It’s my second time on campus, actually the first time here was just last week and it was more of a drive by. With major construction along the front of the college, it seemed easier to drive around and through the campus to get the lay of the land. My ethnography class was cancelled this week and substituted with fieldwork, so it was opportunity to find a new research site (lost access to my last one).
I’ve driven by this campus most days on my commute to USC. It is actually equidistant between home and work along the busy 60 freeway. I wonder why it has taking me this long to visit the campus and explore. The college is one of the largest public higher education institutions in terms of enrollment in California (Top 5) and in the US (Top 30). It also has a critical mass of students of color enrolling 4.9 percent African American, 14.1 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 61.9 percent Latino students. Along gendered lines the campus is 49 percent female and 51 percent male. The majority of the students are younger than 24 years of age. Beyond these demographic details, the campus serves a critical entry point to higher education providing access to a large majority of the community that surrounds the college.
Arriving on campus, I find the visitors parking area and am extremely surprised that the daily parking fee is only 2 dollars. The daily parking fee on my campus is 12 bucks! The visitor parking is located on the top level of the structure, which is advantageous as I can see the entire campus and get a better understand of the campus, especially while under heavy construction. I take the stairs from the six floor and walk towards the Student Services building was easy (Racked up major FitBit points). As I get closer to the building I take note of the signs, posters, and placards that describe all that encompasses the Student Services building. I access the building from the parking lot side, which is the secondary entrance. From the outside, the first offices are the Fiscal Office and the Disabled Students Program and Services. Walking past those and through the hallway leads to an inner courtyard area that houses the Admissions and Records, Counseling, Assessment Center, the Fiscal Office, Financial Aid, Career Center, Transfer Center, and Student Orientation. On the far end is the actually entrance with a bright metallic “Student Services” sign and an information center ran by the Sheriffs department.
Walking back towards the center of the building, there is an inner quad area lined with benches along the walls. At the center there are two large bulletin boards and seven cream-colored tables that seat four, all covered by a large green tent. I walk around the quad, looking at all the various offices and notice that some are more inviting than others. The financial aid and counseling center have signs posted requiring students to have IDs ready for check-in with darker tint windows, others like the Career and Transfer center have their doors open, welcoming students in. One of the first things I notice is the PA system that shares “now serving number 0-0-6 at window number 4,” I look around and ask if I’m at the DMV, the only other place I’ve experienced a carousel appointment system. Similar to the DMV, students are required to check-in and share the purpose of their appointment. Once they state there purpose for visiting, the wait to be called, anywhere from 5 to 23 minutes.
Now acquainted with the space, I look for a place to sit and observe. All the benches and tables are occupied; I count over 40 students in the quad area. As I count, I see a table near me that has a nice viewpoint of most of the activity in the area. Each table can sit four students, I ask the two students if it’s okay to sit down, they say yes. At this point I am merely an observer, noting down the layout, who is in the space (noting dress, gender, and ethnic characteristics), interaction between students and the services available; 30-45 minutes pass. (Quick note, my detailed observations are captured in my fieldnotes, for this write up I focus less on them and highlight my interaction with students).
As I write my notes down, I start to think about this campus being my new field site. Rather than just observe for four hours, I decide to engage students near me and ask them some questions. Over the last year I’ve studied SB-1440, the transfer reform legislation passed in 2010 which was intended to ease the transfer process between community college and cal state universities. I’ve primarily examined the policy at the institutional level, looking at how local actors implement a state wide transfer articulation policy. Being on campus, have a few hours at my disposal, this was a great opportunity to see how the policy is represented with students. I can begin to uncover how students receive messaging from the college, recognize transfer center marketing, and gage the level of awareness. (This is the first year mandatory orientations are conducted on campuses, which share information such as SB-1440). At the practitioner and student level the policy is better known for the type of degree that was created. These new degrees are known as “Associate Degrees for Transfer” (ADT) with the clever tagline, “a degree with a guarantee.”
I decide to talk to some students, in an informal manner, no recorder or protocol. I introduce myself and why I’m on campus, I asked questions like “are you waiting for your number to be called” “how long have you been at this campus” “what’s your major” and “do you plan to transfer.” Earlier I walked into the transfer center and picked up some documents, one of the items I collected was an ADT-Degree brochure (Seen in the image below). So I then ask, have you heard of the “degree with a guarantee” or seen this logo (I show them the brochure).
The first two students I speak with are the ones sitting at my table for the last 20 minutes. One is studying child development, the other wants to be a criminal analyst. Both are Latinas, second year students, and attended the local high school less than two miles away. Graciela wants to work with kids, she doesn’t know if she wants to be a teacher, but she wants to help young children learn to read and write. She wants to get her associates first, to be able to work right away, and then transfer to a school like Cal State LA. Her friend, Deanna, is interested in criminology or forensics, and wants to get her Certificate of Achievement in Forensic Crime Scene Investigation. After talking for about 10 minutes, I ask them if they have heard about the degree for a guarantee, they say no. We then talk about transfer goals and if they are following any particular pathway (i.e., using assit.org, GE transfer pattern, IGETC). We then go over the brochure and I ask them if they have seen any posters or marketing for it, they say no. Deanna mentions that she rarely pays attention to the banners on campus.
