Beyond the Classroom

Community College Programs Provide Hands-On Experiences to Prepare Students for the Real World

By Gina Gallucci-White | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 11.20.17 – Feature, People & Places

Elizabeth DeRose says she is inspired every day by her students, especially when they have been bitten by the bug. “They’ve got this fire in their eyes. They’ve got a sparkle or a twinkle in their eyes because they say they just love this business,” says DeRose, manager of Frederick Community College’s Hospitality, Culinary and Tourism Institute.

“They know it is hard work,” she adds. “Some of them are not even sure exactly what career they want to pursue. They just know ‘I love food’ or ‘I love cooking’ or ‘I love working with people.’ That is the most rewarding piece to my job. Every time I talk to a student and they share their love and their passion for this field. I know they are going to be very successful and employers are just going to gobble them up and they will rise through the ranks very quickly because it is that passion that really gets you very far.”

Think of a community colleges and the first thought might be recent high school grads taking core classes transferring to a four-year school. But FCC, like other traditional two-year colleges, has many career programs designed to prepare students for occupations in a wide range of fields, including cyber security, early childhood development, fire service administration and paralegal.

“I think the role of the community college has expanded,” says Patricia Torres Meyer, executive director for workforce training at FCC. “It is no longer just part of a system of transfer. We now look to community colleges to help individuals move into the workplace quicker and also help individuals who are looking for transitions as adult learners from one occupation to another. The programming has been created to be responsive to the changing needs of our demographic.”

Designed to be completed in two to three years, a majority of students in these programs are adult learners who are looking to change their career track or pursue a new occupation, while some come straight from high school. DeRose says the average age of Hospitality, Culinary and Tourism Institute students is 37. “It makes for a very dynamic classroom and learning environment because you have multiple generations,” she says. “The experience that each one of those different age groups brings to a classroom makes it very dynamic. They bond really well during their course of study here.”

Many students are also working at part- or full-time jobs while trying to balance course work. “It makes it challenging,” DeRose says. “They are juggling a lot of responsibilities. I give them a lot of credit. They show a lot of grit and perseverance to complete their education while they are juggling their other family responsibilities and work responsibilities. They are definitely very dedicated.”

The 21-month respiratory care degree program is rigorous, with 67 credits and 900 clinical hours needed for graduation. If students must work, they are encouraged to find a flexible employer and schedule. “The people that come into these career programs, they are determined to improve their life,” says Rhonda Patterson, director of the respiratory care program. “They are determined to get this career under their belt so that they can make a good living for their families. They will do what it takes to get through the program and still survive.”

Patterson vividly recalls one of her students hosting yard sales and selling his possessions to pay for school. “When he got to the last semester, he said, ‘I can’t sell anything else. I have nothing else left to sell. I have to graduate and get started working.’” Patterson says the student went on to a good job at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Each career program varies but students may earn associate degrees, certificates or letters of recognition. “We try to have programming that is focused on skill development and knowledge that is really tied to employment opportunities,” Torres Meyer says.

Courses are led by industry professionals, including owners and operators, so what is taught in the classroom is practical, current and relevant. Some programs require internships or clinical practicums to graduate. Also “a lot of programs have advisory boards that provide feedback and information on trends that are happening in the region as far as workforce needs,” Torres Meyer says. “We try to be really connected to employers in order to understand where the gaps are that we could fill through some training programs.”

Restaurant Possible

Each year, the Hospitality, Culinary and Tourism Institute opens 200 Monroe, a 50-seat restaurant, open to the public, as a capstone class for those set to graduate in May. Half the class is in the kitchen, the other half does guest services in the front of the house, including taking and entering in orders. Halfway through the semester, the groups switch so each student gets a taste of both sides. The menu includes items the students are learning about in their international/American cuisine course. Reservations go fast and the waiting list is long. Usually only open in the spring, 200 Monroe will also be open in the fall starting next school year.

The open-kitchen format restaurant is “a nice opportunity for the public to enjoy what is going on here and support the students,” DeRose says. “It really brings out a great crowd in Frederick because they come knowing that these are students cooking, so they are patient. They are kind. They are gracious. They are generous. They give the students great feedback because it is a class and they are graded based on guest reviews as well as instructor observation.”

