Building social justice degree programs


In fall 2022, New Jersey’s Camden County College and Hudson County Community College (HCCC) launched social justice degree programs. With no template to work from, the colleges had to figure out how to effectively and efficiently build their own programs.

Staff and faculty from the two colleges spoke about designing the new programs this week during HCCC’s virtual Teaching and Learning Symposium on Social Justice in Higher Education.

Going beyond concepts

The Diversity and Social Justice Associate of Arts degree program at Camden County College is a 60-credit interdisciplinary program in the social sciences cluster that’s designed for transfer. The program “explores populations with inadequate access to resources correlated to demographics,” according to the college’s website.

Designing a new program is a time-intensive and expensive endeavor because it requires creating new courses and often hiring new faculty. The college consulted with Winston Grady-Willis, founding director of Black Studies at Skidmore College, to get expert advice. But for this new program, the college didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many existing courses at Camden County College, such as African American History and Social Diversity, became part of the program’s curriculum.

“If you look through your course guides, you realize how many courses are out there that haven’t been confined to a curricular pathway,” said Renee Samara, professor of sociology and co-coordinator of Camden’s diversity and social justice program.

Ingredients for new courses

Two new courses were designed specifically for the curriculum. The first course is the gateway course, a launchpad for the program.

“We needed a jumping-off point for students to develop a basic social justice vocabulary,” Samara said.

The course is organized around memoirs. In the fall, students read and discussed two memoirs: “No Ashes in the Fire” by Camden native Darnell Moore, which explored concepts of poverty, racism and heterosexism, and “We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders” by Linda Sarsour, which dives into sexism, nativism and religious oppression.

Besides being an introductory course for the degree program, it also was approved as a general education course, so students on other paths can take it to fulfill their diversity requirements.

In the last semester of the degree program, students must complete a capstone class that involves an internship.

“We wanted students to have a real-world, social justice experience,” explained Nicole Jacoberger, co-coordinator of the program and history professor.

Students must complete an internship at a local social or human services organization. So far, four organizations have expressed interest in taking on interns, including the Camden County Women’s Center and The Arc, which serves people with disabilities.

Another required course in the last semester is Multicultural Law Enforcement, which lives in the college’s criminal justice program. It dives into how the concepts of diversity, ethnicity and systemic racism apply to the criminal justice system.

A new option within human services

At Hudson County Community College, when a social justice degree program was pitched by criminal justice lecturer Richard Walker, it generated a lot of excitement – and ideas.

“Everybody from each area felt they had something to offer,” said Alison Wakefield, a dean at HCCC.  “There were so many ways to look at it.”

The Human Services-Social Justice Advocacy Option degree program “allows students to gain knowledge to ensure access, equity, and diversity in their future professions, within their future agencies, and in their communities,” according to the program website. “Each social justice-focused course challenges participants to examine their personal biases and to develop social justice outcomes at the end of each class.”

Beyond the general education requirements, students in this major take a majority of human services courses. HCCC did design three specific courses for the major, though. Introduction to Advocacy focuses on racial and economic justice.

“Racial and economic justice are the foundations to social justice,” Walker said.

The course looks at historical events, such as the Tuskegee experiment, the burning of Black Wall Street and the Trail of Tears, and the repercussions they’ve had in society.

Like at Camden County College, this course also satisfies the general education diversity requirement for students in other majors.

Students in the program also take a restorative and social justice course, and a course that requires them to attend and discuss several diversity, equity and inclusion events both on and off campus and interview social justice and restorative justice professionals.

Walker also designed a social justice program certificate, which comprises four virtual courses and is aimed at criminal justice professionals.

Learning as they grow

Both colleges have set realistic goals in terms of numbers of program participants. They anticipate four or five students to enroll in the degree program each year for the next three or four years.

At Camden County, the introductory course in the fall, which was held online, enrolled six students, including a couple of law and government students and liberal arts students. The law and government students “looked at the course as something to prepare them down the road for law school,” Samara said. “We hadn’t really thought about that.”

The college is redesigning its marketing specifically for the introductory course to target more of these students and liberal arts students.

Though the program was designed for transfer to a human services or social sciences baccalaureate program, “it’s not a niche major. It applies to so many careers,” Jacoberger said. 

Walker at HCCC agreed and envisions students transferring into a number of programs, including – but not limited to – social work, sociology or criminal justice.

About the Author

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