College Highlight - Pathway Navigation Community of Practice featuring Student Voice

Engaging Students About Their Onboarding Experiences

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Virtual engagement: 80 participants representing the ten San Diego and Imperial Counties’ community colleges

At a Pathway Navigation Community of Practice (CoP) convening, held virtually on October 30, 2020, participants continued their efforts to gather stories from the field — in this case, from students — to better understand how to improve the student experience of navigating the early stages of the community college pathways.

The CoP provided a unique opportunity to learn firsthand from a panel of five current or recently graduated students from five colleges in the region: Cuyamaca College, Grossmont College, Imperial Valley College, San Diego Mesa College, and San Diego Continuing Education.


The students were asked to share their experiences related to onboarding, talk about what aspect of their community college navigation they wished they could change, and offer suggestions for how colleges could better support students through improved services and intentional community building.  

Students were asked five main questions. From their responses, a summary of themes are identified below with brief student videos that capture some of the discussion. Below the videos, community colleges’ “actionable steps” addressing some of these themes are listed. These steps are derived from college team reflection sessions that took place after the student panel.

Student Panel Themes and Video Clips

  1. Among the five students were five distinct reasons for choosing their community college, ranging from it being a deliberate choice to it being a default. Andrew describes how community college allowed him to continue his studies while balancing work and supporting his family. 
  1. For Lara, early positive experiences in community college were attributed to engagement with a student ambassador, support programs such as Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), and a summer preparation program that immediately followed high school.
  1. For Moises, a challenging experience occurred when he was starting community college and navigating new processes such as financial aid and registration, which were overwhelming and confusing. Another student, Monica, had an experience of not feeling “heard” by a counselor when sharing her education and career goals.
  1. Students wished they had known the benefits of building a peer group early in their college career and of utilizing the student services available to them for support. Lara and Monica share their experiences in the video clips below.
  1. Students who utilized career and education planning services and partnered with a mentor in the field, found these experiences to be critical to choosing and staying on their career path. Moises was grateful for the guidance of both a counselor and faculty mentor that lead him to opportunities. Early in his path, Andrew connected in to a mentor in high school that saw him through his journey and leveraged community college student services along the way.


During the second half of the CoP, college teams reflected on the authentic experiences heard in the student voices shared during the panel. From these reflections emerged five distinct themes and generated the following actionable steps that colleges will consider in their planning and implementation of Pathway Navigation efforts in the future.  

1. Student Connections: Peer Mentors and Campus Community

 Strengthen and expand peer mentorship program to foster peer connections

  1. Connect every student with a peer mentor or student ambassador to help build student connections to peers and to campus.
  2. Strengthen connections with college alumni, and leverage alumni to mentor/support current students.

Increase student connection to campus by improving visibility of student community and campus culture

  1. Increase engagement of clubs on campus.
  2. Create visible indicators of community.
  3. Use social media to reach students by leveraging how students communicate and create community.
  4. Increase number of paid opportunities for students to have leadership roles and/or on-campus jobs focused on student-led events and event programming.


2. Equity Practices

Improve campus awareness of and practices about equity

  1. Provide to administrators, staff, and teachers professional learning about equity, inclusion, and implicit and explicit bias, microaggressions.
  2. Design and implement social justice and equity campaigns.
  3. Plan knowledge-building events, such as a student-moderated panel, listening sessions, or lectures.


3. Student Services: Onboarding, Financial Aid, Counseling, Career Planning

Provide career planning and academic counseling to every student

  1. Increase availability and access to career counselors during onboarding.
  2. Develop a structured program for early career or pathway exploration and how to choose a major that involves counseling, faculty, and club advisors.
  3. Provide training to counselors and career staff on career planning and equity and inclusion.
  4. Expand student support for selecting classes at the beginning of each semester.
  5. Ensure that all students have access to online tools to plan and complete their education goals on time.

Improve student onboarding experience

  1. Eliminate student confusion and sense of being overwhelmed by reducing onboarding steps or streamlining onboarding processes so they are concise, including simplification of language.
  2. Provide more orientations to students about the application process.
  3. Develop/redesign a simplified process for understanding financial aid, which is a very challenging process for students with all of its new information and acronyms.
  4. Draw ideas from existing community programs.


4. Knowledge Building about Student Experience

Gather data/knowledge about the student experience to inform change

  1. Assess student experiences (e.g., onboarding, how services are accessed and provided, academic and career counseling).
  2. Convene a cross-role, learning session that includes community college students, community college staff, and K12 administrators to surface the shared understandings and the gaps between the two systems; develop solutions to address the gaps.
  3. Use data analytics to understand the ways that students access online information.


5. Pre-College Outreach

Build bridges between middle and high schools with the local community college

  1. Start students in high school on an education and career plan.
  2. Collaborate with local high schools to implement a Get Focused/Stay Focused program or other long-term career exploration/education planning program.