Family. Institution. Community. Self. These are the four pillars of student success as developed by Dr. Aaron Thompson, interim president of Kentucky State University, as well as the theme of the 2016 Appalachian Higher Education Network (AHEN) annual conference. The event brought together individuals from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to think and learn together about increasing postsecondary access and attainment in Appalachia.
Over the past decade, progress has been made resulting in a steady stream of first-generation students attending two- and four-year colleges and universities, participating in certificate programs, and joining the military. An integral partner in this progress is AHEN, a peer learning network of regional program and information centers providing a range of supports focused on high school transition and success in postsecondary education. AHEN and its annual, region-wide conference are supported in part by the Appalachian Regional Commission. The conference provides a venue for engaging with national issue experts as well as for delving deeper into issues with colleagues working throughout Appalachia and facing similar challenges.
The 2016 conference, which Thompson keynotes, featured plenary sessions on the four pillars of student success and followed these discussions with small group workshops designed to bring each pillar to life. All of the workshops highlighted promising practices being used in Appalachia, including the Putting Families First Family Partnership in Kentucky, the Great Expectations Program in Virginia, and the Connection Café in Pennsylvania. Innovative regional partnership ideas also were highlighted, such as Country Music Television’s partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges to promote community colleges access in Appalachia, and A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education’s work in rural America. The U.S. Department of Education was on hand to discuss key opportunities and resources for centers working in rural areas and financial aid support for students.
Support. Relationships. Sharing. Collaboration. These are some of the most common reasons why participants attend the AHEN conference. It is not an ordinary convening; people share ideas and resources and turn them into actionable items that are then adapted or replicated in their own communities.
Participants from Tennessee and Virginia, for example, spoke of growing their own skills and competencies, and of what they could take back to their institutions and communities. One participant noted that she was intrigued by a workshop on supporting foster youth exiting the system, and planned to look closely to identify the implications for her own state. Another participant shared that interacting with community college staff opened his eyes as to what needs to be done at his high school to better align with higher education institutions in his area. A participant from a state university stated, “I enjoy learning about how things are going in other places and how I might implement that on our campus for our students so they can have better success rates and help improve their region and culture, because that is what they really want, to help their family and friends and make a sustainable life for themselves.”
There are many challenges to increasing postsecondary education attainment in Appalachia: economic downturn in coal mining communities, increased inequity and concentrated poverty, and limited public and private dollars to provide the resources needed to revitalize the region. The nature of jobs in Appalachia is changing and the region is adapting to new labor market demands. But there are assets—strong family and community cultures, a growing awareness and participation of employers in supporting dual-generation job training, and cross-boundary partnerships—that are enabling pathways of first-generation students to realize their postsecondary education dreams.
Although the funding for AHEN members’ programs ebbs and flows from diverse funding sources, the Network persists and continues to galvanize in order to learn and to innovate together. AHEN is based at IEL and supported by the work of three mentors: Betty Hale at IEL; Angela Kirtdoll at Eastern Gateway Community College in Ohio; and Sarita Rhonemus at Bluefield State College in West Virginia. The annual conference offers a platform for good ideas to take root and to grow, and the collaboration and support that comes from the interactions furthers each state’s work supporting increased postsecondary attainment—the mission of the Network. As one participant noted, “Every fall I am amazed at how many first-generation college students we are getting, and it is not slowing down!”