Evan Laplante was in his freshman year at the University of Maine Orono studying business when the unthinkable happened: The COVID-19 crisis hit.
But rather than mope over missed opportunities, Laplante, who grew up in Lawrence, got an idea. He finished out his U-Maine spring semester courses remotely online, then transferred to a community college to save money. His choice was Northern Essex Community College, which has campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill.
“The pandemic definitely impacted my decision for schooling this fall,” Laplante said. “I figured I would save myself some money by deciding to go to community college. Part of what drew me to U-Maine was the college experience, but with classes going online it didn’t make sense to pay full price without being able to get my money’s worth.”
Northern Essex President Lane Glenn said the community college began planning in June for a fall semester that would be held 90% online due to the coronavirus pandemic. When classes resume Sept. 9, health and science labs are the only in-person courses that will happen, Glenn said.
Quality is online goal
Glenn stressed that although the vast majority of NECC classes will be online this fall, the school is working to bring a quality educational experience to students.
“Our faculty and staff have been hard at work growing our online options, developing courses that will be equal to the experience of a face-to-face course,” Glenn said. “We’re focusing on creating engagement, interaction and a social community in online courses. Our faculty want to be sure that online isn’t second best and that students will gain the same knowledge that they would in a traditional classroom.’’
Typically, 15 to 20 online courses are developed each year at NECC, according to college spokeswoman Ernie Greenslade. This fall, 200 will be offered, college officials said.
The school is spending nearly $1 million to make sure the fall semester runs smoothly as the coronavirus continues. That spending includes money for experienced students to help newcomers.
“We’ve invested $100,000 in a new peer ambassador program that will provide additional support for students who are taking online courses for the first time,” Greenslade said.
The peer ambassador program consists of NECC graduates hired by the college to talk on the phone with online students who struggle with remote learning and need guidance.
'First line of defense'
Carefully selected for their prior success in online courses, each member of the team of 15 to 20 ambassadors will spend 10 hours per week reaching out to students and connecting them with college resources, such as the information technology department, the library, academic coaching, and tutoring, all of which are offering remote and virtual services during the pandemic, college officials said.
Officials said ambassadors will communicate with students by using a new chat tool, email, texts, phone and Blackboard — the college’s learning management system.
“In the past, our students could decide whether they wanted to take online classes, but now they may have concerns about whether online is a good fit for their learning style,” said Audrey Ellis, director of student success management at NECC. “It became apparent that we need to step up our outreach to make sure our students are successful.
“Our ambassadors are going to be triaging; they’re the first line of defense for our students,” Ellis said. “Once they’ve assessed the situation, they will connect the student to someone on staff who can help them get on track.”
Individual students can reach out to an ambassador with questions, and students who appear to be struggling will be referred to an ambassador by a faculty member.
The college is recruiting its first team of ambassadors, who will start Aug. 24 and receive $12.75 per hour and can work from home. Anyone who meets the requirements is allowed to apply for the jobs. Ambassadors do not need to be current or past NECC students.
Ideal candidates should have a track record of success as an online learner and a grade point average of 2.7 or higher. Other required skills include problem solving, empathy and a comfort level of reaching out to students by phone, email or chat.
Northern Essex transitioned to remote learning mid-semester in the spring when COVID-19 first became an issue.
In addition to the new support services for students, Northern Essex has invested $500,000 to prepare faculty who have previously taught in classrooms for the change to online teaching. The college is also putting resources toward laptops for students to ensure they have the technology needed to succeed.
To learn more about the new peer ambassador program, contact Audrey Ellis, email@example.com. For information on applying for an ambassador job, visit online at necc.mass.edu and under “news,” click on the link to “NECC invests in new support service for online learners.”
Giving students necessary tools
A new laptop program provides equipment to students who don’t have the necessary technology to continue their studies.
“Many of our students relied on our on-campus computer labs and since those are closed due to the pandemic, we want to ensure everyone has the tools they need to succeed,” Greenslade said.
Northern Essex tuition is $6,000 annually for a full-time student — far below the cost of attending most four-year colleges. NECC credits are transferable to public and private colleges and universities. Greenslade said most students from NECC transfer to Merrimack College, UMass Lowell, Salem State University, UMass Amherst, Southern New Hampshire University and Regis College.
Laplante said that after finishing his course of study at NECC, he hopes to head to one of the UMass schools. For now, he's anxious to begin at NECC.
“I am looking forward to the flexibility of online learning,’’ he said, “and the fact that there will be no commute to get to class.’’
Virtual graduation is Saturday
After COVID-19 forced NECC to cancel its traditional in-person graduation in May, the school is making plans to hold an online virtual commencement this week. College officials said NECC will have a ceremony Saturday at 11 a.m. to celebrate the class of 2020, which officials describe as a remarkable and resilient group that worked through the pandemic to complete its studies.
The ceremony will honor 600 graduates who received or will receive associate degrees and certificates from more than 60 academic programs. Produced in partnership with HC Media, the event will be streamed on HC Media’s website and on the college’s Facebook and HC Media’s Facebook pages.