In New Hampshire, Community Colleges Foster a New Generation of Humanities Scholars

College students sitting outside Students at Nashua Community College. Courtesy of Nashua Community College.

The New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative is rekindling enthusiasm for the humanities by helping community college students find meaningful employment and aiding in the transfer process to four-year institutions.

Former US Army sergeant Jonathan Kane had only a vague notion of what to expect from his internship at Harbor Homes, a 26-unit transitional housing facility for homeless people in Manchester, NH. “My classroom experience was all clinical,” the 35-year-old Nashua Community College student recalls. “I thought I would be dealing with medical histories and scheduling appointments.”

In reality, Kane quickly found himself immersed in the lives of homeless veterans, many of whom needed help with alcohol or opioid abuse. While still attending classes, Kane spent three days a week at Harbor Homes helping clients navigate the maze of public and private programs designed to help people struggling with addiction and other relevant issues.

To his surprise, Kane began to realize that his humanities classes were as helpful as his clinical psychology courses. Philosophy, for example, taught him how to apply an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving in a medical setting. That multifaceted way of thinking “was pretty much required to create case management plans for clients with a broad and complex set of issues and individual barriers,” he explains.

A course on human relations helped Kane learn to get veterans to open up. “Rapport with vets, especially ones with [multiple] disorders, can be hard to come by,” he says. “Forming a common bond without judgement is required if you expect someone to tell you the truth and not sugarcoat or gloss over important details that they may find embarrassing.”

Kane’s experience illustrates one way in which the New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative is ensuring that humanities studies remain relevant—and a viable companion to STEM-related fields. The Collaborative, which promotes the study of languages, literature, philosophy, and other humanities disciplines, was co-founded by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) College of Liberal Arts and the Community College System of New Hampshire, funded by a pair of grants totaling $824,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

"In terms of long-term job satisfaction and long-term earnings, humanities students often do better."

Already, the program is beginning to demonstrate the value of the humanities—not only for college graduates competing in the job market, but also as a means for students and scholars to develop the skills needed to address critical social issues in their communities. At the same time, the Collaborative is making it easier for community college students to transfer to UNH and other four-year institutions where they can pursue a Bachelor’s degree, which in turn opens up new pathways to advanced humanities degrees and additional career options.

According to Ross Gittell, Chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, community college students seeking to further their education found that four-year institutions would not give them credit for some of their humanities courses because it was unclear if the courses met the university’s standards for subject matter and academic rigor. That meant students routinely had to retake classes to fill in gaps in their transcripts.

The Mellon grants enabled UNH and the community colleges to resolve this problem by having department heads and other educators from the university and each community college meet over the summers of 2017 and 2018 at Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth, where they spent days reviewing one another’s curricula course by course. Assisted by Leslie Barber, a Great Bay biology professor who had previously helped to align STEM classes at UNH and community colleges, the educators agreed on which community college courses would be transferable, which would not, and what it would take to move courses from the second category to the first.

Smoothing the pathway from two- to four-year institutions is just a start for the Collaborative. Its UNH project manager, Paul Robertson, says the Collaborative also wants to persuade career-minded students to reconsider the life-long value of a humanities degree in an education landscape that can sometimes seem fixated on STEM degrees. “Will a chemical engineering student earn more right out of college? Absolutely,” explains Robertson, a lecturer in Classics and Humanities. “But in terms of long-term job satisfaction and long-term earnings, humanities students often do better.”

"What we're doing [in humanities departments] is training students in skills that employers are looking for..skills you need to be a leader. These are the skills that will help people be successful."

Attitudes among private sector employers means it is easier for the Collaborative to make that case. According to a recent report from the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, hiring managers have come to appreciate that emotional intelligence, a strong foundation in ethics, and the ability to make value judgments—attributes developed by a humanities education—are as important as technical knowledge when deciding on whom to hire and promote.

“There is a false narrative out there that tech skills are all that matter,” says Molly Campbell, a senior lecturer of English at UNH. “What we’re doing [in humanities departments] is training students in skills that employers are looking for … skills you need to be a leader. These are the skills that will help people be successful.”

