Thursday, April 30, 2015

Tom Hanks and Community Colleges, Part 1

Actor Tom Hanks wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, “I Owe It All to Community Colleges.” It caused a stir among community college students. They compared their experiences to that of the actor’s and reflected on areas where their colleges fell short and ways to overcome those deficiencies.

Ly returned to civilian life after serving over five years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He dreamed of opening a business while attending college part-time and helping his aging parents. The problem was that he did not have any money. Everyone was struggling in the weak economy. He took a job as a security guard but left because it was unsatisfying. That’s when it dawned on him that without a college education, the possibility of a good life will be elusive. The solution: enroll in a community college full-time and get an associate’s degree as soon as possible. It was the only affordable solution and it turned out to be all that he needed. 

“College has helped me realize how much my family supports me and my educational decisions. My parents, who have no formal education, always encouraged me to go to school and pursue higher education. In the past, I ignored them, saying it was a waste of time. Now I am a full-time student. Although I cannot help them financially, they don’t mind. They just want me to get a proper education because they know that is the only way I can get ahead in this society.”
Ly’s experience at the community college he attends has exceeded his expectations. “I'm lucky to have great professors as my teachers and instructors. Also, our school has many resources to help students, for example, free tutoring center. However, there isn't enough support for military veterans. There are counselors for veterans but that is not enough. The college can offer veterans discount on textbooks and lower tuition fees.”

Jessica was burdened with a huge loan when she attended the National Hispanic University (NHU). When NHU shut its doors, she decided that her best option was to attend San Jose City College (SJCC). “At SJCC I have come to appreciate many things - the interaction among students and teachers, the importance of keeping books and class materials at a reasonable price, sometimes even at zero costs, along with the determination of professors to challenge students to develop their mind. Also helpful is having access to a bookstore and centers like the Transfer Center and METAS center.” What Jessica has problems with is the counseling department. “It is extremely hard to get an appointment. The counselors rarely call back. They also give wrong advice because they don’t know. They misled me about transferable courses that caused me to waste a semester of taking classes I did not need to. If the counseling department is staffed with knowledgeable counselors, SJCC would become an ideal place for anyone to purse excellent education after high school.”

Jazmin is clear about the role of the community college in her life. “I returned to college almost ten year after graduating from high school. The first semester at SJCC was the scariest because I had forgotten many of the things I learned in high school. But once I finished the first semester, I felt confident. Even though I am not good at it, math has become my favorite subject. It now feels like I can do anything if I work and study hard. I am able to help my middle-school daughter with her homework. I am also able to help my third and fourth-graders with their math and English homework. Community college has changed the way I think. I don’t want to attend college only to get a better job. I now want to attend college to become more educated. I want to be a role model for my kids.”

However, for Jazmin, San Jose City College falls short in a few areas like security. “There is hardly any police patrol. Cars are often vandalized, scaring students. The college should hire more policemen and install more surveillance cameras on campus.”

Natasha finds community college the ideal educational institution “because it allows me to try different things. I have taken classes I never would have even thought of. They broadened my perspective. The college has made clear many strengths and weaknesses I hadn't seen in me before. It has shown me how to stay goal-oriented and manage time better. It has helped me find subjects I enjoy, as well as subjects I am not interested in. This helps me decide which career is right for me. I have discovered new passions and reignited old ones. One area where my college falls short is in its website. It is hard to navigate. Registering and paying for classes online sometimes doesn't work. It also looks outdated. One way to fix this will be to clearly identify all the wonderful services and workshops the college offers and display it on the website in a friendly and easy-to-navigate style.”

Chris, who is from Texas and who has moved to California to attend SJCC on a football scholarship, has found that the college has helped him grow up faster. “I was forced to take responsibility and create closer bonds not only with my professors, but also with students from different cultures and backgrounds. This has broadened my perspective on life. The college has also helped me learn how to better manage my finances and work harder in my classes. The only negative I can think of is that the college does not provide dormitories and food plans like a four-year college does. However, the classes are cheaper and smaller than a four-year college. This allows students to create better relationships with their professors. Most importantly, people who attend a junior college are able to figure out what they want to do in their lives faster.”

