Theresa B. Felder, the newest president of Harford Community College, has been living in Harford County for about six weeks, but she has had little time to get out and experience the community as a resident because she has spent most of the time meeting people and getting acclimated to her new position.
Felder, who was named the 10th president of HCC in October and started work Jan. 1, comes to Harford from Clark State Community College in Ohio where she served in a number of administrative roles, the most recent being senior vice president for student success.
“I’m really trying, over these first 90 days, to meet as many people as possible so I can educate myself on the county and where our focus needs to be,” Felder said last week, as the spring semester got underway.
She has experienced a “rather seamless” transition to Harford County, as she and her husband, Gregory, purchased a home in Havre de Grace, and she has met “great people” in the area. The couple had to navigate an ice storm as they traveled from Ohio to Maryland on Dec. 17, Felder noted.
“It took us a long time to get here,” she said. “Since that time, though, I hit the ground running.”
Felder has spent her first weeks as HCC president getting to know people in the campus community as well as those outside it. Most in-person activities at the college are not happening because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which means Felder has the challenge of getting to know people in a virtual format.
“It is difficult, in a virtual environment, to start a job like this,” she said. “My focus, though, has been on forming relationships and listening.”
She has met with various college administrators, and she has meetings scheduled with student government leaders. Felder also has met with people off campus such as local business leaders and government officials, and she is slated to meet with officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The Army post is the largest employer in Harford County; Felder said the key question she would pose to APG leaders is how well the college is currently serving the installation and how HCC can better serve it, to strengthen that relationship and continue providing classes and job training.
“I am extremely proud to be the president of Harford Community College,” Felder said. “I think very highly of the institution, and that’s because of the people in the institution.”
She described those who work at the school as “passionate about providing opportunities for students.”
“I come to partner with the college, to continue the work that they’re already doing, and perhaps expand upon that work,” she said.
Felder’s priorities include boosting enrollment by recruiting new students and retaining them through the completion of their degree program or professional certification courses, ensuring the college can reopen safely — depending on the conditions with the pandemic and getting students and staff vaccinated — plus reaching out to adults who are unemployed or under-employed and bringing them in as students to put them on a path toward geting “a leg up” in the job market.
“We are ensuring that every student has a plan and some pathway toward upward mobility and that, we know, comes with both education and training programs,” she said, noting she wants the college to provide “access for every family to achieve those goals.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt enrollment at community colleges across the U.S., with an overall 10% drop nationwide, Felder said. Enrollment at HCC during the fall 2020 semester was about 8% lower than the same time a year before.
Officials anticipate a 4% decline going into the 2022 fiscal year, which starts July 1 — a 2% increase in tuition per credit hour has been proposed as next year’s budget is being developed.
Harford Community College had 7,612 students enrolled in for-credit classes during the 2020 fiscal year, as well as 7,125 students in non-credit continuing education classes.
“My concern is around the fact that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted students and families that are in entry-level [job] positions,” Felder said.
She expressed concern that potential students who want to improve their job prospects by attending community college did not do so this past fall because of the pandemic, and they are less likely to attend the longer they sit out.
“We have some work to do, to get those students in college,” she said.
Students, faculty and staff at HCC had to make an “overnight” transition from in-person to virtual learning when the pandemic began in March. That virtual learning continues, although there are exceptions, such as nursing classes that require a hands-on component or science courses with laboratory work. Participants must follow all safety protocols when on campus to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to Felder.
“We ensure that those courses that do have to meet, by nature of the program, that they are doing it in a very, very safe way,” she said.
The college has provided professional development to faculty to help them teach virtually and keep students engaged and successful. Students also have received technology such as laptops and internet hotspots, as well as emergency financial assistance so they can remain in school while caring for their families.
About $2.3 million in federal CARES Act funds, along with $477,000 in state assistance, was provided to HCC in the spring to help with pandemic-related needs such as financial assistance for students and professional development for faculty. Additional federal stimulus funds are anticipated, which also would be used to support students, through the most recent aid package passed by Congress in December.
“There’s so much for students to overcome,” said Felder, who noted students and faculty have been successful in the virtual environment that has been in place for nearly a year.
The college’s reopening task force recently convened, and officials are looking at a number of factors before reopening the Bel Air campus for in-person activities, including classes and community events and programs.
“Our reopening plan will depend on how safe it is, and that safety will depend on how quickly we can get our employees and our students vaccinated,” she said.
Felder stressed that college officials are working with health experts, and they are working in “lock step with the county health department as we’re making these reopening decisions.”
A key challenge in retaining students, especially working adults, has been factors such as a lack of access to transportation to get to classes on the main Bel Air campus, as well as securing child care and the finances to continue with their education.
The college started its Harford Community College at Edgewood initiative about two years ago; HCC began offering four credit classes, on subjects such as business and information sciences, at the Edgewood Library in the fall of 2019 in addition to the 14 non-credit classes offered at the library.
The college plans to expand those course offerings, thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the Phillip E. & Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation. The grant, which was announced earlier this month, will support the Leading Edge Training Center Powered by the Ratcliffe Foundation at the Edgewood Boys & Girls Club, with classes scheduled to begin in July.
Grant funds not only support the creation of the vocational training center, but they will be available for financial assistance to students in the form of scholarships, allowances to purchase tools and other supports.
“That’s a great benefit, to be able to have funds to offer the training, and not having the ability to pay not be a factor in taking those programs,” Felder said.
Moving the community forward
Ensuring that students in all parts of Harford County have access to HCC programs, that high school graduates have a pathway to either a degree or job certification through programs such as Harford County Public Schools’ North Star initiative, and that people at all socioeconomic levels have access to higher education, are challenges going forward for Felder, who said she is concerned that “we don’t leave anyone behind.”
“Our focus is on community partnerships, to move the community forward, and with an equity mindset,” she said.
Felder wants the college to focus on recruiting students from low-income backgrounds, or those who are minorities or would be the first generation in their family to go to college. She also wants programs to help adults who are unemployed or under-employed strengthen their skill sets and get back to work.
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“What can we do to make them more resistant to future issues, like a pandemic or unemployment?” Felder asked. “How can we be that gateway to the middle class for those families?”
Felder praised her top aides, the members of the president’s cabinet, for their support as she takes on the leadership of HCC. That group includes Jacqueline Jackson, vice president for student affairs and institutional effectiveness, who served as interim president after former President Dianna Phillips resigned in February of 2020.
Jackson “has played a key role in preparing me to take over as a permanent president,” Felder said. “I cannot speak highly enough about the job that she did leading this college through a pandemic.”
As president, Felder answers to the Board of Trustees, and she praised the members of that body for working closely with her as she acclimates to her new role. Felder said she meets with the board president and vice president, on a weekly basis, to discuss her activities and “to make sure that we are working together, and I am focusing on the areas that they see as a need for the college.”
In addition to being HCC’s 10th president, Felder also is the college’s first Black president. She noted that she has heard from members of the community who say “it gives them hope” to see a person of color in such a prominent leadership role.
“I embrace that responsibility of being an example for others,” she said, noting that she also wants to “be that person that creates bridges between communities.”
“If I can be that person that brings communities together, that’s really my goal, to be the best example but also to create unity and bridges, where there is a need to do so,” Felder said.