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In effort to prevent dropouts, community colleges are focusing on a sense of belonging and connection for their students

Abu Koroma, a student at Northern Essex Community College, was grateful when another student offered to help him with his struggles.Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

It’s easy to tick off the college rituals that have been swallowed up in the last two years by the pandemic. Graduation ceremonies, club meetings, office hours, ice-breakers — first canceled, then held virtually, muffled by masks, now canceled again.

More difficult to measure is the loss of the connection those experiences created, the sense of belonging that can, for many students, be the difference between staying in school or drifting out.

Nowhere is that connection more crucial than at community colleges, which serve a population of students for whom education is not a given, or a family tradition. These students often balance school alongside families, jobs, and fragile finances. During the pandemic, few had any choice but to pause their studies as they struggled to meet their basic needs.

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Now, as students have returned to some in-person learning, it is that sense of connection that many have lost — and administrators are trying to rebuild. Community college leaders hope cultivating a sense of belonging can help counter a troubling increase in the number of students who are dropping out, lost amid the shift to virtual learning, and perhaps gone forever.

“They just want to know people care,” said Chuck Phair, a retired dean at Northern Essex Community College, who now teaches there as an adjunct.

During the pandemic, leaders at Northern Essex, which has campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence and serves a student body that is 42 percent Hispanic and 46 percent low income, have tried to find creative ways to ensure that students feel they are part of a community and — crucially — that they know who to turn to when they need help. The school had been working toward this goal even before the pandemic, but it felt even more important now.

Researchers and experts in the community college field have long known that a sense of belonging is crucial to academic success. A 2019 study published in the journal Educational Researcher found a correlation between belonging and the likelihood that students stick with their studies. The study noted that a sense of belonging can improve students’ mental health, but it said that often, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups as well as first-generation students tend to have greater uncertainty about whether they belong.

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In Texas, leaders of Amarillo College, a community college, reoriented much of how they serve students around this idea of belonging, and it has proved tremendously successful.

“It’s foundational, and the concept is what we have rebuilt ourselves around,” said president Russell Lowery-Hart, noting that over five years, retention rates rose from 19 to 60 percent.

Before the pandemic, Northern Essex built centers on its campuses designed to give students a place to call home on campus, a place to form bonds with classmates in the same academic program, as well as with staff and professors. The centers were physical places — dedicated rooms where students could study, get tutoring, use a printer, or make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

By nurturing that sense of belonging, a feeling that they were valued members of a campus community, with friends, ambitions, and something to contribute, administrators hoped they could help them stay in school.

There was good evidence that helping students get through rough patches could pay big dividends for them, and for the institution: Research shows that students who stay enrolled for a second consecutive year, rather than take time off, are more likely to graduate. And yet the pandemic was making it harder for students to stick with school. The number of students who stayed enrolled for a second year dropped from 62 percent in fall 2019 to 58 percent in fall 2020.

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Determined to help, staff pivoted, and with the help of students, created a new virtual service to make up for, in some small way, the missed connections of pre-pandemic life. Administrators realized that students didn’t know who to ask for help, so they hired students to serve as ambassadors, connecting struggling students to a variety of services the school offers.

“I know I have helped a lot of students who thought about dropping out,” said Mayerley Astacio, of Lawrence, one of the first students hired to serve as an ambassador.

Astacio, who first completed the English as a second language program and is now three classes away from a degree in engineering science, found she could help students deal with small problems before they became big ones. Recently, for example, one of the student she’d been assisting needed to submit a video for a class assignment but it was too large to attach to an e-mail. The due date loomed, and she was worried about being late. The student texted Astacio for help. Astacio suggested uploading the video to a private channel on YouTube and sharing the link with the professor. It worked.

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“We found we were unearthing issues before they got to that catastrophic point,” said Audrey Ellis, the college’s director of institutional effectiveness.

She designed the ambassador program, whose employees are trained in all the services the college offers, from IT support to mental health counseling, financial aid, academic tutoring, or career advising. Like many community colleges, Northern Essex also offers food and clothing assistance and ways for students to get a free laptop.

“The last thing we want is for students to feel alone right now,” said ambassador Emma Atwood, 20, who is studying criminal justice. “We are all students and we understand what they’re going through.”

Early student surveys show students who connected with an ambassador were twice as likely to feel part of the college community. Ellis also found that more than half of those who worked with an ambassador had at least one friend at the college, compared to 32 percent of other students who said they had a friend.

Last semester at Northern Essex, Phair, the business professor, saw how much of an impact that sense of belonging had for one of his own students.

Last fall was the most difficult semester of his 20 years of teaching, Phair said. Students had missed months of in-person classes and end-of-high-school rituals. They were not academically prepared, and they were unmotivated, apathetic, and depressed, he said. Many didn’t even bother buying books. It felt like the effects of all the chaos and upheaval and trauma of the past two years were manifesting in his classroom.

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In the first weeks of his Introduction to Business class, Phair noticed one student who was floundering. Abu Koroma seemed bright, but he was in danger of failing because he wasn’t getting his assignments done. Phair flagged college administrators.

One day after school, Koroma got a call from another student. She said she was an ambassador and had heard he had fallen behind in his business class. Could she do anything to help? she wanted to know.

Koroma, 18, a first-generation college student whose parents are immigrants from Sierra Leone and Cameroon, had graduated from high school during the pandemic; the adjustment to college had been tough.

The student ambassador’s call was a shock, but Koroma said it was what he needed. He hadn’t expected anyone to check up on him, but somehow knowing that someone else knew about his struggles made him want to do better.

“It changed my mindset,” Koroma said. He told himself: “I need to be more serious.”

Phair noticed an instant change. After class one day, Koroma approached him to chat. They discovered they’d grown up in the same neighborhood of Lowell. Their conversation flowed easily. He started turning in his assignments on time.

“All the sudden his grades started shooting up like a rocket,” he said. He passed with an A minus.

Recently Koroma was hired to be an ambassador himself. He plans to help other students while he pursues his ultimate dream: to transfer to a four-year school, earn a business degree, then open his own business.

“I’m feeling pretty confident,” he said. “I think I can help others in a good way.”