Chemistry prof goes back to school to understand the challenges nontraditional students face
Chemical and Engineering News
August 29, 2016
By Andrea Widener
When Michael Cross decided to go back to school, he had a full time job and a family with three active kids to support. That was the same challenge facing many of his fellow students at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass.
What made Cross different was that he already had a Ph.D. and a tenured position teaching chemistry at Northern Essex. He didn’t need an education to improve his prospects, but he thought it would make him a better teacher. “I wanted to understand my students better and empathize with them,” says Cross, 36. “I hadn’t been there. I didn’t know what it was like.”
When he told his family about his plan to go back to school his wife thought he was crazy. His kids—ages 12, 9, and 6 – wondered if they could make him do homework every night. Cross wasn’t sure he could do it, so he didn’t tell many others what was going on. “I was afraid I was going to drop out,” he remembers.
When his fellow Northern Essex professors did find out, they were split on whether he should be doing this at all. Some told him he was undervaluing his education by going to community college. But others understood his goals and were eager to gain insights from what he learned.
“Anything we can do as faculty members to understand our students better can help us find teaching methods that really are effective,” he says.
Cross himself was the ultimate traditional student. He went to the University of Utah right out of high school. He didn’t have to worry about a full-time job or family responsibilities as he took his introductory chemistry courses.
He went on to get a Ph.D. in chemistry at Utah expecting to pursue a career in pharmaceutical research. Then one day he agreed to help out a friend teaching chemistry at a nearby community college. From then on he was hooked on teaching, especially at the community college level.
“I’ve always liked to work with people who may not consider themselves to be scientists,” Cross explains. “A light comes on and they say ‘This might be something I’d like to do’ At most of the major universities most students know what they want to do.”
It was those same students who inspired him to go back to school, a plan he hatched while watching a ceremony for honors students. “Not only are they top-notch students who are going on to some incredible schools, many of them have done it with far more difficult circumstances than I had when I was a student.”
Cross had been at Northern Essex for six years when he enrolled. From the beginning, it wasn’t easy. One challenge was the complicated college financial aid forms known as FAFSA. Another was the college’s entrance exam. “I was a pretty decent student, but I haven’t taken a test in years. You lose some of those skills.”
He also had to get his previous college credits transferred to Northern Essex. When Cross showed up in the advising department, where he occasionally guided potential science students himself, the staff worried he was sent there to investigate them rather than enroll. But he soon convinced them this wasn’t a ploy. They broke the bad news that many of his credits wouldn’t transfer so he still needed many of the basics. He’d never taken English composition, for example. Or public speaking, even though that’s what he did for a living as a teacher.
He also had to take the required first year seminar that would help introduce him to the college experience—a class he taught himself in the science department. “It was really nice to be sitting in my first year seminar with people half my age, twice my age, veterans, kids, a little bit of everything and realize that we all fit. We were all part of the same community,” he says. “That was the feeling we should be fostering, to make them all feel included.”
A few students recognized him and wondered what he was doing there, but in most classes he was just part of the crowd. That gave him insight into the regular relationships between students. “I found that students would feel much more comfortable asking their classmates for help than asking their professor,” Cross says. That was especially true of younger students, who felt like everyone knew what was going on except them. “I learned to talk with them and let them know that everyone is feeling these emotions.”
Older students weren’t afraid to ask questions in class. “They think ‘I’m here on my own dime and I want to do it right the first time,’” he says. But they also felt out-of-place, especially if they were older than the professor. “They are nervous because they haven’t been in a classroom in 30 years.”
They also faced challenges jugging full time jobs, complicated kids schedules, and their family responsibilities. One of Cross’ fellow students had missed class because she had to take her mother to a chemotherapy appointment, but she never told their professor. “I don’t condone giving out As because people have difficulties, but I think it’s important that students and professors really communicate and know what is going on.”
Cross says learned a lot about both teaching and the Northern Essex community from taking classes from other professors. Some used open online educational resources rather than textbooks. Others led online discussion boards in a better way. He learned that the campus writing center did far more than just check grammar, and that students often don’t understand what is considered cheating. “As professors we know what we’re talking about, but our students sometimes don’t,” Cross says.
“It really was the best professional development I’ve ever had, to sit through a class that I teach and see it taught in a different way,” he recalls. He got to see his fellow faculty members at their best, worst, and everything in between. “It was really kind of comforting to see that other professors sometimes have a bad day.”
In May, Cross graduated with an associate’s degree in liberal arts. After the ceremony, he was mobbed by people he had never met, who loved that he had joined them in their college experience. “This is why I love community college,” he says.
Cross would encourage other professors to, if not get a degree, at least go back and take a few classes. “It helps you get back in touch with being a learner and being on the other side of things,” he says.
Many professors think students just aren’t working hard enough, but often there is much more to the story. “There is more than enough blame to go around, but there is also more than enough praise to go around,” he says. “There are so many good things going on.”