Clearer path boosts confidence, completion

 In News, Partners Magazine
Clark College adjusts enrollment process with guided pathways

3-minute read

Sarah Mendoza-Alvarado was a student at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash., when she tried to apply for Clark College for Running Start, a tuition-free college credit program. It was 2020, early in the pandemic, and the college had moved its operations online. But instead of finding an easy-to-navigate process, she faced one barrier after another.

Sarah Mendoza-Alvarado is a Clark student

Sarah Mendoza-Alvarado is a Clark student who found it easier to navigate the college’s service once guided pathways was put into effect. Photo by Jenny Shadley

First, she received an error message that something was wrong with her application. She couldn’t figure out who to ask for help. 

With persistence, she completed the application and was accepted into Running Start. But the computer system prevented her from even enrolling in a single course. A message on the screen prompted her to enter a code. But which code? Was it her ctcLink account code? Her Clark Labs account code? Some other code? 

Her repeated attempts resulted only in frustration.  

“I needed a code. I didn’t understand. It was the pandemic, and I was tired. And I said I was done,” she said.  

Mendoza-Alvarado gave up on Running Start. She graduated from high school and went to work in food service.  

Then, in spring 2022, after 18 months of restaurant work, Mendoza-Alvarado said, “I didn’t feel complete. I wanted more.”  

She tried again. And this time, Clark College was ready for her.  

Students’ needs first

Since 2015, Clark has been implementing sweeping changes known as guided pathways.  

The goal is to assist students in achieving their educational goals and landing family- wage jobs. While old models of education required students to be college-ready, guided pathways challenges colleges to meet students where they are. This transformation is part of a state-funded initiative that requires a culturally responsive commitment to racial and social equity.  

A revamped enrollment process, with better support for students, was rolled out in spring of 2022 as part of guided pathways.  

By then, Mendoza-Alvarado’s cousin, Katia Quintero, had been hired by the college as a student success coach, as part of a new program funded by guided pathways in the office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Quintero urged her, “Why don’t you try again?”  

Quintero told her about new online tools to make enrollment easier. Mendoza-Alvarado was skeptical. She pulled up the website’s redesigned registration portal.  

“It was way easier,” she said. “It made sense. I just figured it out.”  

New animated videos answered her questions throughout the process.  

“If I couldn’t figure it out myself, those videos showed me specifically where to go to find what I needed,” she said. “Especially for first- generation college students like me, you don’t know what questions to ask.”  

Another video explained her next step: visiting the Welcome Center. There she met Amy Tam, who helped her enroll. Tam recommended a course that combined English 101 with English 99.  

“It was exactly what I needed,” Mendoza-Alvarado said.  

Here to help  

Tam said it’s common for new students to need help.  

“We meet with a lot of new students like Sarah, who don’t know what the process is. Even if we have explained the enrollment process on our website, it can be challenging for people to navigate,” Tam said. “I think a lot of students don’t realize our team at the Welcome Center is here to help them understand the process and get started. I’m glad Sarah watched the new Welcome Center explainer video and knew to come to us for help.”  

Since spring 2021, Clark College has implemented several new guided pathways projects to clear the path for prospective and new students to enroll in college and meet their education goals. 

student Sarah Mendoza- Alvarado navigate Clark’s many services.

Left, Katia Quintero, Clark’s student success coach, helps student Sarah Mendoza- Alvarado navigate Clark’s many services. The two are also cousins. Photo by Jenny Shadley

A redesigned website makes registration and enrollment easier for students. A series of animated videos—available in English, Spanish and Russian—take students step by step through various processes, beginning with applying to Clark.  

Program maps are a new interactive tool to help newly enrolled students map an academic pathway. Success coaches meet with students to answer questions, help them make connections across campus and ensure they are moving forward. Current students are involved in several guided pathways projects to let staff know what’s working and what needs improvement.  

Finding her way

Mendoza-Alvarado benefitted from these new support systems. After she enrolled in the English course, for example, she also got help paying for it.  

Mendoza-Alvarado had submitted her Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form known as FAFSA, three times, but kept receiving an error message she didn’t understand. Back at the Welcome Center, Abby Thompson, an admissions recruiter, told Mendoza-Alvarado she was eligible for an emergency grant. Thompson helped her complete paperwork for the grant, which covered her tuition and fees for the spring term.  

Mendoza-Alvarado knew she wanted to pursue some kind of business degree but was unsure of the specifics. She used new guided pathways program maps to explore the differences between various business programs until she found the one that was the best fit.  

Then she used the new “What If ” report function, also part of the guided pathways initiative, to learn about degrees and career pathways. She saw a compact version of the classes she had taken, the requirements she completed and the additional classes she still has to take.  

Two years after Mendoza-Alvarado gave up on Clark College, she is a full-time Clark business student. Not only is she confident in her academic path forward, but the financial aid she received is making college affordable. She even sees her business classes dovetailing with what she’s learning in her new job at HAPO Community Credit Union. Clark’s focus on guided pathways has guided Mendoza-Alvarado onto a path toward a new, brighter future.  

Chandra Chase, left, is the guided pathways framework communications project manager and Susan Parrish is the guided pathways communications consultant.chandra chase works at Clark College. susan parrish is a writer

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