College opened up a previously inaccessible world for Megan Bell. Now, she has made a career of bringing that access to students much like herself.

“I just love the college experience and making it possible for students to go to college and be successful here,” said Bell, who is UCCS’ executive director of community learning and assessment for the division of student success. “That’s what I’m really passionate about.”

Raised in the Denver area, Bell has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Northern Colorado; a master’s degree in higher education from Washington State University; and a Ph.D. in higher education from Colorado State University. She has had administrative roles at universities in Colorado, California and Washington, most recently at the University of Colorado-Boulder before coming to UCCS in 2010.

Bell and her husband, Christopher, an associate professor of communications at UCCS, live in Colorado Springs with their 13-year-old daughter, Olivia. She spoke with the Business Journal this week about the educational obstacles unique to first-generation college students and why a four-year bachelor’s degree still matters in today’s economic climate.

What drew you to higher education?

I come from a family that, while not a lot of people have college degrees, very much values education. I think that was ingrained in me that that was the way you could get ahead and make a better life for yourself. So school was always prioritized in our family even though my parents don’t have university degrees.

- Advertisement -

Then when I got to college, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Even though they supported me going to school, and I always did really well in school, they didn’t really know a lot about the process. I didn’t even know that people applied to multiple schools and searched around. … I applied to UNC because, at the time in Colorado, that’s where people went when they wanted to be a teacher, and it seemed like it was something I could afford because I was pretty much on my own to pay for school.

Then when I got to college, I just had a transformational experience. … I was really involved on campus, had some great mentors, made really great friends — I feel like I kind of found myself, I guess you could say. Consequently, I’ve never wanted to leave. I wanted to make a career here and I wanted to help other students have that same experience — particularly students who historically maybe wouldn’t go to college. I believe a lot in access and making opportunities for students who are maybe the first in their families or who don’t have a lot of money — students that were kind of like me, that have to work and go to school and figure it out. It’s just become my passion to make college accessible to any student who wants to have a four-year degree.

What are your responsibilities as executive director of community learning and assessment?

My direct areas that I’m responsible for are residence life and housing, so all of the students who live on campus, which are primarily [in their] first year — we have about 1,700 students living on campus. I also oversee the family development center, which is our early childhood center for kids ages 1-5. … Then I serve on the leadership team for our division, so thinking about a lot of strategic areas for the division. How do we improve what we’re doing with students? How do we measure that? How do we get more students completing to graduation? I work with a lot of the other leadership across campus on those sorts of bigger questions.

What are some of the biggest challenges college students face today?

This is not unique to UCCS, but our students are coming to us with a lot of mental health challenges and that is challenging, resource-wise, to meet the needs that our students have that, when not treated, can sometimes turn into crisis-level issues. We have great partners across campus that help us work on those issues but increasingly, across the country, colleges and campuses are facing that mental health crisis. I think it’s just feeling like we’re able to be as supportive to those students as we can, with the resources that we have.

Resources are a challenge. My areas run as basically businesses within the university, so we don’t get any tuition or fee money. So financially, we’re always thinking about resources. At the broader level, state support for higher ed has sort of been not great in Colorado … which then trickles down and affects us. So just trying to plan for the long term to make sure we have the resources we need to support our students and our faculty — all of that to say, getting students to persist.

I’ve been really focused on the first-year students because 65 percent of the class lives on campus their first year, so what happens here really impacts their experience, and we want them to continue beyond their first year. We’re always thinking about that. For a lot of them, it’s financial, so trying to think about what we can do with institutional aid, the campus is raising money for scholarships, we’re always trying to create more student jobs because when students work on campus, they tend to do really well. So a lot of it is focused on affordability for our students. That’s another thing that we’re constantly talking about and trying to do better.

Aside from finances, what are the main reasons you’ve seen students leave college?

Financial is probably one of the biggest. Sometimes the mental health — if they can’t get the appropriate help or services. We have many students that are successful who are being treated for depression or anxiety, but it’s when they aren’t able to access that help that we find it impacts their ability.

[For] some of our students, it’s just navigating the whole college experience if they’re the first in their family to go to college. … Many of our students are helping out at home and have pressures there, so balancing all of that is really hard. … It just gets overwhelming to try to go to class and be in this environment when you maybe don’t have a family that really understands the college experience. You feel like maybe that you don’t fit in as well as everyone else. … A lot of what we do in our division is thinking about how to get our students connected in some way to college, whether that be to a faculty member or to work on campus or be in a student club — just something outside of class. We find that if they do, they tend to be here and are more likely to complete their degree.

What advice do you give students now that you wish you would have heard as a first-generation college student?

It’s OK to not have it all figured out. I was a student who always did well in school, but I felt like I needed to have my whole plan, and when I decided not to finish my teaching certificate, I felt a little bit like I had failed because I didn’t do my plan. … It’s OK for them to change their mind or not fully know. That’s part of why we’re here, so they can figure out what they’re going to do. They have to persist through that uncomfortableness.

There’s a lot of help on campus. … I wanted to be really independent and prove that I could do college myself, but I needed help and I think all of our students need help along the way, and that’s OK too. It’s OK not to have it figured out completely and change your mind, and there’s help for you, and it’s OK to ask for help.

What do you think of the state Department of Health and Environment’s ROI report on the value of a four-year degree?

I think it’s fair that parents and students want that return. They want to know that they will go into a career. You can do that without a four-year degree. There are other pathways for you… [but] I really believe in the value of the four-year degree. I believe an educated society is a better society. I believe it’s teaching you not just your career, it’s teaching you about how to critically think about issues, how to see something bigger than just yourself, how to give back to the community, be a citizen, be engaged. To me, that’s what the four-year degree is about, which is hard because those aren’t always the tangible ROI things that we can measure in a direct way. … There’s these other components to a university education that I think really do benefit our society.

… Here, I think it’s this broader perspective that we’re teaching. … It’s about being a citizen, and I think that’s become a little lost in the ROI conversations — which are important, because [higher education] is expensive, so I don’t want to discount that. I just think that there are sometimes very intangible benefits of the university experience that are harder to put in a report, but are very life-changing and impactful to an individual. … To me, it’s really about this broader, sort of idealistic advancement of a better society and community for all of us. … I hope we don’t lose that idealistic notion of why the university was actually even started.