It Takes a Community

By Corinne Militello '98

For twenty years, the Exploring Transfer summer program has given community college students the chance to live and learn at Vassar College, rigorously preparing them for transfer to four-year institutions, including Vassar.

The innovative educational program has in turn brought to the Vassar community new levels of understanding—about how people learn, the limits of learning (or lack thereof), and about the benefits of developing more diverse student bodies here and at other liberal arts colleges.

Exploring Transfer (ET) is hailed widely as a legacy of its founder, Professor of English and former Dean of the College Colton Johnson, as well as Tom McGlinchey, who retired this year as a writing specialist and has served as the program’s coordinator for most of its existence. Any discussion of ET’s evolution quickly turns, also, to expressions of gratitude toward Vassar President Frances Fergusson, for her determined efforts to secure an endowment for the program through funding from alumnae/i and foundations. “I have always supported ET because it quite simply helps to transform lives,” she explains.

The deep institutional and faculty support that has fostered the evolution and success of the ET program can be seen in the enthusiasm and commitment of professors. (Each of the three courses offered during the summer is team-taught by a Vassar professor and a community college professor.)

Yet the true achievements of ET are witnessed in the brainpower, the sweat, and the perseverance of the 35 or so students who join the program each summer, often leaving behind jobs, families, and friends in their pursuit of higher education.

Yolanda Martin ’05, a 2002 ET graduate who attended LaGuardia Community College in Queens, says: “I think at first you’re intimidated by being out of your environment. You have to be very self-confident.” Martin says she looks back (fondly now) on 3 a.m. walks down the hallways of Main House, where she would find other ET students with their doors wide open, offering encouragement to one another. The program “gives you the chance to speak your mind, which is very stimulating, but also very challenging. There’s a tight group of students in ET—with similar backgrounds, the same obstacles—and that’s the key to making it through,” she says.

Most ET students agree that the rewards are worth the intellectual rigor and challenge. “Everyone complains about how challenging the program is, how much work there is to do in five weeks; but you know, you have to heat a piece of metal pretty hot before you can bend it,” says Joseph Atkins ’97, a 1994 ET graduate. “By the time the program ended, I was totally malleable—there was no turning back.” Atkins was a programmer with IBM when, in 1993, the company downsized and he lost his job.

He was attending Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie when he learned of the ET program.

This past summer, Atkins, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Colby College, returned to Vassar to work with one of the two programs that are offshoots of Exploring Transfer: Summer Semester for Community College Teachers. The seminar brings community college professors to Vassar and trains them to create ET-style classes at their own colleges.

Having experienced ET first as a student, and now, nearly 10 years later, as a facilitator between both teachers and participants, Atkins says that one of the greatest things about the ET methodology is that “it hasn’t changed needlessly over the years. The formula is simple: put together three team-taught interdisciplinary courses, bring in 35 bright and inquisitive community college students and put them in an environment where their only concern is to learn, give them coursework that pushes them farther than they think they can go, and encourage them to work hard and succeed.” He adds, “ET has been a success because the administrators, led by Colton Johnson and Tom McGlinchey, have held fast to the vision that there are great students out there in community colleges who have more potential than they realize.”

The goals of the ET program are congruous with Vassar’s history and the mission of the institution as a whole. Matthew Vassar’s original intention to provide superior educational opportunities to those to whom they were denied or limited—at the time, women—is well known.

Today, educational inclusiveness is discussed in terms not only of gender but also race, class, and age. Full inclusiveness remains a challenge, but in 20 years of experimentation and refinement, ET has made important strides toward this century-old ideal. The students in the program are drawn from a variety of groups underrepresented in higher education, including single parents, older women, and recent immigrants; and many are the first generation in their families to attend college.

McGlinchey says it’s particularly difficult to be inclusive of people from different class backgrounds. “This program works towards that, while stressing merit. It bridges two elements of idealism—meritocracy and egalitarianism.” He adds, “I think it’s also part of Vassar’s mission to say that people are capable of transformation through education.”

This year’s students are from the Borough of Manhattan, Dutchess, LaGuardia, and Westchester Community Colleges. They range in age from 18 to 53 years old.


