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A conversation with Jose Rodriguez of College Unbound

Jose Rodriguez is the assistant director of recruitment at College Unbound (CU) and an alumnus of the college. College Unbound is a unique college experience; its mission is to reinvent the higher education experience for underserved adult learners, using a student-driven model of rigorous and engaged scholarship. Students of CU graduate with their Bachelor of Arts degree in organizational leadership and change. The Postsecondary Team at the Onward We Learn sat down with Rodriguez to discuss CU and its impact on students and the community. 

Can you describe College Unbound? What makes your institution unique? 

CU is for those individuals who have dropped out of school reason for one reason or another to help them fulfill their educational journey as well as helping them with their educational gaps. By doing so, we will also make the community thrive.  Sometimes education is not something that might be talked about in some people’s households. Getting into education was not a priority from where I come from. Growing up in my house, if you are working and you are making enough money to pay the rent, you are doing OK. I know a lot of people come from the community that I come from. A lot of folks at CU end up being first-generation graduates, setting the precedent for others as well as setting a role model for their community. They will actually see someone who looks like them become successful in getting an education. 

How would you describe the students who attend College Unbound?  

CU enrolls students who are just fed up with their educational experiences and just want something different. You don’t want to be another number in a system. You want to be part of something bigger. Not all our students made it to high school. Some of our students come in and are not sure of what they want to do with their life. By the time they are done with the program, they are walking out with confidence and with a real plan of what they want to do with their life. 

CU is student focused, so you get the attention you need to be successful. The amount of support that they need varies from person to person, but just the thought of knowing that those supports are available really does make the difference. We offer community meals. If you are a working adult and class starts at 5:30 to 6 p.m., you are most likely coming back from work. You no longer need to stop to grab something to eat. Secondly, most of our students are parents. We partnered with a local daycare so that when you are in class, daycare is provided. Additionally, we provide technological help. We provide free computers to anyone who needs it. So, if you need a computer, we will drop it off. All these extra things are always part of the tuition. Even if you took one class or five classes, you would still get the same service. 

What are some outstanding things students have accomplished while being a student at College Unbound? 

The cool part about being a project-based school is just that – you get to see students pursue their passions. One of the biggest movements that I have seen is one of our students works in the city of Providence and encouraged the mayor to start a group for the BIPOC community, the African American Ambassadors Group (AAAG), which I am proudly a part of. AAAG are tackling things across the city that are not just helping Providence, but also helping move the state in a different direction. AAAG spearheaded the removal of “Plantations” from city and state documents with the support from the mayor of Providence. Additionally, there are subgroups who tackling everything from housing and food insecurity. They really try to balance all the needs to the community and give those who are typically voiceless a voice. 

Could you walk us through the process of people making their own Personal Learning Plan? How do you ensure that these steps are reached throughout the student’s process? 

That naturally happens through working with your lab faculty and your cohort. You identify your learning network. You need a field expert; you identify who that is. If your project is around criminal justice, you’d want to be connected to a lawyer, but you don’t necessarily have access to a lawyer. Your lab faculty will work for you to identify a lawyer who is willing to work with you and mentor you to help you develop your project in that term. A major part into making it into the world that we live in is networking and utilizing that as capital. Networking in some circumstances is more valuable than money. So, it is about who you know.  

What are alumni of College Unbound doing after they graduate? 

A good percentage of folks continue to get their master’s degrees. School was not interesting; it was not feeding your passions. Now you come to the school that wakes up your desire to do more. You become lifelong learners. Alumni are able to follow their passion, and these have led to people creating nonprofits that are successful throughout the society. Those projects have led to small business starting, and some folks have been promoted in their organization and have taken a leadership roles. 

What would you say to a perspective student who is considering applying to College Unbound

The very first thing that I’d say is forget what you know about education. We are taking a very untraditional approach. We work with folks who will teach you about the differences between a traditional school and CU. I use traditional very loosely as I think that a traditional school should look like what we look like. In the admission process there is a series of conversations. Each conversation giving you more and more information. We allow you to space out the process, ask questions and really make it a conversation so that you can figure out whether CU is a good fit for you. At the end of the day, it’s up to the student.  

Do you have any final thoughts to share? 

Even going through College Unbound, there were many personal experiences that got in the way that in a traditional school it would have prevented me from being successful. However, I was having difficulties at work. I was not making enough to provide for my family. The thought I must get another job and attend school – that would not have happened. The reason that it worked because everything was designed around my schedule. The faculty helped me to fit things around my schedule to help me get to where I needed to go. Life is going to continue to get in your way, but if you want to go to an institution that is going to support you when life is getting in the way, then College Unbound Is the way to go. I put a strong emphasis on support