When Meghan Hughes became president of Rhode Island Community College in February 2016, she confronted declining enrollment and a two-year graduation rate hovering at 4 percent — well below the national average for community colleges. The news was even worse for students of color: Only 2 percent were graduating from CCRI’s two-year programs.

Today, even as students complete their studies at home in the era of COVID-19, the school boasts an 18 percent graduation rate — 12 percent for students of color — an “incredibly good start,” Hughes says, but not nearly good enough.

“I don’t think we’re done,” she says. “I don’t think we can be done.”

In this week’s Lessons Earned podcast, Hughes recounts the journey her school — and her state — have embarked upon to improve the lives and livelihoods of Rhode Islanders, through the Rhode Island Promise college scholarship as well as adult education programs and hands-on, employer-provided training that is building a strong talent pool to grow the state’s economy. 

But what happens during the COVID-19 crisis, when hands-on, skills-based learning can’t be hands-on? Unrelentingly optimistic, Hughes says the pandemic, while challenging, is a great chance for students and educators alike to adapt and learn new skills that will benefit them long after the current crisis.

“We have to look at this pandemic as presenting us with an opportunity. We have to. Otherwise I don’t know how any of us get out of bed for as long as we’re going to be working in this way,” she says. “And I genuinely believe that what this pandemic has done … is teach the entire community what it’s capable of doing when our backs are up against a wall.”

Those opportunities include educators and students alike learning new technology skills, Hughes says, but also exercising soft skills like adaptability, communication, teamwork, and resiliency.

“Look, this is a horrifying thing that’s happening to the world, and I wish it weren’t happening, but it is happening,” she says. “And I think the good that’s coming out of it, for our college, it will be a lasting good.”

Lessons Earned, co-hosted by Ben Wildavsky and Andrew Hanson, is focusing its entire second season on pandemic response in education and the workforce. To listen to the interview with Meghan Hughes, as well as other episodes, visit lessonsearned.org.

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