Episode 150 Creating Impactful Community Projects: The College Unbound Method Part 2

Welcome to Digication
Scholars Conversations.

I'm your host, Jeff Yan.

In this episode, you will hear part two
of my conversation with Jose Rodriguez,

Assistant Vice President of Community
and Belonging at College Unbound.

More links and information about today's
conversation can be found on Digication's

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Now, you actually mentioned it.

You know, a little while ago,
you, Community is in your title.

Your official title is Assistant Vice
President of Community and Belonging.

Can you tell me a little
bit about what that means?

What do you, so what do
you do at College Unbound?

Uh, so, Community and Belonging.

Um, so, I mentioned that we're growing.

And a lot of what happens with growth
is that you lose those core values

that matter most to the, to the school.

So you mentioned The Met and
big picture as a whole, uh, big

picture learning as a whole.

So I'm going to take a page
from them in that it does not

matter what state you go to.

If you walk into a big picture school.

It feels the same.

So whether it's The Met in Providence, The
Met in Newport, or Met, uh, in San Diego.

It feels the exact same.

Teachers, uh, instructors are
teaching in the same manner.

Kids feel the same.

Kids are empowered.

That's the same thing that I'm trying
to mirror here at the college level,

no matter where we are, um, whether
virtually, on the ground, uh, Seattle,

Chicago, does not matter where we are,
you're going to get that same feeling,

that feeling of belonging, that, oh, I
can be my authentic self in this space

because no one's going to judge me.

If anything, people are just
gonna encourage me more.

People are gonna, you know, that old
takes a village mentality is gonna come

into play and people are just gonna
show up for me whenever I need them.

That's what I'm hoping to mirror,
regardless of where we're at.

Now, so.

Just, I want to provide a
little context for folks.

The big picture learning that was started
by Dennis Littky, who's also started,

you know, College Unbound, um, this
time with Adam Bush, um, the big picture

learning started, you know, back another
couple more decades, I want to say.

And, but at this point they started at a
humble location in Providence, downtown.

Um, and then, um, It, it was
successful enough that it, the

model has been, has been reproduced
in all these different cities.

I think there are, last I remember
counting was somewhere in the 150

to 200 locations worldwide, not just
in the United States, but worldwide.


Um, and, and many, many thousands
of students and, and, um.

Extremely successful and other, you know,
one of those magical place where, you

know, have extremely high graduation rate
and college attendee rates, attending,

you know, attendance rates, um, as is a
really massive, massive, huge success.

And you had already talked about.

College Unbound already in number of
cities and that's one of the things

that you are trying to maintain,
which is this culture, you know,

that you have created so successfully
at the Providence location.

But there's something more to me also
about this, these locations in, in my,

You know, in my circle of, um, higher
education friends and, and colleagues,

when they're thinking about a new
location, we're talking new campuses,

new, new, new dormitories, new cafeterias,
new gym, new swimming pools, um, right?

And, uh, new football stadiums.

Research labs at College Unbound, you do
some, you do this very, very differently

and in a way that you can, you know,
I, I think that a lot of it passes, you

know, is has a lot to do with how, um.

Many traditional college, we think of
the way to almost like budget and fund

a college requires all those, all the
brick and many, many, many bricks and

mortar in order to build that experience.

But college has done things
really, really smart.

You want to talk a little bit about that?

You know, the partnership that
you have with various, you

know, organizations and so on.

So, and that, that is also part of the
community and belonging work, right?

Making sure that we're aligning
ourselves with organizations that,

uh, mirror, or that are identical
in mission and vision, right?

Uh, so some of the earlier partnerships
were with, um, the Nonviolence Institute

in Providence, the, uh, the United Way.

Um, and the reason why is, you
know, they, these places had a

population of folks who worked.

Boots on the ground, doing tons of
work and didn't have a college degree.

The second part of that is that
they had the space, they have

conference rooms, they have, you
know, offices that aren't being used.

So because CU's model lends itself to
being able to teach wherever there is

a need, if you have a conference room,
we can come in and, you know, that

then becomes college inbound, we don't
have a building, uh, and I don't think

that Ever intended to have buildings.

I think that the motto is that we
will always teach in community.

So wherever learning is happening,
that's where we're going to be.

And that also helps with keeping
costs down to the student, right?

We're not, we're not thinking about
the having to cover the overhead of

all these massive brick and mortars.

Uh, so yeah.

That the savings then does, uh,
show up in what a student pays.

Also, with the utilizing these
community spaces, it also are places

where folks are already familiar with.

Um, so there's a level of
comfortability that comes with that.

So, more eager and more willing to
participate because it's already

a place that they've determined
to be a safe place for them.