Professors Davis and bush team teaching a class this summer
Professors Davis and bush team teaching a class this summer

“Very few times in your life do you get a chance to enter into a situation where your life can be totally transformed. But I think in this program it happens for students. They are longing for true knowledge,” says John Henry Davis, a professor of humanities at LaGuardia Community College, who has taught in the program numerous times since 1984. “We do the best we can at community college, but this program has a special intensity,” he says, pointing to the significance of the dorm experience, and to the fact that everything students need during the five weeks is provided without charge, offering a unique chance for them to focus entirely on learning.

President Fergusson says, “The community colleges with which we collaborate do a great job in preparing students for a demanding four-year liberal arts experience, but most of the students who come to ET haven’t envisioned how they can make it work or what it would mean in their busy and often complex lives. We show them that they can do the work, that it is immensely stimulating intellectually, and that all the practical barriers can be overcome. ET gives them the confidence to move forward.”

While Martin and Atkins applied to and attended Vassar after they graduated from ET, there are many other students who leave the ET program to pursue other goals. Most (nearly 80 percent) transfer to other four-year institutions, including Columbia, Middlebury, Smith, SUNY, and Yale. But regardless of their pursuits, Davis says, “They can take this experience and apply it to any kind of job or social interaction.”

Martin, a double major in Chinese and sociology, says: “The way [the professors] make you think about yourself and about the world is very empowering. They teach you to question everything, to question the publications that you read, to question your professors. It changed my whole set of values. Now I’m trying to take advantage of every opportunity I’ve been given.”

Vassar has benefited from the two-decade evolution of the ET program. Professors say that while it’s a demanding experience, teaching exceptionally qualified students and working with enthusiastic professors from community colleges are some of the great joys of their careers.

Says McGlinchey: “It’s been really good for faculty because it offers the opportunity to teach a course they wouldn’t teach as part of their regular roundup of courses. It’s a chance to experiment with team-taught courses, teaching students who are very vocal.” Professor of Biology and Associate Dean of the Faculty Bob Suter said that participating in ET has exposed him to new challenges. “I was in classes that were different than those I usually teach, and the students were more different than in the classes I usually teach.” He adds, “The quality of students is just extraordinary.”

Beyond the benefits to the Vassar professors who participate in the program and the ET students themselves, there are benefits enjoyed by the institution as a whole. “I think it develops your teaching skills by teaching in a diverse classroom,” says Associate Professor of Sociology Diane Harriford, who has taught in the program five times since 1996. “You really have to listen to everyone’s voice, and so it’s much easier teaching in a classroom where everyone’s had the same kind of education, where they all know the same signifiers. But you get a much richer intellectual environment if you have different people who bring different life experiences to the class that other people don’t have.” Harriford says this contribution is especially apparent when ET students go on to attend Vassar. “They bring a different point of view, and that’s very important for Vassar.”

Looking back on the summers he has spent teaching in the ET program, Professor of Hispanic Studies Andy Bush says: “The program changes lives—palpably so. Students come here knowing it’s possible, putting themselves out on a limb to go through the program. The classroom can be a place where people take risks and change their lives, and ET is a good reminder of how profound that is.”

Exploring Research

Modeled after the Exploring Transfer program’s success, but adding a science component, Exploring Research was started in 2001 and each year brings approximately 14 students to campus for a five-week program. The program is funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and is directed by Professor of Biology and Associate Dean of the Faculty Bob Suter and Associate Professor of Biology Meg Ronsheim.

The Ford Foundation Summer Seminar for Community College Faculty

This two-week seminar invites teams of faculty from community colleges to participate in workshops and discussions. Now in its second year, the focus of the program is on teaching with original sources in a collaborative learning environment. Faculty visit Exploring Transfer courses, meet with students and professors, and, ultimately, create a new curriculum or course for their own community colleges.

Exploring Transfer 2004

American Culture: Claiming and Contesting Culture
Joe Allen, Dutchess Community College
Adelaide Villmoare, Vassar College

Media Studies: Visualizing Identity
Andy Bush, Vassar College
John Henry Davis, LaGuardia Community College

Sociology: Sociology and Literature
Diane Harriford, Vassar College
Tricia Lin, Borough of Manhattan Community College