Aspen Award: Pierce College wins outstanding student achievement

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Veronica Lu / Staff Photo
Chancellor Michele Johnson (Left) and Interim President Deidre Soileau hold the Rising Star award that Soileau accepted on behalf of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom at the ASPEN ceremony in Washington, D.C.

The $100,000 prize awarded to Fort Steilacoom will go towards helping stuggling students

The results are in. Pierce College Fort Steilacoom received $100,000 last month – along with bragging rights – as one of the top five community colleges in the nation. 

The Aspen Institute designated Pierce College as a Rising Star for dramatically improving student outcomes, especially in the areas of student retention and completion. The college reported its completion rate is almost 20 percentage points higher than the national average.

The $1 million grand prize was split this year between Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida and Miami Dade College in Miami, Florida. The other nominees in the final round were Palo Alto College in San Antonio and Odessa College in Odessa, Texas. 

Chancellor Michele Johnson said Pierce’s decision to use Guided Pathways contributed to higher retention and completion rates. “This award represents all the changes we made – completion rate, transfer rate. We created clear pathways,” she said. 

Guided Pathways was created last year to better help incoming students complete their education goals. It also streamlined the support services for stuggling students

We need to give back to the employment professional development to help students move forward.”

— Stephanie Webster

Johnson added that the prize money was put into the Pierce College Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to create partnerships in the community to help bridge struggling students to resources.

“It will be used for more than scholarships and building up emergency fund,” she said. “We are using it to leverage other foundations and other donors. We are hoping to generate $3.3 million.”  The foundation raised $750,000 as part of a fundraising campaign as of April 11, she added.

The college was also honored for a commitment to equitable outcomes for students and a dedicated focus on helping them overcome obstacles. Johnson said the award does not mean that the work is finished. She wants to help single parents and men stay in college and finish their degree. 

“Men in general are not showing up. African American men are not completing as strongly, so we’re trying to get all the barriers removed,” she said.

Having access to available resources are a constant challenge for students. Those in support services have hope that some of the money will be funneled into their departments.

Jake Williams, a student advisor at Pierce College, said he would like to see an increase of personnel and student resources. “I would like to see more advisors, more textbooks available for students,” he said.

Stephanie Webster, a Financial Aid staff member, said students need opportunities to grow and be employable. “We need to give back to the employment professional development to help students move forward,” she said.

Claudio, who is finishing up his high school completion before pursuing to criminal justice at Pierce was happy about the Aspen status because it reaffirmed why he came to this school. “Being in the top five is really huge,” he said. “It assures me of what I already knew. I am where I need to be.” 

Jordan Blevins, Access and Disability Services supervisor, said one of the biggest complaints he hears most often is outside the buildings. “We need to improve the handicap parking,” he said.

 The Aspen Award, which started in 2011, recognizes community colleges for student achievement and is given every two years. The next round of Aspen winners will be decided in 2021. 

“We have some equity gaps to close. We’ll be prime to come back again,” Johnson said. 

With that money, we should get a hot tub. Imagine, after a stressful test week, you can go into it and have ten minutes of chilling in a hot tub.

~Darryl McNeil

I believe it should be put in more resources for the students like books for students who can’t afford them.

~Evelyn Mendoza

I think, maybe a swimming pool.

~Yuan Wu

I would want to improve the gym.

~Pavina Sapakdy

One of my teachers was explaining that they’re restoring some part of the woods in the back for habitats for endangered species so I think the money should go towards that.

~Lindsay Carpenter

I’m a creative person so I would rather have something that gives to the art community. We should do more music and that kind of thing. There is nothing for electronic music and recording. A lot of technology nowadays is updated so we need to stay current.

~Quintin Mattson

The campus could use some help with the parking. We can also do scholarships for a lot of the students.

~Donny Herrara

I think we should at least upgrade some programs for the computer lab. More up to date programs for digital design or computer science classes.

~William Canche

I think probably on technology. I think more resources for students because you can never have to much.

~Marissa Warren

I think the school should give some of the money for scholarships. The rest of them can be used for school buildings and financial aid. 

~Zhigang Xie

It doesn’t hurt to have a few more vending machines around here.

~Nicholas Cavin

We need the money for security purposes.

~Erika Solesbee

Khuong “Finn” Quoc Ho / Staff Photos