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Spotlight: Meeting Diverse Needs in Higher Ed

Rachel Sackett (right) has taught for 13 years at Naugatuck Valley Community College (NVCC) in Waterbury where she currently serves as the chair of the Science and Biology Department. After a career as a microbiologist in the private sector, Sackett returned to her roots in higher education in order to help those seeking brighter futures for themselves.
“We give students a chance to achieve what they didn’t necessarily know they could,” said Sackett, a member of our AFT Connecticut-affiliated Federation of Technical College Teachers. “It’s those ‘light bulb’ moments that I like best about teaching at a community college,” she added.
Sackett helps lead a team of 11 full tenure-track faculty and approximately 50 adjunct instructors who, together, teach over 90 sections of science courses each semester. They are part of NVCC’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Division, which offers 13 associate degree programs and 12 certificate programs, all at a low cost to enrolled students. 
“I’m amazed by the combined talents of our science department,” said Sackett. “Individually, we each bring our own unique expertise to the table. “Many, like myself, come from private industry. Others were PhDs or postdocs doing research in universities. We all decided we wanted to ‘give back’ and teach in a community college setting,”she added.
As Sackett explains, NVCC’s students “come from all walks of life” to learn in the wide variety of subject areas taught by the Science and Biology Department staff. From astronomy to horticulture to biology, each are part of the dual pathways to career and further education that are the hallmark of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system.
“Whether it’s working with them in the classroom, helping them understand concepts or advising them through their academic career, we meet our students’ needs,” said Sackett.
Click here for a recent commentary by NVCC’s president on the value of community colleges to their students.
While working as a process development scientist for a small biotechnology company based in New Haven, Sackett came to NVCC to teach part-time, as a non-tenure-track faculty. That’s when she realized a “reconnection” to her true vocation.
“Growing up, my mom told me I should be an educator,” said Sackett, whose earlier experience as a graduate student eventually helped lead her to a second career.
Working initially at NVCC as an adjunct, Sackett has a unique perspective on the vital role of non-tenure track faculty in supporting students’ higher education needs.
“We would not be able to serve the number of students that we do without our adjuncts,” she said. “They run a lot of the courses that we don’t have the full-time faculty to run. And since so many are coming from industry, they bring valuable expertise into the classroom for our students,” Sackett added.
Click here to watch Sackett share more on how adjunct faculty support student learning.
According to the organizers of the national Campus Equity Week (CEW 2017) campaign, about 75 percent of faculty in colleges and universities in the United States are working off the tenure track. Researchers at the University of California – Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education (Labor Center) found that 25 percent of part-time instructors earn so little they receive government assistance. Additionally, many lack access to health insurance, retirement contributions, sick leave or even office space.
Click here for the Labor Center’s white paper, “The High Public Cost of Low Wages.”
Despite challenging conditions, adjunct faculty contribute to university and academic communities — and are often listed among students’ favorite professors. They continue to not only teach but also participate in symposia, write books, create and exhibit art, as well as publish research to advance scholarship in their fields. 
And, as Sackett and her colleagues in Connecticut’s community colleges demonstrate, adjuncts are engaged in their unions to help advance their cause and advocate for their students’ needs.
Click here to learn more about CEW 2017 and the effort to expose inequitable employment practices within higher education.

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