February 24, 2022

A sense of belonging is foundational to academic success, according to research.

PORTSMOUTH – The pandemic has changed the college experience at every level of higher education, and especially among community colleges, where connections among students and faculty are the backbone of a successful college experience.

Over the past two years, many of the traditional college experiences – social gatherings, public lectures and events, and community outings – have gone virtual, been canceled, or trimmed back.

But throughout the pandemic and with the return of limited in-person learning, Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth and Rochester has been helping students retain their connections to each other and to the school by paying attention to individual student needs in the classroom, in the community, and at home.

“We are thrilled to have students back on campus and we are transitioning to more in-person engagement opportunities with our students,” said Brittanie Mulkigian, Director of Student Life at Great Bay. “Offering activities on campus as well as encouraging students to take their online classes on campus, revives the sense of community amongst our students and allows us to engage with students so we can better understand their needs in and outside of the classroom.”

A sense of belonging is foundational to academic success, according to research. Students who feel they belong are more likely to stick with their studies, according to a 2019 study in Educational Researcher, an academic journal. It is especially important among students who are uncertain they belong under the best circumstances – non-traditional students, first-generation students, and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

Beyond helping students feel comfortable with their education, Great Bay works with students to feel comfortable in the community and at home, by helping them find affordable housing, arranging transportation, and distributing care packages of food and personal-care items to ensure their basic needs are being met.

“We know that student success begins at home,” Mulkigian said. “If they are comfortable at home and if we can play a role in making sure they are, students will feel a greater sense of belonging on campus and a greater sense of community and connection to the college.”

Phil Reid of Rochester had spent more than a decade working mostly in restaurants and the food industry, in New Hampshire and on the West Coast, when he enrolled at Great Bay in 2021 to study cyber security. “The pandemic helped me realize I wasn’t satisfied with my day-to-day life,” said Reid, 34. “Great Bay gave me the opportunity to pivot.”

He chose cyber security because of the professional opportunities of the field. He chose Great Bay because it was close to home, convenient, and comfortable. A friend who was taking IT classes touted the school to Reid.

“Great Bay has been very supportive,” he said. “That first semester, I was just getting my feet wet, and some classes were difficult, but the teachers are very easy to reach out to and they are very responsive. The communication has been great.”

He got all A’s his first semester and made the President’s List, affirming his decision to change careers. Reid recently began working full time in the Rochester school system as a computer specialist. Great Bay supported him in his job search while also supporting him in his studies.

“It’s not easy to do full-time school and full-time work and balance your life,” he said. “But I have a great community around me at home and at Great Bay. I feel like the people at school are looking out for my best interests and are committed to seeing me succeed.”

Zoe Purdie started her college education at an out-of-state school before she came home to New Hampshire. The first thing she noticed about Great Bay, she said, was that her teachers cared about her well-being. “When I started booking my classes here, my teacher reached out to me and asked, ‘How is everything going? Are you OK?’ Nobody said anything like that at the other school,” she said.

That lack of support led to her downfall and brought her home to New Hampshire. She has thrived with the small classes and personal attention at Great Bay. Purdie described the differences as “Great Bay’s communal vibe.”

Great Bay student Anna Layfield described it more directly. “When you feel cared about, you feel closer. I feel that Great Bay actually cares. Here, they want students to succeed,” she said. “At Great Bay, they understand we all have our different backstories coming here, and they are very understanding and welcoming of everyone. It’s just nice to feel cared about. That is why the community is so awesome here.”

Hannah Davidson, a Great Bay student from Kingston, said she was attracted to Great Bay because of cost and convenience. After arriving on campus, she realized Great Bay was worth so much more to her.

“I enjoy being here and want to stay here,” she said. “I love how much the school gives back to us. Great Bay helps with housing and with finding rides, and I have used the weekly grocery pickups more than once. I feel very connected to the students and the teachers.”

Great Bay graduate Alec Momenee-DuPrie arrived at Great Bay during a pivotal moment in his life, as he transitioned from female to male. He enrolled at Great Bay in fall 2020 and graduated in three semesters with an associate degree in history. He is now pursuing an Arts and Contemporary Studies degree at a four-year university in Toronto, Ontario.

At Great Bay, he sought a new identity and a new path in life. Great Bay showed him the way with a cost-effective educational foundation and a community of friends.

“What drew me to Great Bay was a pretty tight community that offered a lot of support, and that is what I needed,” he said. “I wanted to be in a place where I knew I would be involved in a community and where I knew I could get the support in return.”

He credits Great Bay for changing his life, because it allowed him to find himself as a transgender person and the community he needed to succeed and thrive. Momenee-DuPrie, 22, recently spoke about his experiences at Great Bay during a “Perspectives on Community Colloquium” online discussion.

He praised Great Bay for being open and welcome, and urged students, faculty, and staff to seek out opportunities to become more welcoming to transgender students in the future.

To hear more firsthand stories of students and their GBCC experiences visit: https://www.greatbay.edu/student-life/testimonials/

Great Bay Community College is a comprehensive postsecondary institution offering quality academic and professional and technical education in support of workforce development and lifelong learning. Great Bay Community College is part of the Community College System of New Hampshire, a public system of higher education consisting of seven colleges in Berlin, Claremont, Laconia, Concord, Manchester, Nashua, and Portsmouth. The colleges offer Associate degrees and career training in technical, professional and general fields, including transfer pathways to baccalaureate degrees. For more information on Great Bay Community College, visit www.greatbay.edu.