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Rural Revival: 4 insights to embrace the design process from Eastern Maine Community College

Eastern Maine Community College is located in Bangor, Maine.
BRIDGES Rural, the full cohort
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This is part of a Transformation Insights series spotlighting innovative community colleges in the BRIDGES Rural initiative at the Education Design Lab.

In 2020, as the world entered the COVID-19 pandemic, five rural colleges committed to a three-year project with the hope of building their capacity and extending their reach further into rural areas.

BRIDGES Rural — an acronym for Building Rural Innovation, Designing Educational Strategies (BRIDGES)— started with a question: How might we strengthen the capacity of rural community colleges to serve as critical economic growth engines for their learners and communities?

With the support of Ascendium Education Group, these institutions engaged in a human-centered design process with the Education Design Lab to design and pilot innovative pathways, community partnerships, and learner-focused support services.

SPOTLIGHT: Eastern Maine Community College

Eastern Maine Community College’s (EMCC) main campus is located on 72 acres in Bangor and serves a large geographical area that reaches all the way to Maine’s east coast and includes two additional campuses in its service region. Eastern Maine serves a total learner population of over 2,000 and also offers residential campus housing. As a rural college, EMCC joined BRIDGES to, as they say, “put the community back in community college.”

Never failure. Always learning.

During the BRIDGES Understand phase, EMCC learned some of the most rural parts of its service area were experiencing unemployment rates of over 40 percent. To solve the problem, their goal was to design flexible pathways leading to career outcomes that have value for learners individually, resulting in community-wide economic growth.

Destination You, a free, eight-week course, was designed for the under- and unemployed people in the community with the hopes of connecting potential employees to employers and establishing career pathways.

Destination You tested the EMCC team’s flexibility and determination, a testimony to the difficulty of change work. The first Destination You cohort had recruitment and attrition challenges, with only three of the 11 learners completing with credentials equivalent to three college credits. Facilitators were difficult to retain, especially in some of the more remote areas. In addition, significant turnover at the college resulted in the loss of several team members.

The group at EMCC, however, was determined and resilient, embodying true grit in the face of challenges. The team realized the pilot was designed based on untested assumptions about learners. Seeing the need for intentional and direct feedback, EMCC intentionally paused to listen. They internalized the feedback from learners and community partners, and opened themselves up to having some difficult conversations.

As a result, Destination You changed. The concepts and student supports it offered became a part of the Opportunity Ready curriculum, and EMCC decided to focus on the launch of a facilitator training course to better meet the wants and needs of their students. Eighteen new facilitators were recruited from rural spaces throughout their service area. They added a self-assessment element, virtual office hours, and common work sessions.

By using feedback from all stakeholders, the reach of the program grew into more pathways to employment with new partners in new areas, including the Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness Center, ecotourism, and culinary employers.

The team at EMCC embraced the power of iteration and design intuitively and committed to keep having the hard conversations to ensure the needs of learners and the community are being met.

Transformation insights

Listen to stakeholders

Early in the design process, the team started to hear that the noncredit side of the college often felt less valued than the credit side. The team listened to those experiences from their own internal stakeholders and started to intentionally design solutions that were equitable for both the credit and noncredit programs. Today, EMCC continues to live and function with the one college model.

Embrace process as product.

EMCC embraced the messy front-end of design and made space for critical redesign. By focusing on the solution they were building for the under- and unemployed people of their communities, EMCC was able to create (and recreate) a solution that not only responded to learner and partner feedback, but was built intentionally for future adaptations and redesign.

Use a community sustainable approach.

Destination You uses a community sustainable approach. EMCC is working with one of the largest employers focused on ecotourism in the Katahdin region to redesign their outdoor education pathways for year-round employment. In the spring of 2023, they launched their first culinary bootcamp to meet the needs of the upcoming tourist season.

Be passionate about the problem, not the solution.

The EMCC team showed incredible resilience during the change process. But their stubbornness was focused on their commitment to solving the problem, not the solution they were testing. They held onto the desire to affect unemployment, and that determination continues to propel them forward.

Looking ahead

As the Lab continues our work with rural postsecondary leaders, we are excited to test the approaches from this project with the other rural and remote communities, as well as learning how to create a data culture that supports decision making and sustainability.

In spring 2022, the Rural Together community of practice came together as a result of the BRIDGES work and we are excited to continue co-leading that space with rural postsecondary practitioners, highlighting the innovative work happening throughout all rural communities.

Download the full brief: Rural Revival: BRIDGES Rural College Transformation Insights

Read transformation insights from each college:

BRIDGES Rural 2023 Institution Impact Showcase

The showcase featured insights from the two-year design process and next steps for BRIDGES Rural community colleges, including Eastern Maine Community College.