After 20 months of Saturday classes, the first crop of students from the Elms at HCC program is set to receive bachelor's degrees later this month.
"I call the first group my pioneers because they started everything," says Joyce Desorcy, off-campus program coordinator for Elms College. "Everything was brand new. The cohorts that came in after have all benefited from that group."
The HCC-Elms partnership started in Sept. 2010. The idea was to offer an accelerated bachelor's degree program that met only on weekends, appealing to students who might not have time during the week because of other obligations, such as jobs and families. Students in the program complete two three-credit courses every eight weeks.
Holding the classes at HCC was also a way of appealing to HCC graduates already familiar and comfortable with the campus.
"The concept was to have them come here so they didn't have to go to the Elms," says Desorcy.
Twenty-one Elms at HCC students who will receive degrees this month in three areas of study: business management, psychology, and accounting and information systems. Since the first group got underway, a second cohort began in Sept. 2011. Two new Elms at HCC degree programs were added in January: early childhood leadership and health services administration.
"The cohorts stay together for the whole 20 months, and it works out really well," said Desorcy, who works two days a week at Elms College in Chicopee and three days a week at HCC, including Saturdays. "They get tight and they bond. They support each other scholastically and personally."
All classes meet in HCC's Kittredge Center and are taught by both HCC and Elms College faculty.
From Sept. 2010, through May 2012, the 21 students attended classes nearly every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the exception of accounting students, who also had class on Friday evenings.
All of them work, most full time. Among them is a bank vice president and an active duty serviceman in the U.S. Air Force. All but one graduated from HCC.
"The majority of them are honors students," says Desorcy. "They're a dedicated group. You have to be. You're giving up nearly every Saturday for 20 months."
All but five Saturdays, as a matter of fact. While that may seem onerous, students in the program say they didn't mind.
"It was a little tough," said Anne Carson, 46, of Easthampton, "but it was worth it. I think probably my housework suffered the most."
Carson, who is getting her bachelor's degree in business management, works full time in customer service and marketing for Motherwear in Holyoke. She graduated from HCC in 1995.
"This was perfect for me," she said. "It fit in with my schedule and came at the right time when I was ready to go back to school to finish my degree."
Likewise, student Clarita Parra will be getting her degree in business management. Parra, 26, of West Springfield, has been working as a sales representative for Goya Foods since she graduated from HCC in May 2010. She said she's hoping her bachelor's degree will open more doors for her within the company. "The program offered me a lot of flexibility with my work schedule," said Parra. "Going to classes one day a week really allowed me to focus on my job."
Beryl Singer, 58, a 2006 HCC graduate, said she appreciated how accessible the Elms at HCC administrators were to students. Both Desorcy and Sister Kathleen Reagan, the academic coordinator, are on site every Saturday with students.
"There is always someone to talk to, face to face, anytime we want to," said Singer, who lives in the Three Rivers section of Palmer and will receive her bachelor's degree in psychology. "I think that makes a substantial difference."
She said having classes one day a week saved hours of commuting time she would have wasted in the car if she had enrolled in a traditional bachelor's program, attending classes three or four days a week.
"Every hour I'm not commuting is another hour I can study," she said.
In addition to the eight hours of classes she put on Saturdays, she also worked an eight-hour shift in the evening at Arbor House in Holyoke, where she works as an addiction counselor. She likened her commitment to a squirrel relentlessly attacking a birdfeeder.
"Squirrels never give up," she said. "I always said to myself, I'm never giving up. I will make it to that degree, and now I have. It's a good feeling."
The next information session for the Elms at HCC program will be held Wednesday, May 23, 2012, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the HCC Kittredge Center, Room 205.
Photos: (Left) Elms at HCC student Beryl Singer tries on her cap and gown. (Right) The first group of Elms at HCC students gather for a photo on their last day of classes April 28th.