I remember having that conversation with
Adam a number of years ago, and I remember

him telling me that, Oh, yeah, we're
talking to the housing authority in, um, I

forget which city that he was talking to.

And, and I said, Oh, well,
what are you doing there?

Are you going to build something
in the housing authority?

And he was saying, No, no, no, no,
we are going to partner because.

These are going to be the, our
students are going to be the ones

who already live in these, you
know, these, uh, these areas.

So, instead of having to have the students
even come to our campus, we go to them.

I think that is so smart.

It's so incredibly smart.

It's good for everyone because, you know,
having just generally speaking, I mean,

we just look at just simple numbers here,
having one teacher or several teachers

to go to a community instead of having
a whole community of people come to

your campus, it's just more efficient.

It is.

It is a level of efficiency, uh, to that.

But again, I just have to
lean on the fact that it also.

Uh, so, and people feeling safe,
uh, particularly because most of

our students have been harmed by
education in some aspect before, right?

So trying to undo that harm is making
sure that the student feels safe.

And if the place where they are is
where they feel safe, having them

go to another location so that
we can say we have that location.

To me, would just be silly, right?

And sometimes impractical.

Yep, exactly.


If you can go to the United ways
conference room, where they already had

that, they, they, they're actually, they
just finished their work over there.

They can just do that.

And versus having to go cross town
somewhere, drive for 30 minutes.


Find parking, you know, you know, that's,
those are all things that really count.

Don't you think?

I think a lot of people
drop out because of that.


those are things that are already proven
not to work for the working adult.

Those are the things
that make people quit.

Uh, like, so I drove
around for 35 minutes.

I couldn't find parking.

I'm already late.

I'm just gonna miss this class.

And you miss that one class.

And then before you know it, it's
two and three classes because

the same thing keeps happening.

And then again, once again,
you walk away feeling defeated.

But all of that could have been
prevented if the school would adjust

to the student as, and not expecting
the student to adjust to the school.

And there are other things that you
do too, like, I know that, I mean,

again, we talked a little bit about
the cost, you know, not having to

maintain a building, the HVAC, the
everything that goes with it, right?

But you are able then to redirect
your resources to doing things like.

When you do have group meetups,
you're going to provide food,

you're going to provide childcare.


I mean, that's an incredible.


And the communal meal again,
it's that trying to eliminate

as many barriers as possible.

So thinking about the learning, the
working adult, I get out of work,

I have to go, I got to go cook.

Uh, for my kids.

I gotta, if I'm gonna go to school, then
I gotta bring my kids to the babysitter.

So we're eliminating those two things.

Bring your kids with you.

We'll provide child care.

Uh, don't cook, because
we'll provide a meal.

So the only thing that you have to
do on that day that you're supposed

to be in class is just be present.

Everything else is going to
be taken care of for you.

And I, again, community because the
community, the communal meal is as

important as any academics that you're
going to get one, because it becomes

a networking, uh, time and also.

A time for people to share their,
their lived experiences together.

There is something incredible about that.

You know, the power of having
all these people, like you said,

your typical attendees have
incredible lived experiences.

I think that there is something.

That people miss.

And I actually believe that this exists
in all of community colleges as well,

by the way, in that going to a four year
college, a traditional age college, four

years college, where everyone is the
same age coming in with the same, very

similar set of, you know, so the K 12
experiences straight from high school,

you actually get a lot less diverse
view of the world and perspectives.

Just, Um, Right, because, you
know, like, just by definition,

they're all the same age.

They've none of them had had,
you know, um, a mortgage yet.

They don't have, you know, like,
uh, it's, it's just a very, very

similar sort of background going in.

Um, versus I think that in certainly
in, in College Unbound, you get an

incredibly diverse, um, different
backgrounds and skill sets and,

and, and lived experience coming in.

And, and just what you can learn
from peers, I think it's already

just absolutely incredible.

I agree.

Do you think that College Unbound, or I
don't know whether, you know, let, let's,

let's do a little thought experiment.

Could College Unbound be?

Be possible for, you know, like,
students are going to a more traditional

college, like, age wise, let's say,
you know, they're coming out of high

school, they don't have all this
life experience, they, they haven't

had the, you know, like, I tried
college couple times didn't work out.

It's failed me.


Oh, I failed out of it.


However you look at it.

Um, they don't have that yet.

They just coming out of high school.

Do you think that College Unbound
could work for or version of

College Unbound could work for them?


Um, we, when we existed, um, as a.

as a program within other colleges.

Unfortunately, we would get cut
first because, you know, it was,

it was a thing that was easily cut.

But yes, the same issues that some of our
folks are, are dealing with as adults,

our kids are dealing with, although they
may not have the added responsibilities

of paying a mortgage and things like that.