Jared went to work right after high school, working at low-paying jobs and thinking that with hard work, he will be able to rise to a management position. “As I continued the degrading job as a janitor or as a low sales associate, working as hard as I could, I expected higher pay and promotions to come my way. I was wrong, because for any promotion, I needed an AA or a BA. That’s when I realized I would have to attend a college. College is necessary because the opportunities with an associate degree are endless. That’s why I am at SJCC. I have promised to myself that I will complete my degree in two years and move on with my life.”

Jared echoes Jessica’s sentiment about the counseling department needing a major overhaul. “Counselors don’t take the time to sit down and talk to students in depth. They are always in a rush, finishing a meeting in ten minutes or less. I remember meeting with my counselor and she listed all these classes that weren’t even necessary for my major and career path. I think with more orderly scheduled appointments and services, students, especially new students, will stress less and will not end up taking unnecessary classes, wasting valuable time.”

Community college has helped Jose in multiple ways. “When I had just graduated from high school, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. One of my options was joining the Marines but I couldn’t make it. So I signed up with the Evergreen Valley College. The college has helped me because with every completed semester I am moving toward my goal of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business. I see some of my friends wasting their time and dropping classes but staying in school keeps me focused and on the right track. One of the areas where community college falls short is not having enough required classes for students who need them. For students working full time, it is difficult to attend classes that start in the mid-afternoon. A huge improvement would be to offer more evening classes. Cost is another negative factor. Per unit cost of classes keep going up. Unless this stops, only wealthy kids can attend colleges. That’s why making tuition free for community colleges is such an attractive and democratic idea. Another problem is that teachers keep changing textbooks from semester to semester. This is an unbearable burden for students. Keeping the same textbook for several semesters will help. Even better would be to pick high-quality but free textbooks available on the Internet.”

Community College has opened up a world of possibilities for Jamie. He always had a love for learning but after high school, his family did not have the resources to send him to school, especially during the recession. Still Jamie persisted and enrolled in a community college. “The college has helped me grow as an adult and, between work and financial aid, I am able to afford life as a college student. It took me ten years to finally get the courage to go back to school. The community college environment has made getting an education less intimidating. Each semester I become more confident in my ability to do well in classes that initially seemed intimidating before. I am now confident enough to get my associate degree at my college and soon apply to a California State College to receive a four year degree in communication.” 

One challenge for Jamie, as with Jose, is the outrageous cost of textbooks. “The cost to rent is almost as expensive as to buy. The system for selling text is also ridiculous. A book that may cost $100 may sell for $20 at most at the end of the semester, and that also if the edition is still useful. If a new edition is required, the old edition immediately becomes obsolete and you get nothing for it.” Another flaw in the system is that high school students are not made aware of the advantages of studying at a community college. With good results, it becomes easier to transfer to a 4-year university. “This was one of the main reasons why I felt I couldn’t get my degree along with my friends who transferred to a university right out of high school. Community college representatives should be more aggressive in informing high schools students the benefits that await them if they enroll in their colleges.”

Daisy has been a student at a community college for only two semesters but it has already been a life-changing experience for her. “San Jose City College has helped me meet professors who have taken the time and the care to steer me in the right direction. When I am done with my General Ed, I am confident I will find a job. The writing and tutoring centers offer help to struggling students. The clinic is staffed with friendly nurses and physicians. What I would change is the parking. I would try to make the parking lots bigger so that all students could get park their cars faster. The college should also promote more student government and create more clubs for students.”

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Of Deer and Humans

Deer roam with some freedom in The Villages, a gated 4000-strong senior community in a 1200-acre land at the foothills of East San Jose, about a mile west of the Evergreen Valley College (EVC).

While the sight of the photogenic animals indeed “makes the whole world a kin,” it wasn’t so simple in the beginning when the herd was blamed for destroying lawns, shrubbery and property and even scaring residents with their aggressive behavior.

