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Supporting CTE Students Beyond the Classroom and COVID-19

by Jewel Bourne / Feb 26, 2021

With February designated as Career Technical Education (CTE) Month, I find myself thinking about what this year has brought us, but more so what this year has taught us as we also reach a certain point in the pandemic and the promise of a return to some sense of normalcy with a new administration and vaccine rollout.

I am thoughtful about how education has pivoted to continue supporting students' academic goals. As the pandemic has drawn widespread attention to the inequities that have long existed, I find myself curious to see how we, as educators, continue this momentum to provide equitable support, particularly for those pursuing CTE programs of study. What does life beyond COVID-19 look like for CTE students? How do we serve the community of students who have been historically disenfranchised and further distanced from the campus by the pandemic?

Although research has demonstrated that those engaged in CTE, internships, and apprenticeships are more active and demonstrate high-core academic skills (Hunt Institute, 2020), there seems to be a disconnect with identifying and serving their co-academic needs—needs that COVID-19 has unfortunately illuminated to a broader group of educators, myself included.

It feels as though students interested and enrolled in CTE programs are often left out of the conversation about needs beyond the classroom. In my experience as a former community college student, and now as a student-affairs professional, CTE students—used here as a blanket term to include those pursuing career advancement and recertification—are often dismissed, ignored, and neglected when discussing how we, as the institution, serve students.

There seems to be an unintentional conception that students who are pursuing these credentials have everything they need to be successful in college and into the workforce. I say this, in a moment of transparency, as a student-affairs professional. In my professional life, I have assumed that students who were enrolled in these courses were already aware of their goals and why they were enrolled in community college. I wondered how much help student services could be to them.

Frankly, on the campus I served, most of the students enrolled in these courses attended them in the evenings, after their full-time jobs, arriving on campus at 5 p.m., well after our student-support offices closed at 4 p.m. What was the point of engaging or creating programming that would serve their needs? Embarrassingly, I never stopped to consider or ask what their needs might be. This is challenging for me to admit, as I pride myself on being an equity-minded person and also inclusive, particularly as a first-generation, Black, female-identifying community college graduate and transfer student. It was not until I began my affiliation with OCCRL and considered the experiences of students pursuing these fields of study, as the pandemic was going on, that I realized how my own practice has been exclusionary.

In thinking about the way in which the pandemic has deepened the gaps of access and economic opportunities, I am drawn back to the responsibility of the community college to be an institution that serves and meets the needs of the community. Notably, as I engage in conversations about the fall and planning for the multitude of instructional possibilities and the capacity of the program within my portfolio, I return to simple considerations such as:

  • Are students who are enrolled in CTE programs aware of the campus services available to them?
  • What has historically been the relationship between student services and CTE programs?
  • Who is interested in being an ally?
  • What would and could collaboration look like? 
  • How do we start small to build connections and relationships?

As community college administrators, practitioners, and leaders, we must first realize the necessity of being adaptive and receptive. We must have continuous conversations and discussions that ask what the specific needs of our student populations are at this moment, particularly when we see that the students who typically flow into community colleges en masse during a “typical” recession are not doing so now (Community Colleges: Learning and Helping During the Pandemic, 2020). It is critical that we ponder and explore what may be compounding their disengagement with college and the institution in general.

It is additionally imperative that we document the experiences of students as well as survey alumni on successful program services, insights for growth opportunities, and their transitions into the workforce. Are we doing this crucial work, and even more importantly, are we doing it effectively to reach out and engage with this community of students? And what does "doing the work” even mean? All in all, there is an opportunity here to inform, empower, and serve through expanded data-collection efforts.

Recognizing that the pandemic has brought new and tough challenges, I am encouraged by the moments of opportunity it has brought so we can continue to expand the resourcefulness that is embedded within the mission and legacy of the community college. As the pandemic highlights and exacerbates long-existing opportunity gaps, we have no option but to innovate the status-quo practices that have long alienated students. The pandemic presents us with an opportunity and momentum for radical restructuring. It is a moment to prioritize career technical education students in a manner that truly and fully mobilizes the egalitarian ideals of the community college.  

As educators we have been given an occasion to embrace and practice equity in real time, as we establish and enable high-wage, high-demand CTE programs for those who have been historically marginalized. We have an opportunity to meet students where they are. It is a moment to constructively meet the basic needs of CTE students, individuals who are often excluded from the conversation, considered afterthoughts, or deemed not in need of services.



Hunt Institiute. (2020, December 11). Impact of COVID-19 on Career & Technical Education Courses. The Hunt Institute.

PBS, Public Broadcasting Service. (2020, July 15). “Inside California Education: Community Colleges: Learning and Helping During the Pandemic.”