The Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence held the first part of its conference on higher education on Friday at Central Connecticut State University.
David Johnston is the founder and director of CHERE, an organization that began about seven years ago with the main goal of analyzing and solving issues that face low-income, first-generation, and other underprivileged students.
Johnston said that Friday’s event is the largest-scale event his organization has ever held.
“We thought it was time to look at the big issues in higher education,” Johnston said.
Friday’s event was about exposing people to these larger issues, Johnston said.
CCSU President Zulma Toro began the proceedings with a short address to the audience, composed of faculty, administrators and students from higher learning institutions around New England.
“I hope that a number of leaders will emerge here,” Toro said.
She was followed by keynote speaker George Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.
Mehaffy presented his top 10 challenges that face higher education today, including a decline in enrollment, student loan debt - which has now surpassed credit card debt in this country - a lack of proper career preparation, and too little operating on the basis of benefiting students first.
“I just want to find an institution that takes pride in doing good by the students that they have,” Mehaffy said. “The failings of our institutions is that they were designed for us [faculty and administration], not for students.”
Another main point of Mehaffy’s discussion was the fact that modern colleges and universities still operate on a basis of privilege.
“We have inhabited institutions of privilege,” Mehaffy said. “The purpose was to preserve privilege.”
This is something that Awilda Reasco, director of the Equal Opportunity Program at CCSU, was glad Mehaffy addressed.
“There’s a lot of obstacles and hurdles that low-income, first-generation students face,” Reasco said. “They don’t have the privilege and the opportunity isn’t there.”
She wanted to stress, however, that her program at CCSU offers resources to meet students’ needs.
After the keynote speaker, there was a short break followed by a student panel.
CCSU sophomore Jason Chavez was one of the students on that panel. Chavez explained that although he is glad these issues are being exposed to such a large crowd, the issues with higher learning can differ based on the student.
“Every student has their own different 10 challenges,” Chavez said.
He went on to say that opportunities such as Friday’s event give him the chance to help others with similar problems.
“Once I know I’ve impacted one person, you want to do it more,” Chavez said.
Crystal Vinoya, a junior at CCSU agreed, adding that having a voice and being heard is a vital outcome of events like this conference.
“As long as someone gets to think about what I said, that’s it,” Vinoya said. “Then they could improve so we could improve.”
For Johnston, figuring out strategies to help students like Chavez and Vinoya, and ultimately improve institutions as a whole is an achievable goal.
“We always hope people are taking practical ideas back to their campuses,” Johnston said.
Part two of the conference takes place at Goodwin College in East Hartford on Friday, Oct. 18.
For more information about the Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence, visit www.thechere.org .