We continue to talk; I start to feel like an outreach counselor again. Our conversation includes discussing their educational goals, ways to transfer out, and I also highlight the potential benefits of an ADT. This “research” is more of an exchange of learning, where both I as a researcher collect insightful data, but the participant maybe walks away with more transfer knowledge that can be used in the future. I feel good after having that initial conversation, I am excited to talk with other willing students and learn more about their academic goals, potential transfer plans, and if/how they have heard about SB-1440, ADTs, or a degree with a guarantee. As an aside, this campus has a counseling ratio of 1786:1, so I don’t feel as weird having random conversation with students about transfer, I actually feel empowered and excited to be doing it.
A few minutes later, I see two students talking and decide to strike up a conversation with them. They agree to chat it up, the African American male student is holding a calculus book and plans to get an associates in liberal arts. His friend, a young Latina, says she is hoping to get a kinesiology associates degree. When I ask if they want to transfer, the gentlemen says, “yea, I’m trying to get out of here” I just “need to map my stuff.” In this conversation, the transfer process is much more a “get out of here” process. I write down his phrase to reflect and write on later. We talk about what it takes to transfer out, the type of grades, the different institution type that the students can go to. Then I ask if they have heard of the degree with a guarantee, they reply “what’s that” and then say it a new type of degree offered at community colleges that helps to reduce the amount of credits and time necessary to transfer. I mention the guarantee is an agreement to keep the associates degree to sixty units and once transferred the BA would only require an additional sixty units. I then briefly share that its only for the CSUs. I also mention that the degrees the students plan to attain are also available as ADTs. At this point we’ve been talking for about 15-20 minutes; I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, so I just say thanks for your time and if you have questions about this just google “degree with a guarantee.”
As I go back to a free table, I review my notes and the interaction with the students. Reading through, I reflect if I am being to “preachy” about the transfer process and ADTs, and what my role should be when I speak with the students. I guess this is a dilemma to address when in the field and doing opportunistic interviewing. A few minutes later a student asks if she can sit down. She is carrying some books in her right hand and a chipotle bag in the other. I quickly say yes and she puts down her books to start eating. I go back to looking at my notes, I revise a few questions to stay closer to understand how students see the transfer process and if they know about ADTs. Ten minutes pass by and the student at the table is done eating. I figure it would be a good time to ask her questions as well.
Anna is a first year student and wants to be an elementary school teacher. She, like some of the earlier students I spoke with, graduate from the local high school. She mentions that she came to this school, because her older sister (by two years) also attends. As our conversation unfolds she mentions she has not really thought about the transfer process or how she will go about earning bachelors. I ask her, since her sister goes here, is she interested in going somewhere else after? She mentions that neither her sister nor the friends she knows that came to this school have transferred, yet. We then talk a about different pathways to the BA, I mention assist.org the articulation website for the public higher education system. I then ask, if she has heard of the degree with a guarantee, or the new degrees offered called ADTs; she says no. I then show her the ADT branding materials, she looks at them and says, “oh, I’ve heard of that, they came to my high school and did a presentation on it.” Then I ask if she mentions why it’s a guaranteed degree; she says no, so I go on to describe the degree type and how it could potentially benefit her. She says thanks for the info and gets ready for class. As she leaves she tells me that her younger sister is in high school and wants to take a course on campus, she then asks “where should I go.” I say, “probably admissions and records” which is “in this hallway on the right hand side.” She throws away her chipotle bag and walks towards the office.
Throughout the day I speak with an additional three students who are hanging outside of the library and discuss similar themes brought up already. After speaking with them, I decide to go into the library and write my fieldnotes. A few things:
- First, I really appreciated the friendliness of the students and their general willingness to talk to a stranger about their educational goals. A spoke with eight students, of them all had aspirations for a degree. Seven of them did state they had intentions to transfer, although many had not mapped out how they would “get out of here” yet. An interesting follow up would be to ask students to share how they interpret the language of the policy, particularly the phrase “a degree with a guarantee.”
- In general, there are over 25 ADTs that individual campuses can offer. One of the tricky aspects of the transfer policy is that a campus does not have to offer every ADT available statewide. For Example, there are six ADTs available that match the educational goals of the students I spoke with. BUT, this campus only offers three of them: Kinesiology, Sociology, and Early Childhood Education. These degrees, if implemented as intended, could be of benefit to the students that want to transfer out and earn the bachelor’s degree.
- I really enjoyed this experience of trying to mix in an ethnographic approach to my policy work. Finding ways to illuminate the student voice is always a goal. Focused primarily on the implementation actors through a sensemaking framework, it was refreshing to focus on students’ perspective the policy as a potential pathway to achieve their college goals.
- Lastly, before entering the program I worked in admissions and outreach. These conversations that were a “data collection strategy” seemed more like an advising session. My on-the-fly interview protocol asked questions and garnered responses that I value as a researcher, but more than that, it allowed for an exchange of learning, that I hope the students would value as well.
This leaves me wondering how much I want incorporate ethnographic methods into my research. I am making an effort to be on this campus regularly and ask for formal access to the community, focused on the transfer center. Writing this, I begin to understand that importance of extensive time and embeddedness in the field, about developing the feeling of “being there,” of being able observe the webs of significance, and to share a thick description of the people, the place, and the culture of this campus community.