The first cohort of four Princeton graduate students began teaching at Mercer County Community College in 2017. The partnership expanded to include Camden County College in 2018 and Rowan College of South Jersey in 2019.

Today, the Graduate School manages the Community College Teaching Partnership in collaboration with the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, which provides graduate students with training and workshops before and during the course of the two-semester fellowship.

A unique opportunity

James M. Van Wyck, assistant dean for professional development in the Graduate School, said doctoral students must fulfill the requirements for a master’s degree to participate. To prepare for the fellowship, they complete the McGraw Center’s assistant-in-instruction training and receive additional professional development during their time as fellows.

While Princeton’s graduate students have opportunities on campus to work alongside professors as preceptors or teaching assistants and to tutor undergraduates through programs such as the Writing Center, the Community College Teaching Partnership gives them the opportunity to design a syllabus and to teach a class of their own.

“I think our graduate students have amazing opportunities to professionalize in their disciplines, but less opportunity to develop as teachers,” said Sarah Schwarz, associate director for graduate pedagogy programs for the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. “Many of them are craving the chance to develop and lead their own courses.”

Van Wyck noted that for some Community College Teaching Fellows, the experience isn’t their first time in a community college classroom: “For some Princeton graduate students, a key reason for participating is that they began their academic journey in a community college classroom, and so they’ve seen firsthand the possibilities and futures it can foster.”

From concept to classroom

The Partnership program allows Princeton graduate students to develop their teaching skills over the course of a year. To prepare for classroom teaching at the community colleges, Princeton students first shadow their mentor for the spring semester.

Sophie Brady, a fifth-year doctoral student in music who was interested in designing her own course — and who also took classes at her local community college in Ohio — was paired with Natalka Pavlovsky, professor of music at Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) and herself a Princeton Ph.D. alum.

Brady observed Pavlovsky as she taught her four classes online in spring 2021. After each session, Pavlovsky stayed on with Brady for a little while afterward to review the classroom discussion — what went well and what could be improved.

Later in the spring, Pavlovsky invited Brady to guest lecture for the class, then offered feedback on Brady’s teaching.

“I was really impressed by how Natalka was able to maintain the classroom experience despite the fact that some students don’t have computers and were tuning in using their phones,” Brady said. “Not every student is privileged to have an empty room where they can go with a computer. Some students have children or parents or other people at home who need their attention.”

Shadowing Pavlovsky prepared Brady for the fall 2021 semester, when she was able to teach her own music appreciation class at RCSJ.

“The expectation is that you are really running the show from beginning to end, and I think that’s a valuable experience,” Brady said. “I definitely feel more confident in my teaching. I credit Natalka for being a font of wisdom and advice and walking me through the steps of designing my own syllabus, crafting my lectures, creating meaningful assignments and developing ways to engage students both in the classroom and through their homework.”

Growing confidence

Helen Tanzini, program coordinator and professor of chemistry at Mercer County Community College, has mentored three Princeton graduate students since 2018, one of whom now teaches at South Orange County Community College District in California.

Under her guidance, the Princeton students revised exams, contributed to the nursing chemistry curriculum, worked on grant proposals for student scholarships and attended faculty committee meetings. Two of the three covered a chemistry course when a Mercer County professor fell ill with Covid in fall 2020.

“They were really involved in pretty much everything that a new faculty member would be involved in,” Tanzini said.

For Tanzini, a highlight of the program has been watching her mentees grow and improve their confidence as teachers over the course of a year.

“The Mercer County students liked having the Princeton graduate students teaching, because they are young, energetic and excited about the material,” she said.

Engaged in the same enterprise

In building bridges with New Jersey’s community colleges, Rabb said Princeton and its partner institutions had a great deal to learn from one another, given their shared interest in the enterprise of higher education.

Pavlovsky, who graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D. in musicology in 2001 and has taught at RCSJ for 17 years, arrived there when it was still called Gloucester County College and offered only one music course. Over the years, she built up RCSJ’s program so that it now offers a dozen music courses and graduates music majors every year.

Teaching at a community college, she said, has offered her tremendous career satisfaction.

“If people come in with a limited idea of what they’re going to find in the two-year sector, they’re surprised because we’ve got it all,” she said. “We’ve got folks who are splendid students and could be somewhere else but aren’t, usually for financial reasons. We’ve got folks who are constrained by their personal situation and need to be close to home. And we’ve got a variety of other populations, as well, represented in our student body.”

Brenden Rickards, provost and vice president of academic services at RCSJ, who is also a Princeton graduate alum, said teaching at a community college gives the graduate students an opportunity to fine-tune their pedagogy as they teach to students with different backgrounds, ages, life experiences and levels of preparation.

There are community college students that are absolutely top-notch,” Rickards said. “We’ve had numerous students that have ultimately transferred to Ivy League institutions, done graduate programs at Ivy League institutions, etc. But the population that I believe our student teachers really get a lot of experience from is the nontraditional population, because the nontraditional population are generally older and going through career changes. The graduate students get the experience of teaching individuals that have more life experience than them.”

A rewarding career option

Rickards, who earned a doctorate from Princeton in 2006 in molecular biology, said the Community College Teaching Partnership is helping to get the word out to graduate students that teaching at a community college is a rewarding career path. It also gives community college students the opportunity to learn from emerging scholars in their academic field.

Bringing in Ph.D. students who are in the process of creating new knowledge and advancing discoveries, Rickards noted, “allows the elevation of some of the instruction that we can provide and opens up avenues of learning for our students.”

Schwarz said Princeton stands to gain as much as New Jersey’s community colleges by remaining in partnership, calling the work of two-year institutions, “the most important work going on in higher education.”

“Princeton is blessed with all kinds of resources — intellectual, financial and others — so it seems totally appropriate that we would share some of those resources with our partners,” Schwarz said. “Beyond that, we have so much to learn from these institutions. They are master teachers. They’re serving the community in a very different way. They’re making a huge impact. And so there’s lots of amazing things we can gain from being in dialogue with them.”

Other opportunities

Van Wyck said the Graduate School is eager to expand the number of graduate students taking up Community College Teaching Fellowships, and to include additional community colleges across the state in the coming year.

“We are also looking for additional ways for graduate students to connect with and contribute to the mission of community colleges,” Van Wyck said. “This year, the GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship Program will introduce the inaugural cohort of Higher Education Leadership Fellows, who will learn first-hand from senior leaders about the particular challenges and strategic opportunities at New Jersey’s community colleges and other higher education institutions.”

Another way the Graduate School provides exposure to national trends at community colleges is through its recent partnership with New America’s Center on Education and Labor, which offers graduate student fellows the opportunity to immerse in projects focused on synthesizing complex research regarding the design and policy strategies that support community college baccalaureate and non-degree programs.

Kubu said these types of public/private partnerships and programs such as the Community College Teaching Partnership are making an impact that will be felt long into the future.

“In addition to providing talented students with on-ramps to a four-year institution, community colleges are tremendous engines of workforce and economic development,” she said. “There is no doubt that evolving demographics, rapidly changing technology and globalization will continue to have a profound impact on the future of work and of higher education — and that by working together, New Jersey’s higher education institutions can play a critical role in shaping that future.”

About the Author

Denise Valenti
Denise Valenti is a staff writer in the communications office at Princeton University in New Jersey.