By Irene Sandoval Arce
Assistant Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications and ESL Coordinator at Johnson C. Smith University’s Metropolitan College of Professional Studies
On September 5th and 6th, Johnson C. Smith University’s Metropolitan College of Professional Studies received a very special visit. We welcomed a crew of videographers and communications officers that were looking for a unique and compelling story to be included in a series of talks and campaigns to help change the world.
This was not just any other crew. This team came to us on a mission to be the ears and eyes of two of the most impactful and influential leaders in the world, who currently serve at their own organization, the renowned Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As it would be expected, this organization chooses to work only with the best people around the world and strive to put together the best teams, in order to find the best and most important causes and propel them. For this reason, we at Metropolitan College are beyond happy and humbled by having been considered by the Gates Foundation as one of those most important and relevant causes that they want to support and share.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s team showed up early in the morning of September 6th, and took the time to get more familiar with our campus, our staff and the atmosphere at Metropolitan College. Shortly after they scouted our facilities, they found the perfect spot to do their first interview on camera. As professional and detail-oriented as they are, they installed all sorts of production equipment to make sure everything would be impeccable: light, sound, location, and the overall setup. And then it was time for the first interviewee to show up: Dr. Laura McLean, Dean of Metropolitan College of Professional Studies, where I am currently serving as Assistant Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications and Coordinator of English as a Second Language at Johnson C. Smith University.
It was very refreshing to witness an interview where all the members of the production team were wholly present, vested and genuinely interested in what they were about to learn. So with a cup of coffee in hand, the interviewer launched the conversation, as the room was naturally filled with a sense of fellowship and the excitement of a shared vision.
What we do at Metropolitan College, in the words of Dr. Laura McLean
Dr. McLean graciously helped everyone embark in a journey that contemplated the essence of the College, from its beginnings back in 2009 to the date. She emphasized that we really care about our students in our evening and online offerings for adult learners, and described the wrap around services that nontraditional students find here. She said that “the students receive another family the moment they enroll with us, as we become their mentors, coaches, counselors and friends.”
Dr. McLean took a moment to explain what a nontraditional student looks like. “The student that we serve is someone that wants to get their education but who has had a variety of challenges in his or her life. It is someone who is currently juggling with different roles to fulfill as a parent, a son, a daughter, a caregiver, a worker, or other demanding responsibilities. A nontraditional student needs a certain kind of specialized attention that involves flexibility and an innovative approach that can guarantee their success in their attempt to not only come back to school, but finish and thrive while they advance in their program. For us, it’s not only about the student’s age, but also about their circumstances, their experience and what they bring to the table.”
Dr. McLean added that working with nontraditional students requires nontraditional strategies, including nontraditional schedules. The Gates Foundation’s team was consistently surprised during their visit, as they kept randomly asking to Dr. McLean and the staff, “So what time do you leave, what are your working hours?” And everyone, without exception, said: “we don’t leave until we have to, we’re here for our students…” Our approach at Metropolitan College involves long hours after the typical 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday traditional scheme…
Dean McLean also talked about a typical workday in her life, at the interviewer’s request. She said, “I’m here for our students and my door is always open. They can come to me for advice or insight at any time and they know that I will always be candid. Sometimes I have to tell them what they don’t want to hear, but if I believe that is what they need in order for them to move forward, they know that I will say it anyway.”
Dr. Laura McLean talked about the evolution of Metropolitan College from its inception in 2009 until today. She explained what best and innovative practices have been implemented in order to be able to presently offer six degree programs; various certificate programs; launch the university’s first online degrees in 2015; maintain and expand evening and flexible schedules; increase the diversity of the student, faculty and staff body; and offer a one stop shop where our students can have the best customer experience of their lives.
“Yes, good customer service is important to us. We know how we feel when we go get a service and the person in charge doesn’t care, doesn’t look you in the eye and doesn’t even know what they’re talking about. Here at Metropolitan College we care and we know what we are doing. Many of us here are or have been adult students trying to juggle our personal lives with our full time jobs and our educational goals. In summary, we love what we do, our students are people that we care about –not just a number, and we are a team of servant leaders wanting to change the lives of our students for the better”, said Dr. McLean.
After the interview, the crew continued digging in more about Metropolitan College. And finally, the chance came for the crew to meet in person one of those students whose life, allegedly, had been turned around as a result of enrolling at Metropolitan College. So the second part of the visit was about to start…
The day came on September 7th to set up for what was probably the most critical piece for the documentary: the interview offered by one of our adult students, Ms. Justina Geter, Social Work Major. It was time for the Gates Foundation’s team to confirm if what Dr. McLean had said was truly resonating and coming into reality in the real lives of the students.
After another skillful set up session by the crew, Justina began her interview by saying: “Metropolitan College wrapped their arms around me and welcomed me immediately as I showed up here for the first time. At Metropolitan College I found real support and got good advice. The staff and faculty has gotten me on the right hand, held me on the left and pushed me to my real destiny. They have told me to slow down if I have to, but to keep going and never give up”.
Currently, Justina is getting ready to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in Social Work. While in school, which she began in 2014, Ms. Geter has also been advancing her professional endeavors as an advocate for adolescents and education, and has expanded her network and influence in ways that continue to amaze herself and everyone around her.
Justina told the crew how she never thought any of this could happen to her, especially not at her age and after she had tried many times, unsuccessfully, to finish a college degree at other institutions. She said that Metropolitan College’s personalized and integral attention made the whole difference to her, because of its approach toward serving nontraditional students, and not only teaching them, but also learning from their experience and embracing their greatness for the benefit of their own lives, their families and their communities.
The wrap up or “To be continued…”
One of the most intense moments of this memorable visit by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was when their crew producer asked Justina to take a moment to sit still and alone in an empty New Science Center Auditorium. He asked Justina to reflect about her journey, and reminisce about her experiences in the past, and think of her attempts to get her education and not being able to make it, and her hard work being a mother of four kids trying to be the best mom she could possibly be for them, which meant postponing some of her dearest dreams. The producer kindly asked Ms. Geter to also think of where she is now, and all that she has accomplished, and all that she wants to continue doing for herself and those she loves. He also asked her to confront that voice inside of her that one day told her, wrongly, that none of this was meant to be for her…
At this point, with all this silence, everyone in the room was personally touched, and inevitably, some of us couldn’t hold the tears, including Justina. At that moment, we all shared some tears of joy, but mostly of happiness and hope!
As she was asked about her plans for graduation day on May 2018, Justina said that all she knows is that she will cry a lot, as she will have her daughters, sons and grandchildren by her side, and together they will celebrate a victorious journey of possibility and overcoming. And this is will probably be the case for many of our other graduating students…
As for us, the staff and faculty at Metropolitan College, we will also be by Justina’s side, to continue embracing and propelling her and all our students for achievement and success.