Remaining relevant in 2022 requires deep focus on students, employees

Dr. Christine Sobek discusses how her community college is pivoting to meet the needs of Latinx and diverse learners.

Dr. Christine Sobek has seen a lot of change in her experiences as an administrator and currently as President of Waubonsee Community College in Illinois. But there have been few more transformative times than the past two years, which has forced a  marked pivot by institutions of higher education to meet the needs of students, faculty, staffs, boards and communities in so many unique ways.

Dr. Christine Sobek

At Waubonsee, the stakes are very high. It serves between 8,000 and 9,000 students per semester, many of whom go to school part-time while working or caring for families or children. This Hispanic Serving Institution, which boasts 35% of its population as Latinx, is keenly aware that it must deliver flexible and robust learning while ensuring that it provides huge support for more than 1,000 employees.

One of Sobek’s favorite words is relevance. Waubonsee has made huge strides to stay in tune with student and workforce needs of a population it pulls from urban, suburban and rural areas outside Chicago. In November, it announced a partnership with nonprofit InsideTrack on student success coaching and is in the third iteration of Title V grants, which it has used to launch a data warehouse, prior learning assessments, an academic support unit, online learning improvements and the latest, a new Latinx Resource Center.

“With the population in our community, people really wanted to see themselves reflected when they came here,” Sobek says of the center. “They wanted to have that sense of belonging and sense of identity. Staff will be focused on peer-to-peer mentoring, family outreach—which is often a critical missing component—and community outreach because we have a vibrant Latinx community. It’s been a long time in the making.”

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To learn more about the many initiatives happening at this creative community college and the future of higher education, University Business sat down for a conversation with Dr. Sobek.

How has the COVID crisis shaped Waubonsee’s plans and decision-making in the past two years?

We’re in the third year of our strategic plan and we’re staying true to that. But balancing that with the operational pressures of COVID is constant. Most of my colleagues would agree that it can be very challenging, and frankly, for a lot of our team members very tiring. But we don’t want to be left behind. Other organizations are growing and adapting, and you can’t just wait for this to be over. We’re paying a lot of attention to our workforce, the volatility in the workforce, workers’ mental health and new kinds of benefits. We’re also ensuring that our programs have the careers we’re preparing students for remain relevant.

How does the new partnership with Inside Track and other initiatives meet the needs of the students you serve?

We shifted our counseling and advising model to a case management model, recognizing that our students needed that one point of contact consistently. The grant is allowing us to partner with Inside Track to offer intensive coaching. This executive-style coaching, one-on-one mentoring, based on the methodology we’ve researched, translates into better enrollment, persistence, a sense of connection and a sense of belonging. We also have an academic support unit that works with students specifically on academic items like time management—how to build your calendar, how to use Canvas. Last year, we started an online program where we had a person embedded to serve as a navigator to help students with their technology needs. Another exciting goal of this project is we’re doing a big financial literacy program. Our younger students are wondering how to build a budget, how to finance a car, how to finance a home, how to finance school. That added data component is really going to help us with our adult students and our Latinx students.

What other new initiatives are taking place on campus?

We’re looking at building a new career and tech ed building that will be a new home for automotive technology disciplines, welding and machine tool technology. We’re also really looking hard at program development. The world of work has changed, so we’re taking a look at sectors like healthcare and technology. We just launched a cybersecurity program. You don’t want a student ever to be paying tuition and entering into a field where there aren’t jobs. Strategic enrollment management is on every college president’s mind right now.

We’re also in the thick of analyzing our workforce, and what it’s going to look like in the future. It’s all about creating a culture where people want to come to work for you. And then when they come, they stay. We’re allowing remote work and looking at employee mental health. If you’re in Human Resources anywhere, this is your moment, because we’ve got to have an entire rethinking of our procedures, protocols and strategies and retooling job descriptions. Our old notions of measuring jobs by 40 hours onsite, that’s just not going to work anymore. Organizations want to be relevant. We’re relevant not just to our students, but to our employees. Focusing on that is critical.

Part of this transformation is your new mission statement: “Waubonsee Community College provides exceptional learning through accessible, equitable, and innovative education. We are committed to enriching the lives of our students, employees, and community by working together to create opportunities to discover new passions, share knowledge, and embrace diversity.” How did that come about?

We have a vision statement that we’ve had for a while that talks about shaping futures. We were an early adopter of core values. We hadn’t really looked at our mission statement for a while. The language was fine, but it was very legalistic.  I felt that this was the perfect year to revisit our mission statement. We had a team that studied other people’s mission statements, did stakeholder groups, surveys, drafted mission statements and sent them out for a vote. It really speaks to the current language that I hope resonates with our community. It talks about learning because, ultimately, we’re here for learning. We use words like accessible, equitable and innovative. But then we talk about students, employees and community. You can’t really be successful as a community college if you’re not connected to your community. We embrace being called a community college. We own that.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned during the pandemic that will help Waubonsee in the future?

Despite the fact that overnight we closed our campus physically on March 18, the next day we became a virtual college. That’s the story of most of us. There are services and programs that students are going to prefer, but there’s a tremendous need for in-person service. We offer five different modalities now. Students want this personal experience, so how do we manage to do that? How do we provide enough flexibility and diversity in our programs that you as the student can come and personalize your experience?

What does that mean in terms of leadership and skills? It’s constantly listening, understanding our community. You have to let go of what you think worked before and listen hard to what stakeholders are telling you, and have the ability to let go of programs and services and processes that are no longer relevant. The notion is just add, add, add. At some point, there are resource capacities, there are physical capacities. If we don’t start letting go of things that are not mission-critical, that our community doesn’t want or have no direct measurable effect on enrollment, we’re not going to survive. It’s OK to change.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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