Professor Allen Breakthrough

Professor Mary Allen

The Role of Social Capital in College Success

How contributing to a grant proposal changed the way this professor approaches her work.

By Mary Allen, Ph.D.
Professor of Biology

Across the Unites States, college students once identified as non-traditional are rapidly growing into the “new majority,” a term coined by Carol Geary Schneider, president emerita of the American Association for Colleges and Universities. This is happening at Hartwick, where enrollment of first-year minority students doubled from 10% in 2008 to 21% in 2015. More than 20% of all incoming Hartwick students in 2015 were the first in their families to attend college and 42% come from low-income families (compared to 23% in 2008).

Inclusivity will not be achieved with a single action, change, or initiative.

I noticed these changes among the students in my classes, but had not grasped the magnitude or implications of the demographic shift until I began to think about how Hartwick could increase capacity for inclusion of our new majority students. An expanded capacity for inclusion is necessary because new majority voices will play an essential role in finding solutions to the biggest challenges of our future.

For the past year I have worked with a remarkable group of colleagues* on a proposal to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) 2017 Inclusive Excellence: Undergraduate Science Education Grants program. In December of 2015 our team submitted a pre-proposal on behalf of Hartwick. We were one of 511 institutions to enter the competition and among 91 selected to submit a full proposal this fall. HHMI is evaluating those proposals now and will award 30 grants in the first round of the competition, providing each institution with one million dollars across five years. The purpose of the Inclusive Excellence competition is “to challenge institutions to develop effective ways to increase their capacity for inclusion to engage all students and ensure that their success in science is not limited because they have different backgrounds or started at different entry points.”

Although HHMI’s focus is the natural sciences, working on the proposal led me to understand that inclusivity will not be achieved with a single action, change, or initiative and that it cannot be focused only on pedagogy and curriculum. Inclusivity extends well beyond a diverse population of students to identifying and removing barriers to student success, and continues with change in the culture of departments, interdisciplinary programs, and the wider college community.

New majority students arrive on campus distanced from the cultural and family heritage that built their confidence and supported their earlier successes. When they encounter insufficient opportunities to access similar social capital at college the results are often isolation, decreased academic engagement, and lower rates of persistence and graduation. Thus I realized a need to create more opportunities for my students to access social capital, and to build into my teaching a greater focus on topics relevant to the new majority. Inclusivity also requires we find ways to connect academic content to the social capital of our students outside of the classroom.

While developing the proposal, our team gathered information from nearly 40 members of the Hartwick community, including many who interact with students outside of the classroom. Their perspectives led me to recognize that achieving real inclusivity at Hartwick will require effective integration of curricular and co-curricular structures in ways that emphasize the interdependence of academic and sociocultural factors. I hope that with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute we can begin with the creation of a comprehensive structure for building a sense of belonging in the form of inclusive learning communities focused on the challenges addressed in our new interdisciplinary majors (Public Health; Environment, Society and Sustainability; Global Studies).

For me, teaching is about constant adaptation and growth that includes learning new technologies, remaining knowledgeable in a field of specialty, and changing the ways I instruct students in response to what we learn about approaches that have the greatest meaningful, long-term impact. My involvement with preparing the HHMI proposal helped me to recognize an equivalent need to learn about the cultural and social heritage of my students. For me, this is an exciting challenge, but not one I will overcome easily. The backgrounds and perspectives of the new majority are not only diverse, they are also very different from my own, meaning I can no longer assume that our experiences overlap. So learning about these students and listening to their voices has become essential to my ability to help them access the social capital that will support strong, meaningful relationships of mutual respect and mentorship that characterize a Hartwick education. By building their leadership skills and strengthening community connections in such an environment, I can provide the best opportunities for learning to all of our students as I help them prepare to address the big challenges of the 21st century.

*Allen’s HHMI grant proposal colleagues: KinHo Chan, former professor of psychology; Mark Kuhlmann and Laura G. Malloy, professors of biology; Kevin Schultz, assistant professor of physics; and Margaret Arthurs, former director of corporate, foundation, and government relations.

Appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of The Wick