The Crippling Weight of the ‘Last Straw’

Vince Boudreau, Dean

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

The Office of Student Success was our earliest and most ambitious innovation at the Colin Powell School. It represents our commitment to a goal that we cherish, and must still pursue: to ensure, insofar as possible, that no student falls through the cracks.

In our early imaginings, that office would primarily take on higher-order advisement—guiding students to the right classes, to be sure, but also helping them seek out internship opportunities, manage scholarship and leadership programs, and forge connections between their classroom work and professional and service trajectories. We’re proud of our programs in that direction, and we’ve worked every year to make them stronger and more effective.

But early in this work, we confronted an unsettling realization. The people working in that office were devoting far more time than any of us imagined to helping students solve their administrative problems. As one member of the office recently said: 80 percent of our  time is devoted to serving 20 percent of our students, and those issues are almost all bureaucratic. It’s a telling assessment. As we seek for ways to enhance student success, huge elements of the answer cannot be found in esoteric educational theory, but in working to clear mundane bureaucratic and administrative barriers to student progress and success.

Underlying Barriers

These bureaucratic barriers, however, often lie hidden beneath the surface of a student’s experience of the college, cumulatively eroding their resolve and capacity to cope with other difficulties. In consequence, all of us—students and observers—might be tempted to explain away a student’s breaking point as entirely due to some unforeseen personal crisis, or the grinding pressures of some chronic hardship.

It’s often surprising how thin the last straw may be. A student loan refund that is delayed, a single course taken in error, or the inaccurate evaluation of a transcript: in the end, any of these may knock a precariously situated student off course. In the past several months, I’ve met students at the edge of leaving school because they could not afford books, or could not scrape together the money to see a dentist. We’ve placed newly homeless students in our dormitory, thereby allowing them to continue their studies when they thought they would not. One young man even stopped attending class because he’d lost his laptop’s charging adapter, was not able to replace it, and so couldn’t use the only computer he had access to at home.

Given the stakes (a student entering college in 2010 can expect to earn $450,000 more than a high school graduate over the course of her life) these final crises seem ridiculously small. So small, in fact, that they only make sense as a proximate cause—that final, last straw—piled on top of an underlying systemic problem.

An individual’s hardship may suggest that we seek out individual remedies in each case—that we in fact adopt a case worker’s approach to student hardship. But we can’t address countless numbers of these cases—because students in crisis often just fade away, rather than laying out their hardship. More importantly, embedded in each seemingly idiosyncratic story were places where a systematic regime of stronger student support could have made that crisis not much more than an annoyance.

Outlining Remedies

We need, in fact, three interrelated remedies.

Inarguably, we still need support for students who encounter emergencies. At the Colin Powell School, a generous donation from The Viola Fund allowed us to create the Viola Emergency Fund for Students facing a financial crisis. Students wishing to apply for support through the Viola Fund should secure a letter recommending that support from a faculty member or staff person with knowledge of the situation and then email the director of the Office of Institutional Advancement, Dee Dee Mozeleski, who will arrange a time to meet and discuss options.

Moreover, ample room still exists for our supporters to offer supplemental resources along these same lines. In the past, donors have supplied metro cards to help students travel to campus, funding for student housing, and emergency book funds. The more able we are to steer students through the crisis of the moment, the more easily we will be able to direct their attention to the big picture.

Additionally, students need more information about how to navigate complicated bureaucratic systems. Student advocates in our Office of Student Success are meant to do much of this work, but they find themselves spending most of their time solving problems for students who’ve already been tripped up in some way. A more proactive system equips students with information and strategies that would help them navigate bureaucratic systems. We’ve already made progress along these lines in our online advising resources. But similar progress in other areas of student/college interaction is crucial. We can begin by looking at existing models that have shown success. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, for instance, made progress in helping students untangle one of the most convoluted but important sets of rules they will face, those surrounding financial aid:Something along these lines might be a very good model for CCNY students, and it’s an area we’re beginning to explore.

Finally, we need to make the search for more manageable and responsive bureaucratic systems a top priority at CCNY. We are an institution that has been in unremitting financial difficulty for decades—in truth, since New York’s fiscal crisis in the late 1970s. Over that span, the easy response to economic hardship has often been to reduce the number of people in key service offices: financial aid, admissions, registrar and bursar. Such reductions often escape the attention of most people. They do not, after all, result in fewer classes, or higher tuition, or program cutbacks. Steadily, however, they have undercut the capacity of students to manage the crucial and often bewildering side of achieving college success: the management of everything that takes place outside of the classroom. We’re only now learning how critical—and critically difficult—those management challenges can be. A genuine commitment to student success requires that we invest in the capacity of these offices as a way to invest in our students.


