Dr. Rhodes, first, welcome to ACC.
Dr. Rhodes: Thank you.
You have been on the job for almost a month now. What’s your first impression?
Dr. Rhodes: My first impression, you know, as I walk from campus to campus, I go to campuses and visit and I get the opportunity to visit with a lot of faculty and staff and students and community members, is that there’s such a passion that exists at ACC and such an interest in making sure that students can complete what they start – that they can make it to achieve their dreams. There is such a sincere passion, in that from faculty to staff, that in the wraparound services, student services, trying to make sure the pathways are created. But not only that, not only when the student gets here but also taking a look at how can we make the transferability, the portability between sectors of education from K-12, how do we make that an easier path into higher education? How do we create that college-going culture at younger ages? So there is that sincere passion to make that happen and to be a good partner, to build collaborative pathways between sectors of education, between ACC and the various school districts that we work with but also the pathway on the other end. That is, a number of our students have a desire to go on to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a Ph.D., become medical doctors; but whatever their dreams are to make sure that when they have completed with ACC that there is a clear and easy pathway to get from ACC to whatever institution they wish to attend.
You have said several times that that’s what we’re all about, our student success. What would you say are the keys to that success?
Dr. Rhodes: Well, I have to think back about my own career to try to identify, what were the success points? I’d say first and foremost, it’s all about relationships and it has to do with creating an environment to where students feel like they belong, and that happens with all employees at all levels and that is building a mentor relationship or a relationship to where you know people. Students say when they leave here, “They knew my name. They knew me as an individual.” In creating that type of a relationship between our faculty, staff, and students is probably the most critical and key component. And great teaching; if you ask students what makes a difference in their success, it is that classroom experience and that relationship that they have with a faculty member. I think back about my own experience, and I started out at a community college, went to a community college my very first year. Probably the most critical year in my higher education experience was that one year at a community college because I was transformed by one teacher; one teacher made a difference. He took an interest in me, created that mentor-like relationship. Prior to that year if you asked me if I liked history I would have told you, “Not exactly, it’s not my favorite subject.” But this professor happened to be a history professor, and he made learning come alive; he made history come alive for me. I remember, his name is David Townsend and he was just a fantastic teacher. But he took an interest in me, he knew my name, he asked me how I was doing, he followed up with me. And it’s those types of unique experiences that occur between a faculty member or a staff member and a student that creates that sense of belonging and that, “Yes, I can achieve, and yes, I do belong here.”
Of course, students have to play a role, too. What would be your advice to students when it comes to their success?
Dr. Rhodes: Advice to students is, number one, be persistent. Finish what you start. Attend classes, every class is important. Probably the most important class of the semester is the first day. Read the syllabus, make sure you understand what the expectations are, and if you have any problem any time during the semester don’t be afraid to ask for help. The one thing that often happens with a lot of students, they’re afraid to ask the question until it’s too late. Ask questions, whether it’s in the class or outside of the class; don’t be afraid to ask for help outside of class. If you need tutoring or any type of assistance, there are tutoring labs. There are plenty of resources to help students succeed but they have to take advantage. They have to take that step to go get the resources, access the resources, and use them appropriately.
My favorite question, and you came up with it – what’s your most embarrassing moment?
Dr. Rhodes: My most embarrassing moment is that of actually being put in the position of the student. When I was at El Paso Community College, we were an Achieving the Dream institution, and as a part of Achieving the Dream you have to use data to make better decisions about students. One of the pieces of data we looked at was the numbers of students who went to the community college, took the college placement exam, and then looking at how many of those students placed into developmental education and how many placed as college-ready. So, as a part of Achieving the Dream I was asked to go through the whole admission and registration process, as if I was a new student. A part of that process is you have to take the college placement exam before you can actually register for classes. In El Paso we used ACCUPLACER, at ACC we use COMPASS, and they’re equivalent; they’re pretty much the same.
So I walked through the whole registration process with two young students who followed me through every step of the process to make sure that the integrity of the process was upheld and that nobody along the line would treat me differently because I was the president of the college. I learned some great lessons such as when we went to one of the stations they gave me a stack of papers and said, “Read this.” So I actually took that stack of papers, and I started reading through it and after about five minutes the clerk got flustered and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m reading the material that you gave me to read.” And she said, “Nobody reads the material.” So the lesson was, why do we give students documents that we don’t expect them to read?
But, I got through the whole process, finally, and I understood what some of the issues were that students had to deal with. But the last step in the process before you register for classes is to sit down and take the college placement exam. So you have to sit down at this computer terminal and work through reading, writing, and mathematics to know whether or not you’re a developmental student or whether you’re college-ready. I got to the door of the testing center where I’d have to go in and take the test, and as I was standing there I realized I didn’t study. So I turned to the two students, and I said, “I understand the problems we have with our registration process, and believe me, as president I am going to make some changes; we’re going to fix those. But I don’t really need to take this test, do I?” And they said, “Well, we had to take it and if you want to have the experience of a new student then you need to take it.” So, that’s when you start talking to yourself, and I started talking to myself and I said, “Richard, you can do this. You can do this. You are a CPA, you have your Ph.D., you were a good math student, you’re the president of the college; you can pass this.” And the more I thought about it, the more red I got, I was sweating profusely; I was scared to death to sit down at that terminal and start working through the problems, because I had these two students who were going to watch me as I was answering. So I thought, “You know, you were a good math student so start on mathematics. That’s your strength.”
So I sat down at the computer screen, I turned to the mathematics section of ACCUPLACER and I started answering the questions. I got through 10 questions, and I was going through them I was thinking, “You know the last time I tried to divide a fraction was probably 25 years ago.” And I started thinking to myself, I know I’m supposed to invert and multiply, but I can’t remember exactly which one am I supposed to invert – and then you get really flustered with those two students standing behind you snickering.
So after 10 questions I was so embarrassed, and I knew I was going to place into developmental mathematics. I got up from the seat and I turned to the two students and I said, “I have to go to the bathroom right now.” So I left and I never came back; as far as I know the two students are still there waiting for me.
So you could feel their pain?
Dr. Rhodes: I could feel their pain. Great lessons are learned there. One is, I realize that a lot of our students go through registration process, and they don’t know they’re going to have to take a college placement exam and therefore they haven’t studied for it. They haven’t prepared for it in advance. So the lesson there for me was that we had not done a very good job of telling the students what’s necessary to be successful – how to prepare, what’s expected, what are the interventions available to avail yourself of beforehand. Because I was like them, I didn’t study before I went through it, I just went through the process and then all of a sudden you’re confronted and you’ve got to do something about it.
Well, thank you very much for your time and again welcome to ACC.
Dr. Rhodes: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here. I love ACC. I am ACC.