They are experiencing, uh, for
lack of better wording, sometimes

imposter syndrome, where they
don't feel like they belong.

And nothing about, uh, at least my
experience has been nothing about a

traditional college is meant to make you
feel like you belong unless you belong.

Like hard to explain it in that fashion.

So you

don't have the privilege
to already belong there.

Just don't get to, if you don't have
the ticket, you're just not supposed

to be there and that you know,

no, no one will make



No one's, no one's just
passing out extra tickets.

It's either you got it or you don't.

Uh, different than a place like
CU where, you know, everyone is

going to get the same treatment.

Everyone's going to, going to
get the same sense of belonging.

Um, I, so yes, can it work?


It's just for colleges that are
dealing specifically with that

demographic, then they just, it's, it's
a commitment that they have to take.

And, you know, And provide, and
to me, it's indicative of social

services that, um, colleges should
also be trying to help with.

Something about, um, this, I mean, I, I,
I kind of feel a lot like, you know, Jose,

like, it'll be like another 10 years goes
by or 20 years goes by and we got to come

back and I'm glad this is recorded, right?

So then we can say like, oh yeah,
back in 2004, we were on the ground

floor of when we were just taking off.

Right, and then, uh, you know,
um, and, and I, I just kind of see

how, you know, these things about,
you know, servicing the different

types of populations, right, could
potentially, you know, really scale up.

But I also am thinking about the,
the, um, the, the way that you.

Currently, I think at College Unbound,
the, the alumni that I meet and people

that, students that I meet are talking
about the projects, it's almost 100

percent always surround themselves on
social justice, something to do with the

community, um, and I, I could see how, and
the degree is in um, What was it again?

It's in, uh, it's a bachelor's
degree in leadership and

organizational leadership

and change, right, um, which is a perfect
fit for, for what you're doing right now.

But I also feel like that
there is a whole sense of.

It potentially going into, Hey, if you
want to study social work, sociology,

like some, something else could be,
could, could also be sprung by the same

set of principles, um, that are probably
closely related to your current degree.


Do you see a, do you see a,
see that in, in potential in

the future of College Unbound?

I think that the degree offering opens
itself up to what our, our population

of students are actually about.

Um, so working with a lot of non profits,
uh, Particularly because those are the,

those are the folks doing the work in the
community means just that these are folks

that are already driven by change, right?

Um, and the piece of paper just gives
them that validation that they now can

say, Oh, I have a degree, but they're
already change agents in their own right.

Um, it's always interesting to
see folks within an organization.

Start to feel valued simply because
they start to talk about what they're

learning in school and immediately
start to talk to their peers about it

and like how that just opens them up
to the possibility of not just creating

change in the community but also
maybe I could run this organization

or maybe I should just start my


Yeah, the level of drive,
like you said, It's so strong

amongst your community, right?

That it's almost like, these are
people who have incredible drives, but

for some reason, someone says, put,
you know, they've been doing it with

both hands tied behind the back and,
and College Unbound helps untie that.

Yep, exactly.


And then they're, they're like, well, now
I'm often to doing, you know, I could, I

could be even more productive than before.

I think that is really amazing
and it's really amazing.

The other thing that I, I had found that
is pretty amazing is that you are also not

holding on to certain one single program
and just sort of be like, this is it.

And I remember talking to Adam, and
you tell me how this works, but that,

for example, you might partner with an
organization, let's take United Way,

and that at some point, you might say,
well, we've helped this entire group of

people, this cohort of people now, that
we will pause potentially for a little

while and then we will come back later.

We may help another use the redirect the
resource to help another organization.

So again, I think United Way
is a good example of that.

So our local chapter of United Way,
we graduated all the folks that they

had who didn't have bachelor's degree.

So then it's like we canno...

Not that we can't go partner with
them again, but we've already got all

their, all their workers, uh, a degree.

Will they do a big hire in the near
future and HR immediately connect them

to us because they know the value of
their employees having the degree?


So it's, we're going to get,
we're going to get through all

these employees and then we'll go.

Uh, we'll take a pause, uh, we'll wait
a year, maybe a year and a half, go back

and just restart the process all over.

Um, what it does also, it helps
a little bit of, um, anticipation

build up for those folks who came on
after that happened, because now they

have something to look forward to.

But there's something also so incredible
about that efficiency of you using your

resources and going to the community.

So you, you are there when they have
the needs, as opposed to them coming,

you know, you have a fixed place
where they have to come to, right?


Because then that's, you can serve
them so much better that way,

and not having to, you know, find
a building and commit to that

for the next 25 years, right?

What are some of the things that If
you were to, you know, I think there

are a lot of, I think there, I would
say there, I would love to hear your

view on, you know, what you would say
to a couple of different groups of

people, couple of different audiences.

