Q&A with Faculty Coach: Dr. Samuel Echevarria-Cruz

Dr. Samuel Echevarria-Cruz

Dr. Samuel Echevarria-Cruz

Dr. Samuel Echevarria-Cruz is an associate professor of sociology, having served five years as an adjunct professor. Echevarria-Cruz holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin and has held research positions in both academic settings and the private sector. He was an assistant professor at Ohio State University before returning to Austin. “When I was at Ohio State, I also taught at a community college. I fell in love with the mission and fell in love with the students, fell in love with the staff, really felt my calling into the teaching field,” he says.

Why do you think SSI is an important initiative for you to undertake?

It allows me to tie in what I’ve learned throughout my career. Having a Ph.D. in sociology and working in higher education, I have a lot of experience with data for student populations and for institutions of higher education. SSI is an opportunity to see how those two fields work together on the ground. I’ve done research for multiple institutions, and now I’m on the inside. These are our students, and we are exploring our challenges and successes, trying to use that data to really meet the needs of the future.

Who do you believe plays the largest role in determining the outcome of SSI?

The faculty. They’re the ones in the classroom day in and day out, and that’s where much of the impact on students is – at least academically. As advisors, as educators, as listeners and facilitators, the faculty really understands the data at the human level. Matching that with the data at the empirical level will help the students in a better, more focused way.

How does SSI address the needs of the communities we serve?

By looking at data in order to find out all the challenges our students have – before they even get into the classroom, while they’re here and after they leave. In doing so, we’re creating a better and more accessible experience for all students. That will produce a more highly trained workforce, a more highly trained community, and a population that can realize their goals and dreams.

Is the community college student different from university students?

There are two populations of community college students. There are those who are also part of the university population and are coming to take advantage of our resources, and we have a wonderful faculty set that is teaching-focused and some students prefer that. They are no different.

The first-time college students coming to a community college are very different. They’re coming without the background about the organization, the bureaucracy, and the expectations of higher education. Many don’t know what they don’t know. We can’t assume that it’s just an issue of content mastery; they really have not been taught about office hours or how to navigate a very complex bureaucracy. Many of our students don’t even know where to start.

Do you think what we’re seeing is a disconnect?

When 50 percent of first-time-in-college students don’t make it to the second year, there is a disconnect. But we are the institution of open admission and open access, so the disconnect is an inequality in the community. This starts in K-12, and we are charged with trying to bridge that inequality and put people better off than they would be without ACC. That’s our mission.

In the past, universities have been known for winnowing out unprepared students in the first year. Why is our role different?

The university model is to produce the upper echelon of the workforce, both for public and private sectors. That’s not our primary mission; I think our primary mission is to raise the standard of living for the entire community, student by student, workforce program by academic credit program. So, it’s a very different mission, much more difficult in many ways. Secondarily, we also want to prepare students to move into the university environment in order to take advantage of their advanced resources, training, and opportunities.

What role have you taken on with SSI?

I’ve tried to facilitate discussions in how data are used, what data can be good for, what data are not good for, how data change the way we perceive ourselves as an institution, the issue of accountability, and how that’s becoming more prevalent. And I’ve tried to help other departments use their data and push forward some initiatives to better streamline our approach to student success. Data becomes a conversation starter: Why are we here? What are we doing in the classroom? What do we do in advising, financial aid, at the support service level? Or what don’t we do?

What has been the response to your efforts?

Administration has been extremely supportive and has welcomed the input of the faculty, as we all are learning what this process is all about. This doesn’t happen very often in community college. And you get faculty who are now matching their passion for teaching their students with an understanding of institutional goals and thinking. It’s building a community, which is hard since half of your faculty are adjuncts and the other half are teaching extremely high course loads and nobody has time for these kinds of discussions.

What does SSI have to say to faculty and students?

We can do a better job by using all the tools that are out there but haven’t been used in the past. And that is by looking at data, asking tougher questions about success, looking at where we fail, and using these quantitative and qualitative tools that social science has developed over decades to do something about it, to create change, instead of living in a culture of “that’s just the way it’s always been.” SSI has really fast-forwarded that discussion.

