OC wins rising star award from Aspen Institute

After seven months of waiting, Odessa College on Tuesday won the Rising Star Award for improving student completion. OC was a finalist for the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.
The recognition comes with $100,000. San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, was also chosen as a Rising Star.
Awarded every two years since 2011, the $1 million Aspen Prize recognizes institutions for their outstanding outcomes in student learning; certificate and degree completion; employment and earnings; and high levels of access and success for minority and low-income students.
The winners were selected from 1,000 public community colleges nationwide. The 2017 Aspen Prize winner Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D., will receive $600,000.
Broward College in Fort Lauderdale and Indian River State College in Fort Pierce were named Finalists-with-Distinction. Along with Odessa College and San Jacinto College, Broward and Indian River will receive $100,000 each.
Among Odessa’s student outcomes that helped earn its recognition for the Rising Star award were:
>> An increase in annual graduation/transfer rates from 15 percent to 32 percent in four years, a news release said.
>> Five years after graduating, Odessa’s 2010 graduates earned more than double the wages of all other workers in the region.
>> A course withdrawal rate of 1.8 percent.
A room full of students and OC staff in the Saulsbury Campus Center watched a livestream of the awards from Washington, D.C., with a sense of nervous excitement watching their phones, taking selfies, texting and keeping an eye on their Twitter feeds.
Director of Media Relations and Publications Cheri Dalton said the college sent 11 representatives to the Aspen Prize event. They included President Gregory Williams, all the vice presidents, Associate Dean of Technical Education Jennifer Myers, who chaired the Aspen Committee, and board members Tara Deaver and Assistant Secretary Bruce Shearer.
“I think we’re very proud to be in those top five. We were very proud to be in the top 10,” Dalton said. Given the opportunity, Dalton said OC would have liked to be No. 1, but since this was the first time it had applied for the honor, OC officials are happy.
“I started here in 1994 and to watch the growth and the change of the school in those years has just been amazing. It just makes me very, very, very proud and very happy for us, as well,” Dalton added.
Dalton said OC is not going to rest on its laurels and the award has made the future look even brighter than it already seems. She added that she wouldn’t be surprised if Odessa College reapplied for the Aspen Prize.
“We’ll keep on doing what we’re doing, looking for better ways to do things, other ways to improve; whatever we can do to make things better for our students,” Dalton said.
“This gives us a broader awareness of our place as an example to other community colleges in the United States,” Dalton said. She noted that other community colleges have visited the campus to study what’s being done there.
As for attracting faculty and staff, Dalton said there are people from all over the world working at Odessa College. “We may be a community college in West Texas, but you get a multicultural experience when you come to OC because of the mixture of students that we have, because of the excellent faculty that we’ve been able to attract and I think that’s just going to get better,” she said.
Executive Director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program Joshua Wyner said winning the prize means Odessa College is helping more students succeed. Wyner said OC has shown some of the fastest improvement the Aspen Institute has seen in the nation.
Wyner said the funds can’t be used for lobbying and it should be used for educational purposes. He said colleges are asked to report back within the year to see how the funds were used to advance student success further.
Wyner said one college created a scholarship fund and another established a faculty innovation fund.
Students Elsie Palomares and Karina Sanchez, who attended the watch party, said the award will help people look at OC differently. Palomares said people sometimes look down their nose at students who attend community college.
“But it’s not like that at all,” Palomares said. “It’s a really good place to start and I think having this Rising Star award is really going to get people to recognize that they’re not stuck going to community college. They get to go to one of the top community colleges in the nation.”
Director of Student Success J.R. Torrez said he thinks the Rising Star recognition is appropriate. Torrez said he was working Tuesday because summer and fall registration opened Monday.
He added that there were about a dozen student services staff on hand Monday and Tuesday.
“… We’ve done a lot over the last decade, and the last few years in particular. But I think it’s also a testament to our students, who are primarily from Odessa, Ector County (and) West Texas. … It’s just a great accomplishment that speaks to the work of our faculty (and) staff and it’s also motivation to continue the fight. We have something to look forward to for the next competition,” Torrez said.