I know there are listeners to this.

One are the.

Currently, someone who's working, teaching
at, let's say a college at a community

college at a four year college, they
might want to do changes to make things

different for themselves, not necessarily
to the level of starting their own

school and creating a college unbound.

They might want to, you know, do something
in their own classes to, to take a,

take a page out of what you've done.

Something incredibly
interesting and successful.

What are some of your, uh,
what would you say to them?

Listen to the student.

I think that regardless of what age the
student is, they usually have the answer.

Uh, and sometimes we have to
get out of our own way and

allow the students to lead.

Um, what is school about?

Uh, because I also teach at CU, so part
of the reason that it's cool to teach

here is because I can adapt my curriculum,
my syllabus to the student need.

Um, so not being so rigid in that this
is the only way it's going to work.

And if I don't do it this way,
then I'm not going to provide

you a good enough education.

So I think that educators across
the board could learn from that.

In that it's not, it's not one
size fits all, unfortunately.

And there are some students that are,
um, Not because they don't know how to do

something or because they don't get the
content, but may not be able to learn in

the way in your particular teaching style.

So have a little bit of movement in that,
like allow yourself some flexibility.

Uh, so that when you do come across
those students, don't discourage them

by, uh, basically not teaching them
the way that they need to be taught.

Or I'll tell, I'll tell them that they're,
they should not consider public speaking.



And I think that there's a
lot to be said about that.

By the way, I, I love what you
said, just listen to the students.

And I also think that
there is something about.

Something that I have constantly
felt at College Unbound when I

visited is that you do not ever for
a moment underestimate your students.




You believe that they can not
only can they do it, they can do

it as well as anyone in the world


And if not better.


So it's, it's not a, You come
here to work for me because I'm

the, the head of this class.

I get to say what you have to
do and you just have to do it.

It doesn't feel like that
at all at College Unbound.

Like that doesn't exist.

Um, second, I want to say that,
um, so then let me ask you, and

this is, um, I guess a part of.

You know, probably something
that you do all the time.

What do you say to students, on the other
hand, who are, um, you know, either could

be looking for something like College
Unbound, or are attending a school right

now, and there's not College Unbound,
and they're feeling a little bit stuck?


one advice would be what I, what I
wish that someone would have told

me and that you are not the problem.

The institution is, um, really, I would
just start to learn how to advocate

for, for, for self and look for,
although that their College Unbound

may not exist in that institution,
there has to be someone within the

institution with similar values.

And it's a matter of identifying
that person, you know, who.

Collaborating with that person on
some advocating, uh, in order to

move whatever it is that you're
trying to get done forward.

And do you...


for those who might be interested
in learning more about College

Unbound, what should they do?

They should just come to
your website or come visit?

What should they do?

I would always encourage folks to come
visit, but our website is the best

way to just learn a little bit more.

Um, but also, uh, again, Community
and Belonging is in my title.

So if you're looking to learn anything,
all my information is on the website,

including my cell phone number.

Um, so I'm always willing and able
to take calls, emails, whatever

needs to happen in order to spread
the word of what we do here at CU.

It's amazing.

Well, um, Jose, thank you so, so much
for sharing all of your insights.

You are incredible.

You're an inspiration.

And I think that, um, it's also really,
I think it's so smart of College

Unbound to also hire their own alum
because they are such an amazing, they

are all people with amazing drives.

And they, they are living examples of
what could, what success could look like.

Um, and, and it's, uh, it's a, it's
a, it's truly a, um, uh, you know, a

breath of fresh air in higher education.

Well, thank you for having this space.

It's definitely a, a breath of
fresh air just to be able to have

a conversation about a place that
I love and hold dear to my heart.


All right.

Well, um, I hope to, um, hear more
of your success story and maybe in

another 10 years, we'll see where,
where, where, where things are.

Um, and, uh, I, I have no doubt that
it's going to be a massive success.

And it's one of those things that it's
going to be successful in ways that

people don't, don't realize, right.

It's not going to be in some kind
of weird ranking thing, right.

It's not going to be in that,
but it's going to be measured in

metrics that are unusual to people.

And, but once we see it and
then we'll be like, wow.

That's meaningful.

I think that's what College Unbound
always just kind of strikes me as, you

know, you're always looking for that
metric that people have missed, looking

for that value that people have missed.

I agree.

Uh, this is the kind of thing that
they'll write stories about, they'll

write movies about in the future.

That's right.

All right.

Well, we'll see, we'll see
who gets to play you, Jose.

All right.

We've got a lot to think about there.

Thanks again.

And, um, I, uh, uh, I hope that we
can touch base again soon, okay?


All right.

Thanks, Jose.

Take care.

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