Preserving and Strengthening Access


by Lisa S. Coico, president of the City College of New York (excerpted from the Huffington Post)

President Coico published a piece on the Huffington Post last week urging lawmakers and public universities to preserve their mission of providing an affordable education, and to better connect students to networks that can provide a pathway to successful post-graduate careers. You can read the entire post here.

From the Huffington Post:

… “Access to affordable higher education has enabled people like me to take their lives on a different trajectory than would have otherwise been possible. Many have attained higher living standards; a few changed the world through their contributions. At City College, we claim such illustrious alumni as Gen. Colin L. Powell, Andrew Grove, Jonas Salk and nine Nobel laureates.

Clearly, public colleges and universities have been a win-win for both the students who attend them and the states and cities that support them. The higher tax revenues resulting from increased lifetime earnings and the economic development supported by entrepreneurship and university-based research offer one of the highest returns to be found on public investment.

Today, however, the pathway faces challenges at both the point that students enter college and after they graduate. States have slashed support for their colleges and universities, forcing them to raise tuition to unaffordable levels. New graduates often have to take unpaid internships to gain entry to their chosen fields. That’s a huge barrier for those who need to work to support themselves and pay off student loans.

At a time when, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States has the worst income inequality in the developed world, these challenges cannot and must not go ignored. Otherwise, our society risks creating an expanding permanent underclass. Such a situation would weaken our competitiveness, retard our growth, threaten democracy and reduce the number of people with the skills needed to confront societal challenges.

All of us, including government, academic institutions and employers, have a proactive role to play in preserving and strengthening the pathway to upward mobility that access to affordable, quality higher education offers. At City College, several initiatives are underway to achieve that objective.”…

Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part II)


This is the second post in a two part series on a Wiki created by the Colin Powell Center’s Partners for Change fellows to explore themes around the idea of “service”.

During our discussions of “service” in the Partners for Change seminar another emergent theme was “permanence.” Questions and assertions of service projects’ longevity and sustainability were tossed around while trying to define what makes a project effective. In other words, how do we know if service is making an impact? There were several conflicting views on permanence as it relates to service, but all the fellows’ voices were heard. At the end of the unit, and perhaps after some important time for reflection, the fellows produced a collaborative voice in their “Service Wiki.” The following is an excerpt on “permanence.”

An excerpt from “Permanence” (Partners for Change Fellows, 4/5/2012)

Permanence is a common target for critics of service work. Skeptics of volunteer work criticize the fact that most people involved in service do not stay long term in one organization or area of work, which is then characterized as lacking true good intention. Permanence is a fair object of skepticism, however, only when directed towards institutions or programs. If a particular service cannot be continuously provided, then the recipients of the service should be given basic resources to supply and assimilate the service into their everyday life, which allows the service to become less of a service and more of an everyday activity.

For example, instead of bringing canteens of water to those in deserts, build wells. In Joseph Kahne and Joel Westheimer’s “In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning,” two types of service modules are described. One included service work that was only temporary and the second involved a deep understanding of the multiple contributors of the targeted issue in conjunction to the service work. The first example of service was identified as “charity” and the latter as “change.” The “change” module involved social reconstruction and a transformative experience, potentially being able to create more permanence within the service work even after the removal of volunteers. Service work is about bringing change to one’s misfortunes and that is not possible simply through personal contributions, but instead through the implementation of sturdy resources.

READ PART I: Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service

I believe the fellows initially felt so compelled to argue one way or the other on this issue of permanence because they were personally invested in their own service, while also knowing that it would soon end. Other fellows had additionally participated in short service trips in which they felt, though short-lived, their efforts were well received and made an impact. So, we were left with the tough question of whether or not service has to be permanent in order to be effective.


I really liked the closure the fellows brought to the “permanence” section of the Wiki by referring to Kahne and Westheimer’s discussion of the goals of service viewed through the conceptual lens of “change.” When I think about service as contributing to social reconstruction, it allows individuals to be change agents in a complex social issue whether or not their presence is permanent.

For both the fellows and myself, it seemed to make the issue of permanence a bit less intimidating and a bit more optimistic. In many ways, we should be hoping these projects actually are impermanent, which would indicate that the “social reconstruction” is progressing even after the “removal of volunteers.” Instead of attempting to settle on an answer to the issue of permanence in service projects, the fellows found a conceptual angle through which to look at and think about their service work.