Many employers agree. “We need a well-educated workforce—which means developing both technical skills and the ability to think critically,” says Jessica Dade, assistant executive director of the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association’s education foundation. “The humanities, she explains, “help you to learn how to problem solve and how to work as a team.” She also notes that the foundation, which will award $75,000 in scholarships to community college students this year, is “working hard to change the conversation with students, parents, and others to recognize and appreciate the contribution of the humanities to a successful career.”

“What really matters for us is a passion, drive, and energy that demonstrates a concern for and a willingness to work on complex global issues,” says UNH alum Alex Freid, a philosophy and political science major who founded and co-directs the six-year-old nonprofit Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN). Headquartered in Dover, NH, PLAN cultivates a new generation of environmental leaders by mobilizing students to build a zero waste movement in their home communities. “Liberal arts and humanities majors often stand out because they have the critical thinking and creative problem solving skills to think outside the box and challenge the status quo,” Freid explains. He says that for issues like waste, recycling, and composting, the technological solutions already exist; what’s needed is the ability to change systems by working within complex and challenging bureaucratic institutions. 

headshotUNH alum Alex Fried, a philosophy and political science major who founded and co-directs Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN). Courtesy of PLAN.

To generate buzz about humanities programs among students, Campbell and Krista Jackman, a principal lecturer at UNH, created a website called HUGEmanities with some help from the Collaborative. They use the platform to share exceptional student work and encourage innovative digital projects by offering small grants and apprenticeships. “It is a platform where our students can showcase some of the work they’re engaged in thinking critically and logically about the narratives they face every day,” says Jackman.

The Collaborative also encourages humanities students and scholars to raise the discipline’s public profile by addressing “grand challenges”—urgent, widely shared social problems that call for large-scale, long-term coordinated responses. In 2017, for example, Manchester Community College integrated immigration studies into 22 courses, including business, English, graphic design, and genetics. As part of the project, called “Home to Home,” students used art, fiction, film, biography, photography, and theater to depict the ways people think about the concept of “home” in an era of mass migration.

Instructors chose immigration as the first “grand challenge” not only because it is a hotly debated national topic, but also because New Hampshire’s cities have received significant numbers of refugees and other immigrants in recent years. More than 13 percent of Manchester’s 109,000 residents were born abroad, compared with less than 6 percent across the entire state, according to the Census Bureau. The city says 76 languages are spoken in local schools.

Robertson said “Home to Home” was meant to introduce the newcomers, who are from Bhutan, Congo, Iraq and 30 other nations, to native New Hampshire residents and help integrate them into the state’s civic life. “This type of cultural dialogue is essential to a democracy’s proper functioning in a large, complex society,” explains Robertson. More than 200 students participated, and the college presented their work at “Home to Home: Stories of Immigration,” a public event that attracted local residents representing 14 countries.

Democracy will be the grand challenge this fall, and the Humanities Collaborative will offer two programs for students and faculty to think critically about its intrinsic value and the challenges it faces in the digitally connected 21st century. The first part, which centers on faculty engagement, will consist primarily of updating coursework in classics, education, political science, and other disciplines to explore civic participation and questions of equality, identity, representation and diversity.

The second program, a mock political convention in the fall, will enable students to experience firsthand how political structures alternatively preserve and challenge the relative power of political elites, the broader public, women, minorities, and young people.

Together, the programs examine self-governance by providing students with a deeper appreciation of how the US political system works and by building a foundation for inclusion and equity as the next generation prepares to address pressing issues such as healthcare, the environment, and peace and security.

Gittell said the community college-university partnership has fueled the growth of innovations that are rekindling students’ interest in the humanities while also making it easier for community college students to pursue that interest at the University of New Hampshire. “It enabled us to do many things in the humanities we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do,” he said.

Kane’s experience is a case in point. His work at the homeless shelter in Nashua impressed on him the difference between seeing clients in a clinic and helping homeless substance abusers on the streets. “This was … something I never would have had a chance to experience without the internship,” he said.

The work was hard, but he was not discouraged. After he graduates from Nashua Community College later this month, Kane intends to transfer to the University of New Hampshire and pursue a BS in neuropsychology.