The road to liberal-arts colleges runs through Irma Medina's office. On her walls hang pictures of Wonder Woman and a poster of a Latina Rosie the Riveter. Ms. Medina wants the students who sit down across from her to believe they can do something that might just seem impossible.
Ms. Medina is the coordinator of Holyoke Community College's Pathways Program, which helps students from underrepresented groups transfer to nearby selective institutions, including Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges. The latter institution helped establish the program with part of a $779,000 grant it received from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Pathways provides academic counseling, financial-aid workshops, and mentors to high-achieving students at Holyoke who hope to continue their education at a liberal-arts college.
Since its founding in 1946, Holyoke has built close relationships with four-year colleges in the area. In its early days, Holyoke lacked full-time faculty members, so it borrowed instructors from surrounding colleges to teach its courses. Since then a transfer culture has blossomed.
About 750 to 800 Holyoke students (about 40 percent) transfer annually. Over the last three years, the college has sent 135 of its students to one of the four local colleges.
"These kinds of connections don't just happen," says William F. Messner, Holyoke's president. "It takes hard work and focus for colleges to get students they wouldn't be attracting otherwise."
The college offers its students various ways to engage with faculty members on other campuses. One is the Math Transition Seminar, in which 15 students take a five-week, noncredit course on Mount Holyoke's campus.
To prepare students for other types of courses they will find at liberal-arts colleges, Holyoke officials have significantly enhanced the college's academic offerings. In the Learning Communities Program, for instance, students take interdisciplinary courses such as "Exploring Inequality: The Causes and Consequences of Hunger and Homelessness," co-taught by instructors from the English and economics departments. Last fall the completion rate for Learning Communities courses, which are rigorous and reading-intensive, was the same—68 percent—as that for comparable courses outside the program.
Since 2006, Ms. Medina has met one on one with nearly 400 students to discuss Pathways, and about half have entered the program. She relies on faculty members and academic advisers to identify those who seem like strong candidates because they have high grade-point averages or interests in particular fields of study.
Often those students need extra help—and encouragement—to imagine themselves at a four-year college. "Liberal arts can be seen as an enigma," Ms. Medina says. "They want something immediate and concrete that leads to stability for themselves and their families."
Especially in a bad economy, students who hope to land a job or change careers might need to be convinced that transferring is worthwhile. So Ms. Medina tells them her own story.
In the early 90s, she was a single mother working as a part-time secretary and taking night classes at Holyoke. She hoped to become a paralegal. When an adviser encouraged her to consider transferring to Mount Holyoke, she didn't know what to think. Although the college was only 15 miles away, she had no idea where it was.
"It scared the bejesus out of me," Ms. Medina says. "It was a foreign concept. I didn't understand liberal arts or what you could do with it."
Eventually, Ms. Medina changed her mind. One draw was Mount Holyoke's Frances Perkins Program, a scholarship for women over 24. The program complements the community college's New Directions program, which provides nontraditional-age women with academic and financial-aid counseling, as well as other support services.
Ms. Medina enrolled at Mount Holyoke part time, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts seven years later. She returned to the community college to become an adviser who helps students with backgrounds like her own.
Ms. Medina tries to prepare students for life at four-year colleges by talking about the culture shock they might experience there. She tells them about the wealthy student she met while attending Holyoke who had wanted to bring her horse to the campus. "I tell them so they understand that they're going to be welcomed," she says, "but that they'll be around all these students who have all these social and economic advantages."
Raul Matta remembers what he saw when he first visited nearby Hampshire College: students in expensive jeans and Birkenstock sandals.
Mr. Matta, 25, grew up in a housing project in Northampton, Mass., where his mother raised him and his three siblings on less than $20,000 a year. After graduating from high school, Mr. Matta enrolled at American International College, but decided that he could not afford it. So in 2003 he enrolled at Holyoke Community College. In his first semester, he failed an African-American history course after submitting a paper that he had plagiarized.
After a year of working and partying, Mr. Matta returned to Holyoke, determined to succeed. He got an A in the course he had failed, and earned an associate degree in 2006.
After that, one of his instructors encouraged him to participate in the college's honors program. A six-credit interdisciplinary course required Mr. Matta to read 13 books and submit a final project. "It was kind of an intense workload," he says. "I had never been pushed to read and write that much."
Mr. Matta says the experience prepared him for Hampshire, where he transferred after receiving a full scholarship. At first he worried about how he would fit in as a Hispanic student on a campus where most students are white. His mother bought him a present—a pair of Birkenstocks.
This spring Mr. Matta graduated with a bachelor's degree in history, and he plans to pursue a Ph.D. He credits several advisers and instructors at Holyoke for his success. He also hopes that the college continues to diversify its transfer pipeline.
Recently, Mr. Matta says, his younger sister Laura, a student at Holyoke, considered enrolling in the honors program, but decided that the workload was too heavy—a decision he understood. After all, he has not forgotten how he felt on his first day in the program, knowing that he would have to read a book a week. "I remember looking around," he says, "and thinking that people looked just as scared as I was."