I’m interested to hear if this is a theme that others have grappled with in either thinking about service or their own personal experiences with service? Do you believe there is a certain amount of time a service project must be in place in order to be effective? If so, what is that time frame and why? – Sophie Gray

Sophie Gray is coordinator of the Center’s Partners for Change program. Read about her and our other contributors.

Helping Students on the Way to College, a Fellow Learns about Herself

colin powell center college access ccny

I had the opportunity to work with the College Access Center during the year. While there I worked with high school juniors on college access and college applications through group workshops held at least twice a month. Workshop topics varied from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), to theCollege Board, to finding what major is best for you. Before stepping into the doors of the Center, I was worried about whether or not I would be able to help the students or if I would be able to make them feel comfortable. While at the Center, I learned to be honest about my limits and be both flexible and relatable through conversations with students individually and as a group.

Recognizing Potential

During one special event I had the opportunity to join the 30-40 of the College Access Center’s freshmen, sophomores and juniors for two days during spring break on visits to Onondaga Community College, Le Moyne College and Syracuse University.  At Syracuse, students attended classes in groups of three to five. Working in these small groups was my most memorable moment because I finally began to realize how much of an impact I had on the students.

My group attended an immigration and public policy class, where they asked questions ranging from “What is the purpose of this class?” to “What is my opinion of classes in college compared to high school?” At that point I realized I had the opportunity to help guide them. Working within that small group made me realize how outspoken they are compared to our typical interaction in bigger groups when you can’t appreciate everyone’s personality.

Learning from Students

I learned that just because they were quiet doesn’t mean they don’t have thoughts. They were thinking about why the students on this campus are taking this class and how taking this class affects the world, which they continued to be curious about when they asked the professor and me questions at the end. During that time I was able to learn more about the students and their interests, including one high school freshman who sat down and told me he wants to learn Swahili. I told him that I too want to learn the language. Another student told me that she wondered if some of the students in the class had prejudice towards immigrants and if they realized that none of our forefathers owned this land.

I learned that although a big group is sometimes necessary, it is often the smaller group that can catch your heart and make you want to help more. I want to be able to have an impact on another group and for them to become just as outspoken as the students I had. They didn’t allow their egos or their being shy to get in their way of expressing themselves; they were simply themselves fully.  What I will take from this experience is a desire to guide more students in conversations where they are able to express themselves freely. – Whitley Jackson

More on the Colin Powell Center’s college access work:
Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part I)
College Access Advocacy: the Bridge Builders Forum at John Jay College

Whitley Jackson is a Partners for Change fellow and a psychology major and English minor at City College. Read more about her and our other contributors here.

Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part I)


Over the course of their year, the Partners for Change Fellows supported various nonprofit organizations working to improve the state of college access and success as well as health care in the Harlem community by providing regular, weekly service. After a seminar unit on “service” in which fellows read and discussed various authors’ view points on service, several themes began to emerge.

These broad themes were discussed in their relationship to service projects and included (1) culture, (2) permanence, (3) impact, and (4) recognition. At the end of the unit, in order to tie the various themes and voices together, the fellows created a Wiki, or a collaborative webpage (accessed via Blackboard), on “service.” The Wiki allowed the Fellows to add to, modify, or even delete content that others had posted. This platform encouraged creativity and unified their thoughts into one voice. While the entire Wiki was a bit too lengthy for a blog post, I wanted to share some of the highlights in a short two-part series on Neighborhoods and Nations. Below is an excerpt in which the fellows discuss “culture” as it relates to service. (An excerpt in a future post will focus on the importance of “permanence” as it relates to service.)

An excerpt from “Culture” (Partners for Change Fellows, 4/5/2012)

Culture is able to unify a group of people and is able to bring a community together to identify them as one. Culture is also one of the most important aspects of service because it is impossible to provide service to a group unified by culture if the service provider does not understand the interactions, attitudes, and beliefs of the group. The group that is being provided with service will never accept an outsider. The outsider, or person providing the service, must integrate him or herself in the group in order to provide effective service. If one is not part of the culture, it is often difficult to fully understand the needs and relationships that the specific culture has. The integration of the service must be seamless and cannot feel as if it is a burden to the community, so complete assimilation must take place in a way that the culture is not being imposed on at all.

In Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions” he points out that there is a culture shock on both sides of the scale, both the person providing service and the person receiving service. When not being aware of the culture, the most Illich believes that you are able to do is disrupt a community and values. Illich also believes that if service providers are not aware of the culture that they are trying to help, then they could be pushing their views on the community who is receiving the service.


