Got Your Associate’s Degree? What Next?

HLLC scholars; photos by Anthony Alvarez

Congratulations! You have earned or are about to earn your county college associate’s degree and are pondering your next steps. Anyone who has his or her sights set on a bachelor’s degree should consider an experience that is both life-changing and academically challenging -- the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC) at Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N). The HLLC is an interdisciplinary, cross-generational program that challenges traditional frameworks for “honors” to identify talent and merit expansively. In the 2016 fall semester, the HLLC welcomed its second cohort of students with associate’s degrees earned from one of New Jersey’s county colleges. 

Aldo Villarreal; photo
by Desiree Bascomb

What distinguishes the HLLC from other honors programs is its residential community, comprised of both first-year students and those with associate’s degrees, focused on an innovative curriculum formulated on a core theme of “local citizenship in a global world” for students who wish to live and learn at RU-N. The HLLC fosters the development of students eager to make a difference in their communities, while providing the students with multilayered support systems to help them succeed.

This support includes faculty mentors who “play a prominent role in the success of our HLLC scholars and the program overall. Research shows that mentorship is an important factor in college retention,” notes HLLC Associate Dean Marta Esquilin. She says faculty mentors engage RU-N’s diverse student population around “all aspects of identity, including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, citizenship, faith, socioeconomic status, personal interests, course of study, etc.”

Adibempe Elegbeleye; photo
by Desiree Bascomb

The other benefits of HLLC include personalized advisement, a close community of peers, an interdisciplinary curriculum, dynamic internships, research assistantships, community engagement, international research, and service opportunities. Moreover, for those considering HLLC, RU-N provides qualifying New Jersey county college graduates with financial support: any county college graduate whose adjusted gross family income is $60,000 or less receives monetary assistance for tuition and fees from the RU-N Talent and Opportunity Pathways (RU-N to the TOP) program. RU-N to the TOP guarantees financial support that covers in-state tuition and student fees after all federal, state, and internal/external scholarships/grants have been applied. In addition, regardless of financial need, RU-N provides HLLC students a residential gap scholarship to cover housing and meals; HLLC students live on campus in either Talbott Apartments or University Square while a new HLLC residence facility is under construction.

Amy Korner; photo by
Desiree Bascomb

Four county college grads attest to the HLLC’s eye-opening experience. The students all began their journey to HLLC by participating in an admissions process that turns traditional definitions of honors and merit on their heads. The process was “intensive,” recalls Aldo Villarreal of Sayreville, New Jersey, a Middlesex County College (MCC) graduate. Rather than rely solely on test scores and grades, the process involves a unique, collegial, and collaborative approach to identify students whose values and ideologies complement HLLC’s philosophy, mission, and goals. In addition to completion of the application and an essay, the process involves large group interviews, personal interviews, and applicant interactions to help unearth each candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and uniqueness.

Umar Abare; photo by
Desiree Bascomb

Newark resident Adibempe Elegbeleye said the teamwork required “was eye-opening, in terms of self-identity and sharing your ideas and your life with others” as they worked together.  “I learned that everything is not black or white.”  The criminal justice major is an Essex County College graduate.

At one point during the process, two HLLC faculty members are paired with an applicant. This allows the student and faculty to “really get to know each other,” says Amy Korner, of Woodbridge, New Jersey, another MCC graduate. Once accepted into the HLLC, she felt she already had two colleagues on campus. Compared to a traditional college application process, applying to HLLC was challenging, intense, and exciting, she observes.

All HLLC students get to interact and work with students from across academic disciplines and schools within RU-N, as well as students who reflect the campus’s status as the nation’s most diverse national university. For instance, graphics major Villareal resides in Talbott Apartments with accounting major Korner. Another county college graduate living in Talbott, Umar Abare, is a biology major and a native of Newark who graduated from Union County College; his sights are set on a career in medicine. Elegbeleye, meanwhile, is an international student from Nigeria eager to use her degree to be a government leader back home.

The opportunity to learn how to be a leader and transform communities was one of the main HLLC attractions for all four. Elegbeleye plans to “fight for democracy in the entire continent and become a change agent” when she returns home. Abare wants to apply what he learns about social justice and change to his planned career in community-centered medical care. “I want to be able to look at the world as a patient with a disease to be cured, and to find that cure,” he says. Villarreal’s goal is to “learn to resist and do the best I can for my community and myself,” while Korner sees herself using what she learns through HLLC to effectively help people achieve peaceful, meaningful change in their communities.

Since this is only the second year of HLLC, each is eager to prove themselves, and in the process, to prove that HLLC’s bold approach is the right one. “By performing well, we will change the whole concept of honors and opportunity,” says Abare. “Just by being part of such a revolutionary concept, I am already changing the world.”