ECC president looking to close gaps

Photo Courtesy of Essex County College
Essex County College President Augustine A. Boakye chats with students Michelanette Milford-Choules, left, and Dayanara Serrano by the Living Wall in the Information Commons at the college.

By Trey Williams
Special to The Record-Trascript

New Jersey is home to nearly two million immigrants and refugees.

There is, however, significant inconsistency in the educational attainment of immigrant communities, particularly in Essex County.

The percentage of Immigrants who have completed high school is 86% but only 36.7% pursue higher education. In Newark, with a population of 307,220, the figures are even more stark, with only 16% of immigrants accessing higher education, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In comparison, a report from the Lumina Foundation shows that the percentage of adults who’ve earned a college degree reached 53.7% in 2021.

Into this challenging landscape stepped Augustine A. Boakye, a native of Ghana who is the ninth president of Essex County College.

One of his primary goals is to address the educational inequalities prevalent among the diverse communities in Essex County.

Boakye has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Dundee, Scotland, a master’s degree in education from Brunel University in London, a master’s level education from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana and a bachelor of science from University of Cape Coast in Ghana.

Boakye was named interim president on July 21, 2020, with the interim tag removed by the Board of Trustees on Nov. 1, 2021. Boakye had previously served Essex County College as acting dean of liberal arts and business, chairperson of the business division, and an associate professor of economics and finance.

Prior to that, he provided educational consultancy services and worked in other higher educational institutions including New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Strayer University, Rider University and Brookdale Community College.

Boakye has said he hopes to foster a sense of unity among individuals from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds and promote lifelong learning.

The following is a question and answer interview with Boakye:

Q) What are the main factors contributing to the educational gap among immigrant communities?

Boakye: The educational gap among immigrant communities in New Jersey can be attributed to several factors. One significant factor is the lack of access to quality educational resources and information, which often limits the aspirations of these communities. Additionally, language barriers and cultural differences can pose obstacles for immigrants, making it harder to navigate the education system. Furthermore, financial constraints and the need to work to support their families can deter many from pursuing higher education. It’s crucial to address these challenges through targeted support and community collaboration.

Q) How can schools better support the mental and emotional well-being of immigrant students who may face additional challenges?

Boakye: Supporting the mental and emotional well-being of immigrant students is a serious concern. Schools should create a welcoming and inclusive environment where students feel valued and understood. Providing culturally sensitive counseling services and access to mental health professionals who can assist students in dealing with the emotional challenges they may face is essential. Additionally, promoting cultural awareness and fostering a sense of community within the school can help students feel more connected and supported during their educational journey.

Q) What are the main factors contributing to the educational gap among immigrant communities?

Boakye: The contributing factors to educational gaps among immigrant students include funding, language barriers, information and access. In addition to the differences in socioeconomic backgrounds of immigrant families, performance gaps can also be attributed to weak social interactions with the larger student population.

Q) How can educators and institutions adapt their teaching methods to meet the diverse needs of immigrant students?

Boakye: Addressing this critical issue must begin with equity in mind. This requires a deliberate effort to meet students where they are. We do so by working in the communities and partnering with organizations that support immigrants. We must take deliberate actions to hire a diverse workforce in student-facing positions. It is also important for instructors to use alternative teaching methodologies to engage all students.

Q) What are your views on the educational gap and what do you think can be done to improve it?

Boakye: I believe that educational gaps exist within the student population, however, with purposeful actions, we can mitigate the barriers that create these gaps. With the expanding demand for a skilled workforce to move our economy forward, all stakeholders in the education ecosystem must deliberately address the reasons for the gaps before recommending solutions. At ECC, we focus on disaggregated student outcomes and institutional data to make informed decisions about outreach, programming and student engagement.

Q) Have you seen any improvements since taking up the presidency?

Boakye: Yes, with the implementation of academic divisional mentoring programs, other wraparound services and sponsored clubs, we have seen increases in student retention and graduation rates. This allows students to spend less money at the College and move on to the 4-year institutions on time.

Q) What are some outcomes you are looking forward to in regard to the current education system and immigrants?

Boakye: I look forward to increased partnerships with local high schools through our dual enrollment program and other engagements. We are solidifying our partnerships with four-year institutions through tailored articulation agreements to make the transfer process seamless and intentional for our students. Our campus is working on expanding avenues for information sharing, resource development and collaboration with our immigrant communities to increase opportunities and ensure access that leads to success for all students.

Q) What differences are ECC actively making?

Boakye: At ECC, our mission is to provide access to higher education that leads to success for our students and the communities we serve. We have robust credit and non-credit programs that support student transfer to four-year institutions as well as career-ready credentials for the workforce. At the same time, we are actively engaged with local high schools through the development and implementation of a robust dual enrollment program in which high school students earn a high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time.

Photo Courtesy of Essex County College
Essex County College President Augustine A. Boakye