For me, the fellows’ discussion of culture’s role and connection to service illustrated their recognition of the ways in which certain phenomena can have such an impact on service. Their full discussion on “culture” was evidence of their growing acceptance and comfort with the complexities that are inherent in service. While the fellows, and myself, in no way have all the answers after this unit, I believe they were equipped with tools to think critically and ask difficult questions about service.

Their continued grappling with themes related to service, such as in the excerpt on culture here, demonstrates to me how far they’ve come since the beginning of the year, when they saw themselves as what Illich refers to as “do gooders,” to the end of the year when they were able to discuss the challenges of their individual projects. As the fellows’ Service Wiki transitions into a discussion of “permanence” and whether a service project must be permanent to make a difference, their reflections on service deepen and critical eyes are sharpened. Stay tuned! – Sophie Gray

Sophie Gray is coordinator of the Center’s Partners for Change program. Read about her and our other contributors here.

Join the conversation! Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Do you agree with the fellows’ conclusions and why?
  • Do you have any experiences with service or cultural competence to add to the discussion?
  • What have you learned from your experiences with interacting or working with cultures that are very different from your own?
  • Have you done any reading that is particularly relevant to the conversation?

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College Access Advocacy: the Bridge Builders Forum at John Jay College

The 2012 College Access Fellows of the Center's Partners for Change program

Last Saturday, I attended the second annual Bridge Builders Forum at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to support the Partners for Change Fellows in their College Access and Success advocacy event. As I entered the sun-soaked new building at John Jay, I was pleased to see two bright-eyed and smiling Partners for Change Fellows registering and welcoming students and families to the event. During their eight month tenure with Partners for Change, the College Access and Success Fellows studied and provided service to local nonprofit organizations that tackle issues of low academic achievement, lack of college information, retention and attrition rates, and insufficient advising, among other root causes.

Inspirational Stories
The Bridge Builders Forum was aimed at providing students and families access to some of the city’s best resources in the pre-college field. These resources included everything from the inspirational stories of keynote speakers Bernard Gassaway and Baruti Kafele to workshops like “Parent Workshop: Parent’s Guide to Financial Aid and Scholarships,” facilitated by Powell Center Leader-in-Residence Allison Palmer. In addition to the keynote address and workshops, the day closed with a band performance, a raffle (including some high-ticket college essentials, like laptops and iPods), and closing remarks.

With so many inspiring options to choose from, I found myself at the workshop, “Envisioning My Future: Panel of Professionals,” which included a diverse panel of professionals, from a Latina MIT graduate to a woman who pulled herself out of juvenile delinquency through college to eventually become the director of a State office. The conversations at this workshop included the benefits and challenges of living off-campus, how to make the most of your college experience, why homework sometimes feels like jumping through hoops, and how to network effectively. During the Q & A, as the panelists spoke about their own experiences and career trajectories, a common theme emerged: volunteering.

The Value Added of Volunteering
The theme was surprising, yet welcome, and as a long supporter of the myriad benefits of volunteering and its role in career exploration, it was wonderful to hear the professionals’ own stories of volunteering and the value it added to their careers. Sally Santiago, played a slideshow of her work with Women in Leadership Development, including a photo of her smiling alongside former President Bill Clinton, which she explained was an experience that grew from her contribution as a volunteer. Kishan Shah, a panelist who currently works as an Investment Analyst at Goldman Sachs, pushed the students to get out there and offer services as a volunteer, build a network, be proactive and figure out what it is “you want.” If you want to work for a technology start-up organization, he suggested, do some research, get on the phone, and ask if you can come in to volunteer and learn about their organization. The final question from the audience was “how old do you have to be to volunteer?” to which the panelists echoed a resounding “you’re never too young to volunteer!”

Providing Passion and Purpose
I left the session feeling part inspired, part awed, and part nostalgic when I suddenly stumbled upon another smiling College Access and Success Fellow eagerly directing participants through the halls of John Jay. Thinking now about the warmth and smiles of the Partners for Change Fellows, I can only assume their upbeat attitude was not due to their required arrival time at 8:30 a.m. on a warm, sunny Saturday, but rather their ability to support and advocate for an issue they came to know so intimately this year. As a former student and professional in the “college access and success” field, I can say from experience that the issue and its root causes can often feel both nebulous and insurmountable. However, alongside the event organizers, our fellows were able to be the backbone of an event that is providing concrete solutions and steps that can be taken to address this community issue. I’m certain the fellows were also given some sense of hope to see so many professionals using “passion and purpose,” to quote keynote speaker Baruti Kafele, to affect change in the futures of NYC college students.—Sophie Gray

Sophie Gray is coordinator of the Center’s Partners for Change program. Read about her and our other contributors here.