This is the 12th in a series of short essays by former CCRC staff members who share thoughts about their time working at the Center. These essays will be posted on our website throughout CCRC’s 20th anniversary year.
By Michelle Van Noy, Associate Director, Education and Employment Research Center, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
When I joined CCRC in 2005 upon returning to graduate school, I was drawn to the opportunity to learn more about community colleges. I’d encountered community colleges in my prior work as an evaluator of education and workforce programs and was intrigued to learn more about their role in workforce preparation. I had no idea all that I would come to learn in my years at CCRC and how it would influence my ideas about research.
One of the first and most striking lessons from my work at CCRC was the importance of maintaining strong ties to community college practice. Having an actual community college leader on staff meant that CCRC’s research was always grounded in and guided by real issues facing colleges. Jim Jacobs’s presence provided a regular reality check on how our work related to practice. I appreciated the many ways the center engaged with the field, whether it was though a genuinely engaged advisory board or regular participation in practitioner conferences. I learned an immense amount from connecting with people at community colleges around the country to see if our work had relevance and was more than abstract academic writing.
At the same time, along with the strong connection to practice, I was struck by the commitment to grounding the research in theory. My experiences at CCRC showed me how informing research with theory could generate more rigorous and insightful findings. I grew to understand and appreciate how practice-based research could be enhanced by theory to generate new ways of looking at issues that would lead to different solutions to problems. I remember brainstorming sessions that sought to address pressing concerns and identify new ways of framing these issues—always with Tom’s rigorous questioning and then the ultimate question of “so what?” bringing the research back to the practical implications.
The center created and cultivated a unique sense of intellectual community with a commitment to service. My experience at CCRC has left me with an ideal of how to conduct applied research that connects theory and practice with an unwavering commitment to making a difference. In addition to learning a lot about community colleges, as I’d hoped I would, my time at CCRC left me with these lessons that changed me as a researcher and that provide an ongoing guide for my work.