SCHENECTADY – Plans call for about 80% of SUNY Schenectady County Community College classes to be in-person, with the remainder virtual, or a hybrid of both, when students return Monday, college President Steady Moono said.
But guidelines are subject to change based on recommendations and guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control, New York State Department of Health, and SUNY, or in the event of a community or campus outbreak.
“If tomorrow, next week, three weeks from now, we have to pivot to all virtual, we are ready to do that as well,” said Moono, who’s in his seventh year as college president.
During a recent, wide-ranging interview about the upcoming year, Moono spoke from the campus’ new $10 million Learning Commons, an open space for collaborative learning, camaraderie, exchange of ideas, student support services and professional development for faculty.
Moono says the new 30,000-square-foot facility is an amenity students will be proud of.
There are plans for more, he said.
In about 10 weeks, the school will open a new chocolate laboratory for culinary arts students, and next year it hopes to open a welcome center that will yield centralized student services such as financial aid and admissions.
The welcome center will address some students’ level of discouragement when those services are scattered about campus, Moono said.
“When you have to say, ‘Go to the second floor, take a right, take a left,’ they’ll take a right and go right outside and keep going, because it is intimidating for students,” Moono said.
Pointing to a more than 16% increase in new students, and 3% increase in returning students, Moono expressed optimism the two-year school’s enrollment would make a comeback after it dipped from 4,732 in fall 2019 to 4,015 in fall 2020.
Moono acknowledged the institution hadn’t gained ground on what he referred to as continuing students, “those students who were with us perhaps two or three years ago” but never returned.
Community college students, he said, tend to “stop out” rather than drop out.
“They stop out because of life issues,” he said. “They have to take care of their sick child, grandparent, husband or wife.”
The school tracks those students and encourages them to return.
“We are not doing well in that category,” Moono said. “Our sense, from the data that we have collected, is that those are some of the effects of the pandemic.”
Some students who are parents and caregivers were forced to put their studies aside to help schoolchildren with their virtual learning, he said.
Noting the age of SUNY SCCC students ranges from 14 (because of the college-in-the-high-school program) to 80, Moono spoke of the broad range of students’ needs during the pandemic. The median age is 25.
“We do our best,” he said. “Our students have had a more pronounced need for mental health counseling and really, mental health wellness.”
Also, many students have food insecurities, prompting a need to expand the two-year-old campus food pantry.
“It’s hard to imagine that the wealthiest country, the richest country under the sun, has students who come to this institution, and many institutions, hungry. And so we have a very robust food pantry,” he said.
“Our students can go into our food pantry and we continue to expand it, and we have donors who have donated significant amounts of money to make sure that our food pantry is functional.”
Moono led a tour of the pantry, which was staffed by Jennifer Malave, a 44-year-old student concentrating in human services, and the Student Government Association president.
Malave said students, regardless of financial circumstances, are allowed to come to the pantry three times a month for 40 items, with orders available online.
The pantry, a seemingly well-oiled machine, also offered personal care and household items, and its freezer was stocked with vegetarian and organic options.
“They really go out of their way to help students and make things as easy as possible for them, so you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to feed yourself when you’re trying to pass a class,” said Malave, who relocated from New York City to attend the school after her niece found success at the institution.
Another challenge many students face, particular those of color, is what Moono described as a national reckoning on social justice and issues of equity and diversity.
“Our students, our brown and Black students, live through those experiences every day,” he said. “So on top of COVID, there are these struggles that just have been brought to light … and as a community college, we have had to find support for them.”
Although everyone is welcome, Moono said faculty members and students of color have been meeting Fridays, sometimes virtually, just to check in and see how everyone’s doing.
Moono said he participates.
“It’s an open space. We share our stories. I share my stories, my struggles.”
Moono said he’s lost eight family members to COVID, “literally in succession, and more so in the last six weeks.”
He said the uncertainty of the pandemic’s endpoint weighs on him as much as it does others.
“As a college president, I have to worry about our students. I have to worry about our faculty. I have to worry about our administrators, our support staff. How are they doing? I don’t want to get emotional, but it takes a toll, because I have to care about all these people every day.”
In the classroom, the college offers more than 56 associate degrees and certificates, and most people view culinary arts and music as bookends.
But Moono said it’s one of the few community colleges in the country to offer air traffic control and aviation, and its criminal justice, business administration, liberal arts studies, STEM and healthcare programs are growing.
About 80% of graduates go on to pursue bachelor’s degrees, with the remainder entering occupational fields.
Student achievement, and providing a safety net for them to finish their studies, is an anchor of the school’s five-year strategic plan, Moono said.
One year into his job, Moono launched a mentoring program that he said not only leverages faculty, administrators, and support staff, but even security guards because “they know life.”
Moono said he started the mentoring program because “I looked at my own life, as I characterized myself as a lost African kid who came to this country at 18, and didn’t know anyone.”
Moono said 40 years later he’s still in contact with his mentor, a Black professor he met at Messiah College, the Pennsylvania school Moono attended.
Moono, who worked as a janitor in his dorm, said he leaned on the mentor when he grew tired of being awakened at 2 a.m. for maintenance calls, or grew homesick and wanted to return to Zambia.
“He’d say, ‘No. Remember when you came? Remember you had a dream?’ “
The college president said another important accomplishment was SUNY Schenectady’s receipt of a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to partner with the Schenectady City School District on providing support services to create pathways for students to become “college ready” while they are still in high school.
Moono said this will be especially helpful for high school students whose parents didn’t attend college and don’t have the wherewithal to advise them.
“One of the vestiges of this grant is it allows us to have success coaches, to have mentors, so that they can explore and take a college course while they are in 10th grade, when they’re already beginning to accumulate those college credits.”
Noting that 78% of its students get either a Pell Grant, or institutional aid, Moono said the college welcomes President Joe Biden’s proposal to make community college free.
“We’re waiting to see,” said Moono, who knows Biden’s wife, a community college professor in Virginia who’s championing the proposal. “We are curious to see what those details are.”