The threat was unfounded, of course, but the initial plan for thinning the herd called for using archers and killing the deer with bows and arrows, reminiscent of frontier America. Only when the Villagers angrily protested the cruel plan was it abandoned.

Controlling the deer population, however, gained urgency in 2012. The three Village Boards (Association, Club and Homeowners) of Directors contracted “White Buffalo” (WB), an organization with 20 years of experience in reducing deer herds using lethal techniques. The Board preferred not to “cull the herd”, and so hired WB to tag and sterilize all female deer inside the Villages. WB applied for, and was granted, an “experimental permit” (SCP 12522) from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to perform this task.

The first formal count of females took place in January of 2013, as part of the sterilization program. WB counted 175 deer comprising 105 tagged females and 70 males. The herd included 30 deer that were relocated to areas outside the Village but who quickly returned.

The sterilization effort was controversial for several reasons. One outcome of the controversy was that a group of determined residents (The Village Deer Counters) decided to maintain their own record of the herd size and composition. CDFW provided training for these residents who, in turn, shared their results with CDFW, the 3 board members and WB. The results of the deer counters and WB continue to be almost identical.

The group performed its own count in July and August of 2013, reporting 126 deer - 75 tagged females, 10 fawns, and estimated 41 males - to CDFW. The group counted again in August 2014, and is scheduled to count in May and November of 2015.

(Note: a deer with a yellow tag is a deer that has been relocated outside the fences. Part of WB’s experiment was to relocated 30 deer to rapidly reduce the population. Eighteen of the yellow-tagged deer returned quickly but the others have not been seen since. It is true that an overbreeding deer population can strip a region bare but the problem in the Villages may be too few deer!)

In September of 2013, WB used a statistical sampling method called Distance Sampling to estimate the deer density and population inside the Villages. Along a line - the transect - that in this case was 9 miles long, the number of deer sighted was counted, along with the size of the social group and the age and sex of each member, tagged or not. A detection function, representing probability of detection as a function of distance from the line - decrease of detectability with increasing distance - was used to estimate the abundance.

The WB estimate came to 143, with 88 adult females, 40 adult males and 15 fawns. A month later, WB revised the count down to 128.

In July and August of 2014, the Village Deer Counting Team reported a deer population count of 101. In November of that year, WB presented to the Board of Directors an estimate of 93-105 deer in The Villages.

The trend is ominous: If 20-24 deer die every year and zero immigration continues, the deer population will be at about 60 in about 18 months. At this rate, the deer population will simply die out in a few years, a situation as undesirable as it is cruel.

What is next for the Villages deer counters?

- Continue monitoring of the deer herd every six months for the influx of any untagged female and for population decrease, until the long-term consequences of WB’s practices are determined.

- If new and untagged does do venture inside the Villages, use robust statistical techniques to estimate the deer population, supplementing the count data.

- Continue researching local, sustainable and cost effective ways to maintain the Village deer population. These may include the use of injectable birth control compounds if approval is obtained from the State. Non-lethal compounds have been successfully applied to deer in other states and in California for wild mustangs and bison.

- Continue working with CDFW experts who maintain an ongoing interest, availability and desire for the success of the Villages deer management efforts, well beyond the scope of SCP 12522.

Many communities and organizations from around the country are watching this “non-lethal experiment” to maintain a healthy herd of deer by a committed group of Villagers.

The deer, the mountain lions and the wolves were here before we usurped their habitats. There is no turning back ‘human progress’ but unless tempered by respect for the original inhabitants of the land, we will only diminish, and eventually, destroy ourselves.

Lock your eyes with a doe as she stands by a row of oleanders in the Villages and you will feel as if she is seeing into your soul, as you into hers. Watch a herd in the afternoon enjoying its siesta under the shade of a pine grove and you will feel a dreamy peace descending on you. Behold a deer poised like a ballerina amid the clovers, the lupines and the honeysuckle and you will sense the truth of Thoreau’s insight: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Watch a herd bound away in slow, rhythmic motion and you will realize that the world would be a poorer place without them.