Fire Fighting, STEM, and Liberal Education at Oxnard College

We want people to get jobs. No doubt about it. To get jobs these days, people need both broad learning and practical skills. In this series of posts, I have been presenting exemplars among community colleges of programs that accomplish these goals and connect K-12 and college learning, all with the intention of increasing people’s success in getting jobs. These civically minded colleges are taking their place as centers for learning aligned along the continuum from school to college to university in their communities. From these highly responsible and resilient institutions, I am learning a thing or two about a blended model of liberal education as practical education—a robust model of what sustainable learning for employment ought to be in the twenty-first century.

A recent visit to Oxnard College, a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) in Ventura County, California, has helped me articulate what it means for a college to invest deeply in the vitality of its community. Oxnard fosters applied learning in the arts and sciences, and liberal education in career and technical education (CTE).  It is a thing of beauty. Driving to Oxnard, you traverse vast strawberry fields; you’re near the Pacific coast and the Channel Islands National Park. The massive agricultural enterprise abutting the coastal sanctuary reminds me how challenging it is to negotiate across different worlds within higher education, but also how urgently we need future generations of students to be ready for stewardship and civic responsibility as well as for workforce success.

Oxnard has been doing extraordinary work to engage its students and build their capacity to succeed through deep learning. This is the kind of learning that will serve them and their community for a lifetime. With the support of energetic campus and local P-16 leaders, the visible endorsement of Oxnard President Dr. Richard Duran, and some well-designed sponsored projects (see, they’ve built an inclusive pathway from local schools to the college and on to California State University, Channel Islands (CSUCI) or the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Dr. Cynthia Herrera, HSI STEM grant director at Oxnard, describes the work with pride: “We work intentionally with some of the lowest-performing high schools in the region using a holistic approach to program design that provides support services to include summer bridge programs in physics, chemistry, and robotics, academic tutoring and peer mentoring.”

At Oxnard, “D-performers became B and A performers through applied and active learning. It’s integrated; it’s hands-on. It works because we’ve changed the pedagogy to meet the students where they are learning. They are out-of-the-box learners; they’re immediate responders; they make high use of technology.” The video clips of the programs are pure inspiration.  You’ll see a diverse group of students enthusiastically learning science and technology, including environmental science on the Channel Islands. The first summer brings the students to Oxnard; the next summer the same students go to CSUCI to get an idea what a university is like. Oxnard is creating model access, articulation, and transfer programs to address the longstanding challenges that were often presented to students who transferred into the CSU and UC systems.

At Oxnard I also met Gail Warner, director of Fire Technology, a CTE program of particular importance to the region. After eighteen years as a fire fighter and ten years in higher education as a fire science educator, Gail knows what her students need. It’s a twenty-first-century liberal education: “Fire fighters need to be interculturally sensitive and experienced so that they can work under pressure with a broad diversity of people. They need to use advanced technology, including information technology. Their verbal skills, written and oral, need to be honed and ready. They must be team workers. They need to speak a language in addition to English. We are talking about a broad set of skills and abilities, way beyond what most people think when they think of fire fighters.” Gail repeats something we hear constantly from employers: “Students will learn most of the job-related knowledge and skills they need on the job. It’s our responsibility to give them the job basics together with general education that will lead to employment. We need more of general education in CTE, not less. More of what you call liberal education sets you up for the future. It makes you employable. Community college students need and deserve more than job training in order to be successful. They need English, natural sciences, social sciences, and psychology. They need it all!”

My visit to Oxnard reinforces my belief that community colleges are the liberal arts colleges of the future. The best policy for the wellbeing of community colleges will encourage program development similar to what we find on the ground at Oxnard College, program designs drawn from a shared vision for student success that anchors learning in applied, engaged, high-impact practices. The very best of designs weave CTE and the liberal arts together. If we can nurture such programs from school to college, we’ll bring great talent into the workforce of the future.

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