Community colleges are designed to serve and meet the needs of the communities in which they are located. That’s why Hudson County Community College (HCCC) has decided to offer a Certificate of Competency in Social Justice and an AS in Human Services, Social Justice Advocacy.
“We provide education for a diverse group of people, and many of them are part of groups that experience social injustice,” said Dr. Denise Rossilli, Associate Professor and Human Services Program Coordinator at HCCC. “We felt there was a need for our community to provide them with an education to help reform these inequities and give them the tools to do so.”
HCCC is not alone. Less than 100 miles away, Camden County College (CCC) in NJ offers AA diversity and social justice. The coordinators of this program Drs. Nicole Jacoberger and Renee Samara said the degree’s development was a response to Black Lives Matter advocacy and the COVID-19 pandemic, which “revealed the depth of social inequality and its life-and-death consequences.” Samara said.
Careers that can come from certificates and degree programs at these two institutions vary from positions in civic leadership, community organizations, and human services to continuing on to a four-year college. Regardless of where students acquire their newly honed skills, experts believe the lessons learned in the classroom will improve their communities.
In Hudson County, NJ, where HCCC is located, 43% of residents were born outside the US. Fifty-eight percent of residents are non-native English speakers, and 16% of residents live below the poverty line. Rossilli said many of her students come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Just under three-quarters of students receive some form of financial aid. 55 percent of students at HCCC are Latinx and 13% are Black.
“[These students] they’ve experienced social injustice in various forms throughout their lives — giving them a major and an education will help them make changes so that others don’t experience what they did,” Rossilli said. “HCCC has two overarching institutional priorities – student success and diversity, equity and inclusion. The Social Justice Advocacy option and certificate truly “feeds” both of these priorities.”
At CCC, Jacoberger is an assistant professor of history, while Samara is a professor in CCC’s sociology department. The two felt that their combination would help build a strong, interdisciplinary social justice program. While students can enter the workforce upon completion, Samara and Jacoberger said they believe the diversity and social justice background will be helpful for students pursuing a four-year degree or longer.
“Offering programs like diversity and social justice is the change higher education needs to resonate with individuals who question its value,” Samara said. “Colleges and universities should challenge individuals to challenge the status quo and rethink societal norms.”
Rossilli credits strong institutional support for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for creating HCCC’s new program — enrollment opened in fall 2022 and students are increasingly registering for majors and related courses. One of her students, Rossilli said, is already using skills from those courses as an intern at a transgender advocacy organization. Rossilli added that she will work to build more relationships with community organizations to create more internship opportunities.
“As the many inequities in social justice become more apparent and discussed, it is important for us to provide people with the knowledge needed to combat these issues in appropriate ways that not only bring attention to the issues, but bring about change,” Rossilli said. “Not only do we improve the lives of our students by offering them the opportunity for social mobility that education can offer, but they then enter communities to uplift oppressed and marginalized groups.”