Campus Highlight: Student Work Ethic and Community Engagement at Chattanooga State Community College

By Amanda Hyberger, QEP director and associate professor of music, Chattanooga State Community College

In April 2014, Chattanooga State Community College began implementing the “Executives-in-the-Classroom” project, supported by a Bringing Theory to Practice grant, to pilot a modernization of the college’s freshman success course. The vision of the project is to provide a distinct contrast to the traditional lecture experience and build a campus culture of social responsibility and civic engagement. Chattanooga State is committed to strong work ethic development, focusing on the personal well-being of every student.

Through our Quality Enhancement Plan—W.E. Succeed: Work Ethic First—and a collaboration with other community colleges supported by the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Roadmap Project, Chattanooga State determined the need for students to envision strong personal goals, to have early opportunities for career exploration, and to begin building support networks to improve their likelihood of academic and personal success. Through “Executives-in-the-Classroom,” faculty and staff model strong work ethic and develop courses that include mentoring and service-learning activities; local businesses become active partners with the college to help build a workforce grounded in strong work ethic principles and civic mindedness; and students have the opportunity to develop a personal commitment to strong work ethic and community involvement that is directly related to their intended academic and career paths.

To begin, area business leaders were invited to the campus to discuss student success and professional well-being and to respond to the idea of participating directly in the classroom through mentoring. Their support and interest led to four pilot courses in fall 2014. Each of the four courses has been taught and mentored by one Chattanooga State faculty or staff person, one “Executive in the Classroom,” and one student leader serving as a peer mentor.

Each course has included

  • work ethic education;
  • group discussions for college and career success;
  • career exploration, including through StrengthsFinder and Type Focus assessments;
  • e-portfolio development and personal reflection; and
  • service-learning projects.

The pilot courses received support from three local businesses, most notably the Unum Group, a Fortune 500 disability insurance company based in Chattanooga. Unum sponsored two of the four courses both financially and through executive mentors. These mentors attended class several times each month to encourage the students to excel in their current studies, to begin personal financial planning, and to understand local workforce concerns. At the end of the semester, the students completed a service-learning project in partnership with their corporate sponsor. For the Unum Group courses, the students provided manual labor by moving employee-donated goods from the Unum campus to the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults (Elder Services division).

Unum also provided three resume workshops that were open to the entire campus, followed by mock interviews to help the students practice skills for high-level job seeking. The workshops were led by executive teams with generous time for Q&A; workshop planning is already underway for future semesters. The partnership with Unum has demonstrated the possibility for deep collaboration between the college and the larger Chattanooga community, and this pilot experience will be used to develop more business collaboration.

Of particular value to all stakeholders is the discussion that continues to grow through this project. Often, businesses only work with successful students who have graduated or are finishing their degrees in an internship or capstone project. The opportunities to discuss and impact wellness and success for all students open wide as the college invites local businesses to the campus to work with students during their first semester—a time during which students do not generally expect to receive this kind of support or interest. For community college students, discussing career, financial, and work ethic issues with real-world mentors quickly separates this new college experience from the previous high school or collegiate experiences. In addition, this project helps students understand that their financial aid is an investment by the community and that they matter to the people and businesses around them, and they have the opportunity to give back to their community during their first semester.

Due to the successful launch of this program, the college is asking each of the academic divisions to develop a robust freshman experience course incorporating the core design of the “Executive-in-the-Classroom” pilot work for fall 2015. This will allow the divisions to connect students and local businesses appropriately within academic interests and to tailor the courses for specific majors. Students who participate in the redesigned courses will be monitored over time to better understand the long-term impact of this student success project. Student success data and ongoing discussions between students, faculty, and executive mentors will inform the continual improvement efforts and provide the necessary support for sustained commitment to student well-being. The potential for student engagement and confidence building is remarkable, and the Chattanooga State community is excited to work in the coming semesters for the greatest student impact possible.