The Susan B. and William K. Wasch Center for Retired Faculty held a forum, “Hot Topics in Higher Education,” on Thursday, April 25. The forum, sponsored by the Greater Middletown branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), is part of a regular series held at the University by the AAUW that highlights issues in higher education and focuses on women in academia.

The April 25 event featured three panelists: Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department at Southern Connecticut State University Sousan Arafeh, President of Middlesex Community College Anna Wasescha, and Vice President for Institutional Partnerships and Chief Diversity Officer Sonia Mañjon.

Barbara Arafeh, a 50-year member of the AAUW and the driving force behind the organization of the panel, introduced the panelists. An active member in the national and international federation of the AAUW, Barbara Arafeh approached the three women independently and asked them to serve on the panel.

Barbara Arafeh explained why the AAUW initially chose to hold the event.

“It’s one of the priorities of the AAUW to keep up with legislation that has to do with higher education as well as women’s issues and so forth,” Barbara Arafeh said. “We do a great deal of lobbying for higher education. We have done a tremendous amount in that area and in education too.”

There was a modest number of attendees, primarily Middletown residents; no students were present at the event. The majority of the attendees were former educators, passionate about issues in higher education. Lyn Shaw, president of the greater Middletown branch of AAUW, was also in attendance.

“I was impressed by the complexity of the issues faced by 21st-century educators,” Shaw said. “All three women were clear and wise advocates in their respective institutions. As I listened to their presentations and conversation, I felt assured of their compassion, energy, and creative thinking.”

The panel began with a 30-minute introduction in which each panelist spoke for approximately 10 minutes to highlight some of the topics about which they are most passionate. The discussion was then opened for audience participation.

Sousan Arafeh served as the Consultant for the P-20 Council of Connecticut’s Board of Regents for Higher Education, and before that served as Deputy Director of the National Center for Technology Innovation. She spoke first and focused on contextualizing education in the 21st century and highlighting the way globalization, technologization, and modern skills such as media literacy are affecting education today.

“The role of higher education is to guide new generations; faculty also need to respond to generational needs, prepare people to be involved in the workforce, and play an active role in facilitating research,” Sousan Arafeh said.

Mañjon spoke next and detailed her role at the University; she explained that she works to eliminate issues surrounding equity and inequity in access to education. The topics Mañjon highlighted included changing college demographics; the achievement gap; and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education for underrepresented minority low-income, and first-generation students.

“My role at Wesleyan is to look at Wesleyan’s climate…to look at women in sciences and representation of minorities,” Mañjon said. “These are my hot topics.”

Mañjon also pointed out the importance of improving dialogue between the University and high schools, and of training students to be civically minded.

Wasescha spoke third and discussed the role of community colleges in providing social mobility to different classes and the breaking down of traditional age demographics among students. Wasescha said that from her vantage point as an educator at a community college, one of the most important issues is the role of higher education in social mobility.

“Community colleges are accessible and affordable institutions of higher learning,” she said. “They are one important strategy for developing all the intelligence possessed by all members of our society, not just that of the ‘talented tenth.’ But community colleges also have the least resources. So there are issues we need to address as a society about how we fund public community colleges so that we can realize our national goals of college competition, economic vitality, and social justice and equality.”

Topics covered during the discussion ranged from the state of Meriden students’ access to education to the importance of offering courses on how to study. Because many former educators participated, including one person who taught at Middlesex Community College for five years, the state of pedagogy—or how teachers are taught to teach—was also discussed in depth. The importance of “team teaching” and having a mentor was noted on several occasions. Many participants also expressed concern about how educators interact with students with learning disabilities.

“I think the idea of this panel was that each of us was representing a different sector within the higher education space and ‘hot topics’ impact us in the same and in different ways,” Wasescha said. “Teasing out those similarities and differences made for a thought-provoking discussion.”

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