Erasing the Standard

Nicole Esposito, MS ’09, EdD ’12, knows that when it comes to pedagogy, one size does not fit all

NECESSITY, THE SAYING GOES, is the mother of invention. Institutions must constantly be innovating and evolving to reach more people more effectively—especially institutions of higher education that serve a multitude of students facing disparate challenges—or else they will fail both at their task and at continued existence.

For Nicole Esposito, her approach to her new role as CEO of Manchester Community College in Connecticut has been informed by a career of responding to those challenges—a career that began at AIC.

After obtaining a bachelor of science in psychology, with a minor in criminal justice, from Springfield College, Esposito sought a way to combine her two passions into graduate studies, and found a fit in AIC’s forensic psychology and then educational psychology programs.

“My graduate experience at AIC helped me further define how I can make an impact in the world and what population I wanted to serve,” she says, adding, “My professors at AIC changed how I viewed myself, my abilities, and what I could offer my community. Specifically, Dr. John DeFranceso was my professor, my advisor, and my mentor while at AIC. He inspired me, and still inspires me, to reach my full potential.”

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[/note] THOSE EXPERIENCES influenced Esposito as she moved into the classroom herself at Bay Path University, Holyoke Community College, and Manchester Community College. From the outset, she found ways to reach students facing all manners of challenges, with factors ranging from food and housing insecurity to a variety of disabilities to students who simply needed a nontraditional setting.

As a teaching psychologist and licensed mental health professional, says Esposito,

I felt from the beginning that there was no standard approach to teaching because there is no standard approach to learning. Every individual learns differently. I realized that the way to fill gaps is to recognize that diverse populations of students learn differently, and so we need to meet students where they are in order to help them be successful. … The important thing is to identify the factors that get in the way of a student’s learning, and then develop approaches—such as mentoring, early intervention support, and mixed course-offering format options—that mitigate those factors.

Among those approaches she worked to develop were online courses, which Esposito says “can be just as successful as on-ground offerings for students as long as the course design ensures direct feedback from instructor to student in real time.”

Esposito developed entire courses and utilized online instruction as part of her curriculum. In her work with her own students, she realized there was an opportunity to broaden her impact by moving into administration, what she calls “an opportunity to blend my background in mental health and education and make an impact not just on what students learn, but also on policies and methodologies that ensure they are successful in reaching their educational goals.”

[pullquote align=”left”]“I felt from the beginning that there was no standard approach to teaching because there is no standard approach to learning. Every individual learns differently.”
Nicole Esposito, MS ’09, EdD ’12[/pullquote]

To that end, she took on the position of program coordinator for the disability specialist and Speech-Language Pathology Assistant (SLPA) degree programs at Manchester Community College in 2014. The role combined teaching with assessments of the success of the program, supervising of faculty, marketing, and retention, among a multitude of tasks. The end result was that Esposito’s impact on students came on a much broader scale, touching not just how a specific course was delivered but rather the entire spectrum of education, from providing access to an institution to a wider range of potential students to the way the institution operated for both students and faculty.

Ultimately, as her educational evolution continued, Esposito became CEO of Manchester Community College—its youngest ever—in July, 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Now, instead of developing courses, Esposito’s challenge involves running an institution. She is in charge of a $55 million budget and ultimately responsible for the direction of more than one thousand employees—up to and including the leadership team that oversees each aspect of the school, from finance to academic affairs to campus safety.

ESPOSITO MUST CONSIDER both near- and long-term concerns to ensure the safety and success of the more than five thousand MCC students in addition to her staff. She notes,

As an administrator, I now have the opportunity to take that firsthand knowledge and have conversations with people about the best environments for success. This has proven to be especially important during the pandemic, when suddenly last March we all found ourselves reinventing what it means to be an instructor, student, parent, or family member; whatever our role or roles, our perceptions changed abruptly. The economic realities of doing this well will be determined in the long run, I think; the psychological realities of doing this are playing themselves out now, every day.

Indeed, the lessons learned from years as a classroom instructor and then as a department leader have been quite useful to Esposito in how she approaches this challenge. “It was clear that faculty, staff, and students at our institution needed a certain kind of leadership in order to keep going back to their well for more innovation, more energy, and sometimes just more forced willpower to put one foot in front of the other each day,” she says. Her experiences allow her to provide that leadership.

Her approach, in short, is to think about all of those tasks the same way she asked questions about improving education when she taught courses: what can we do to do our job more effectively and meet the educational needs of the widest variety of people? “I see my role as providing support and serving to re-move the barriers to making the changes needed for successful learning,” she says, adding, “It is also my hope to inspire with kindness and humility.”

BY SETH DUSSAULT ’11, MEd ’15