Meet Associate Director, Michael Busch

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Meet Michael Busch, Associate Director in the Office of Student Success at the Colin Powell School.

At the heart of our vision for the office of student success lies a vast expansion in the idea of what advisement should be. Narrowly conceived, advisors guide students through the classes they need to graduate. Properly expanded, student success connects young people to the requirements, opportunities and capacities they need to succeed on campus, and after they leave.

Michael Bush, Associate Director of the Office of Student Success, immediately grasped the possibilities inherent in this expanded definition of student success. As a teacher on this campus he’d spent years working with students on research papers, nurtured countless rough ideas into fully formed research papers. But in the world outside the classroom, student papers needed to speak to a broader audience.They needed to refine and struggle with first and second drafts, and to determine more precisely the need to which their work spoke. To prepare students to better shepherd their ideas, Michael devised the concept of the Annual Colin Powell School Undergraduate Student Research Symposium.

As participants in the symposium, now in its third year, students strengthen their intellectual connections with one another, and with their faculty mentors. Drawn from across the different disciplines, but arranged in thematically coherent panels, student research builds a problem centric approach to some of the more pressing problems we face. And that’s consistent with the entire evolution of the Colin Powell School. Michael notes that a key consequence of our transition from a loose grouping of departments to a school has been profoundly stronger connections among the different academic disciplines. The research symposium, with its focus on specific issue areas, provides that same kind of intellectual cross pollination to our students.

And it’s been a hit. Over the past three years, the number and quality of student panels has grown, as have the numbers of students who come to hear their classmates present.  What started as an effort to provide a venue for students to polish their research has hence evolved into a pivotal moment in the construction of a student based intellectual community.

And that’s the kind of work Michael has been doing at the Colin Powell School—and at the Colin Powell Center before it—for years now.  As he describes it, his core motivation, in the classroom and beyond, has been to provoke students toward a more active engagement with their work—initially through a more critical reading of books and articles and more precise writing, but more critically, by undertaking a search to fully develop the ideas that they think are important, and that will guide their work. This semester, while teaching a course on social change, he’s asked his classes to ‘think about why they are thinking the things they do’ and to take their natural passion, their good ideas and their talents into the real world of public policy, social networks and global issues.

A native of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Michael left New York to attend St. John’s College in Annapolis, where he received joint degrees in philosophy and the history of math and science. He returned to the city to teach elementary school and middle school in the South Bronx.  In the midst of his graduate education at CUNY, Michael met Andy Rich, then Associate Director of the Colin Powell Center, and agreed to teach one of the seminars for Colin Powell Students.

As he learned more about the programs housed at the Center—programs that emphasized critical thinking, leadership development and service—he saw a way to build a bridge between academic theory and students’ personal expertise and commitments.  That connection lies at the heart of his approach to working with our students.  A dedicated professor who still teaches classes in political science and international studies, Michael marries classroom work with constant prods to students: that they travel widely as he traveled, that they write about issues that matter to them, and direct that writing to audiences that care.  That they think about education as equipping themselves to move through the world in a meaningful way.

When asked what he’s most passionate about, Michael doesn’t hesitate. “Colleges,” he says, “need to think long and hard about what they need to do in order to produce successful and sustainable futures for our students.”  Finding ways to make an impact at earlier and earlier stages of a student’s life drives his work, and because that’s the case, he’s become one of the central figures in the office of student success—an architect and steward of its animating vision.

 

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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.

Three Crucial Questions for Every Student

Kamilah Briscoe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Kamilah Briscoe, Director, Office of Student Success

In its name and mission, the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership pledges to “enable our students to energetically address the challenges of the 21stcentury” by “promoting the values of service, engagement, and leadership.” We believe a fundamental lesson of leadership is the idea of agency. The Office of Student Success begins teaching this lesson by asking our students three questions.

When do you graduate? We want this question to be a constant reminder of every student’s most basic goal, and we want our faculty and staff resources focused on helping students to make timely progress towards graduation. Our very first priority in every conversation should be to work with students to remove all obstacles toward graduation. How does this teach leadership? It reminds students that graduation doesn’t happen through an arbitrary process that they achieve through luck, happenstance, and the accumulation of enough waking hours in calculus class; it’s within in their control. If they aren’t finding a way to reach graduation on time, then they need to create one. And we’re there to help them do that.

What will you do once you graduate? This is a question we want to start asking the minute students arrive on campus. The answers may change over time (and as students develop a more sophisticated sense of their skills, aptitudes, and preferences, we hope that it does), but our ultimate goal is success to and through graduation. And that planning, dreaming, and building begins freshman year. More important than the answer to this question is the response to the natural follow-up: What are you doing now that will help you get there? Do you need a tutor for that statistics class? Do you know about Psychology Club? Have you taken that Child Psychology course that other students have found rewarding? Have you had an internship at Peer Health Exchange? Presented a paper at the Eastern Sociology Society conference? Students need to know—at every step—that there’s an activity, an opportunity, or an experience designed to help them take concrete, measurable steps toward their goal. Our job, as educators, is to make sure those experiences exist, and that they work well. If we do that, we create a community in which student agency is rewarded.

Who is helping you get there? Networks don’t build themselves. Seeking help, getting and staying connected—these are skills that some students have and others need to learn. As educators, our job here is two-fold: to ensure that students are talking to others about their goals and to make sure that students are talking to the right others. When students need help with a midterm, there must be a peer tutor that can guide them. When they need help writing a personal statement for graduate school, they need the attention of a faculty member. If they apply for a job in a government agency, they will ideally connect to alumni working there. When we help students leverage networks, we exponentially increase their ability to get where they want to go.

These are the core questions that drive leadership in every field and every capacity. We hope that as students move through their academic experience, they’ll be placed in opportunities that require them to ask more sophisticated versions of these same questions. We hope they participate in a student organization that requires them to ask: What are our goals as a student organization? How are those goals relevant to the broader CCNY student body? What are we doing now to achieve those goals? Who should we be working with? How do we work with others ethically and productively? At internships, we hope they ask: What is my team’s goal? How does it help the organization achieve its mission? How do we, as a team, work together to contribute productively? What does it take to be a good team player?  

We know from experience that these questions are empowering. We’ve watched students in our programs act, build, and grow from them. We know the potential these simple conversations have to create active, engaged learners who have a vision for themselves, understand the steps to enact that vision, and know how to work with others to reach common goals.

Of course, these and other questions about leadership begin in the classroom. There, students begin to build an understanding of how complex, modern societies are constructed, how power is generated and deployed, how wealth is accumulated and distributed, how our individual psyches help us construct worldviews; they explore the historical and theoretical underpinnings of social meaning-making, and they learn the writing, research, and quantitative skills needed to address society’s most pressing concerns. The fact that our curriculum has already embedded the core elements for understanding our social world makes it an ideal place to purposefully teach students about how to lead in such a world.

Our curriculum encourages students to evaluate their values and their commitments to ideas like trust, community, transparency, integrity, voice, rights, obligations, and responsibilities to others. We want them to understand the full complexity of these rather simple questions, to consider the full range of answers, to come to conclusions about where they stand, and to fight, responsibly and doggedly, toward their goals. By asking simple questions in the beginning, we prepare our students to answer the more difficult questions that lie ahead.