How has SSI changed the way you work at ACC?

It has given me a broader view of the institution. I knew the data and their relationships, but now I know the faculty who teach developmental math and have learned from their statistical and quantitative work what it feels like to teach developmental math, semester after semester, with the challenges their students have. It’s given me a whole new view of what this institution is about. It reminds me I’m a very small part of this. There are some battles out there that we need to all be behind.

How are the data changing the way you teach?

Any time I see items where student engagement increases success, and I look at those items and I don’t do them, it forces me to really ask the question, why don’t I do them? Is it some tradition I hold to, is it a personality issue, is it just ignorance? There are so many studies that demonstrate the importance of engagement – do you meet with your students weekly? Do you have contact with them? Do you meet with them outside the classroom? Do you engage them in thoughts, ideas, and so forth?

We all usually get there organically, but this is a more structured view. It has helped me to really focus on the minutiae of the teaching. I can do the content and I can project information, but there are so many other things students respond to that I need to be aware of.

We don’t want to just take the tuition money and wonder why so many withdraw, why so many don’t succeed. It’s not good for us as an institution and it’s not good for the community.

What gives you the most satisfaction in this process?

Knowing that we’re taking action. We’re proposing surveys, we’re meeting with each other, we’re defining success in different ways. Knowing that the administration and the faculty are working together closely makes me very positive about our future. Knowing that people have taken time out of their already busy schedule to say this is important. All the tools are there, and all the skills and talents are there, we just need to coordinate efforts.

How does this all connect to initiatives at the college, at the state level?

Community colleges are becoming a part of the accountability of higher education at both the state and national levels. It is necessary to be prepared, to be engaged, to have a seat at the table. Community colleges will never have any power if they do not prove they are able to make decisions with the most advanced techniques and the clearest thinking. If we don’t do this, we will be left out of the discussions.

What do you foresee as the future of community colleges?

Since we enroll half of all public college students now, we’re going to be a centerpiece of a move to educate every single citizen for the workforce at least for the first two years of higher education. In that sense, we’re going to play a vital role in shaping expectations of what higher education is and what it can do. If we fail at that mission, half to three-quarters of all citizens will not think well of higher education and may not support it.

So, I often think that we are ambassadors for the future generation, to say it is worth the expense, the sacrifice, and the challenge to go get higher education, no matter what your background. In that sense, we’re more important than universities. Universities will always exist, and they’ll always have the prepared students who attend them, but we’re dealing with a large segment of the U.S. population, and we need to be an institution they will value for their children.

I think community college is the best value in American education right now, and we want to get that message out.

What do you say to people who tell you this is just a fad?

I say they’re wrong. It is rare that these types of movements go backward. When technology is involved and quantitative analyses start rolling, they never go backward. Not in society, not at the local level, and not at the national level. Teaching theories may be faddish, but using hard data can make our case. We must use crisp and clean logical thinking skills – those we expect of our students – to evaluate programs to see where our strengths and weaknesses are, and to capitalize on our strengths while minimizing our weaknesses. That’s how business moves, and we will move with it.

Can you describe any risks in undertaking SSI?

We don’t want to derail the process by an overemphasis on theories and ideologies of success and what it means to be at ACC or the sense that we can go down rabbit holes for not very important topics. We all know what the challenges of our students are, we know the top 10 issues affecting our students and why they don’t succeed. We’re just putting numbers to these challenges we already know. Let’s not worry about other, more esoteric stuff right now. Let’s lay a foundation for strong thinking and action, not rash action but action as an outcome.

Describe what the failure of SSI would look like?

Business as usual, in the sense of no real nuanced or complex understanding of the concepts involved, relying on anecdotal evidence to go back and create programs, if we can even do that anymore. We wouldn’t have built bridges between administration and faculty, to understand we are part of the same team and creating the same environment.

What happens if it fails?

We will be left behind. If these endeavors do not succeed, or foundations aren’t laid, we will not have any say in the future of community colleges in Texas, and the community will not continue to vigorously support us as it has if we do not show that we use every cent we get – however minimal that is and how slowly decaying that is – but every public dollar we’re using to make sure every generation of Central Texans get the best education possible.

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