One of the students who will be working the restaurant next spring is Ijamsville resident Meg Baumgarten, a traditional student who joined the FCC culinary program right after she graduated from Urbana High School. With a love of baking birthday cakes and Christmas cookies when she was little, the 19-year was encouraged by her sister to enroll in the culinary arts program at Frederick County Public Schools’ Career and Technology Center, and her experience there has greatly helped her in the FCC culinary classes she’s taking now. Baumgarten’s estimated graduation is in the spring. She hopes to use her knowledge and degree to one day open her own bakery.

Frederick resident Iole Chiavarolloti has been working as a nursing assistant in the emergency department at Frederick Regional Health System for several years. Working with staff, she became passionate about respiratory care and decided to enroll in FCC’s degree program where her estimated graduation is May. FCC is “definitely a great start to any career path,” she says. “Even if you don’t know what you want to do, there are endless opportunities here. There are so many resources you can reach out to and find what might be the right direction for you and … [you may] go at your own pace which is comforting.”

As a part of the program’s clinical practicum, Chiavarolloti has been going to different clinical sites. “You learn so much,” she says. “You work with so many different people along with doctors and nurses and other students from other schools and it is an overall good experience. It’s hands-on. It puts that classroom work into perspective. … It’s such a huge benefit in the program that we get that hands-on experience.”

Patterson, the respiratory program director, says the curriculum is designed to ensure students have the attitude, skills and knowledge that employers require. During clinical practicums, “we always tell the students that each day that they are there is like an interview, so they need to carry themselves in a manner where if an employer is watching … they would want to hire them after graduation,” Patterson says. She hears from many students who later get hired at sites where they spend their clinical practicum.

Christian Berryman is working for the Point of Rocks-based Bowden Electrical Connections while going to FCC’s building trades degree program focusing on electrical studies. The 23-year-old Hagerstown resident enjoys the hands-on atmosphere and a professor who “knows the answer to every question I could possibly have so that is really nice.”

While working and taking classes, he estimates he will graduate in about two years. “The building trades program, from what I have seen, is fantastic,” Berryman says. “The building trades themselves are a great field to get into because there are not a ton of people going into them right now.”

Besides electrical, the building trades program also includes focuses on heating and air conditioning and welding. Chuck LoSchiavo, building trades program manager, says the focus of the training—including industry best practices, federal safety regulations and building codes—in all three trades is to prepare students for entry-level employment and to “be productive their very first day on the job. … They leave us with actual practical experience. It’s not just theoretical knowledge. It is as if they had actually been physically working in the field. We try to simulate a lot of real world experience.”

Lilly Chandler is working two jobs and going to FCC for the accounting career program. As a single working mother to four children, she went back to school to make a better life for her family. “I decided it was now or never,” she says. The Union Bridge resident says FCC’s Office of Adult Services helped her with support and finding financial resources. “They want to help you find the funds that you need to go to school,” she says. “For me, when I first started as a single working mom, I didn’t think it was possible. They helped me through getting scholarships and financial aid. … They are there for you. The people there are just awesome.”

Variety of Employment

Each career program offered at FCC can lead to employment in a variety of areas. “Part of the fun is opening their eyes to all of the different avenues that you can go down in the field of hospitality or culinary,” De Rose says. “A lot of people tend to think ‘It’s restaurants’ or ‘It’s hotels.’ Once you start to educate them as to how diverse this field is and all the different career opportunities, it really opens their eyes a lot. The skills that they learn in this industry are so transferable to many other industries.”

LoSchiavo says the building trades encompass a lot of areas including construction, manufacturing and sales. “The value of a student successfully completing one of our programs and earning that degree is throughout their training they have gained a practical skill set,” he says. “They have the foundational skills and knowledge to be able to succeed in any of those areas.” For those who complete the program, LoSchiavo says graduates do not struggle to find employment.

Graduation is Patterson’s favorite time of year. Seeing her students achieve their goals and getting calls and emails detailing job opportunities are her highlights. Students will often ask her if she gets tired of graduation. She never does. “It’s different when you get to this point [in adult learning],” she says. “It’s different because everybody had a different journey to get there. It really is a privilege to be a part of people [achieving their dreams].”