SWC Finds Success Using Their ‘Cranium’ for Student Services

Southwestern College finds ConexED a profound outreach aid

When a unique disaster hit California in 2020 that no one was prepared for, Andre Harris and fellow Southwestern College leaders came to their students’ rescue by unleashing their Cranium.

ConexED, formerly known as Cranium Café, is Southwestern’s newly adopted comprehensive student-support software platform, an educational technology pioneer. So how does software come to the rescue for a public college of some 27,000 students tucked into California’s farthest southwestern corner? 

“It absolutely has been a game changer for us,’’ says Harris, Center Operations Supervisor at Southwestern’s Higher Education Center at San Ysidro. He credits ConexED with saving hundreds of college students academically. Their tech suite also helped – and continues to help — struggling students connect to the resources they need to get fed, housed, and other Basic Needs support, now enhanced by a $130 million investment from the California Community College system.

The ConexED suite helped SWC reach struggling students at a time of painful economic hardship statewide, in one of San Diego County’s most economically challenged regions. What they accomplished, says Harris, was keeping academic hopes alive and even INCREASING enrollment rates for Southwestern’s San Ysidro campus during nationwide pandemic lockdowns – from 400 FTE (full-time equivalent) to over 500 FTE.

“It was our students who got the word out, that we were open for business even if it was only virtually. Sometimes when I would respond to students from within the platform they would burst into tears because they could see me, a human face, and see someone was there to help them,” Harris says.

San Ysidro operates as a satellite center for SWC and educates many U.S. students who live south of the U.S.-Mexico border. And while San Ysidro is the busiest border crossing in the nation, the pandemic limited and even stopped nonessential crossings. Southwestern’s students were cut off from both San Ysidro and the main Chula Vista campus, with resources like financial aid counselors, technology assistance, and administrators essential to keeping a college career on track.

Harris’ students persevered. Most of San Ysidro’s students are aiming for their skills certifications as a route to earning vocational certifications and associate degrees, the next step to transferring to a university, and the promise of the economic advantages of earning a four-year college degree.

How did Southwestern’s San Ysidro Center accomplish this feat? The quiet behind-the-scenes magic of software connectivity. Because let’s face it: College, like adulthood, takes a lot of paperwork, and official paperwork can be daunting. ConexED’s software provided Southwestern with:

  • instant chats with live humans instead of bots through virtual service lobbies
  • giving students the ability to digitally sign required documents, even across great distances, even outside of typical office hours, skipping traditional bureaucratic hoops
  • the guidance of sharing computer screens via in-software video conferencing to get step-by-step instruction
  • live registration help via the student support system, as well as virtual financial aid and tutoring support
  • talking to a knowledgeable human to guide them through tracking needed documents and help to upload and send them – all within the same software suite, without having to shift gears in and out of other software systems

SAN YSIDRO GOES VIRAL: Harris says his students became so excited about the help being offered that they spread the word so effectively, that the Center actually went viral, with their digital “waiting rooms” getting jammed with current and prospective students stacking up awaiting SWC help. The San Ysidro Center found itself the most popular gig in town, he says, always gratifying for educators. 

San Ysidro was one of the 1st to implement the ConexED system. Today, as the pandemic’s isolation wanes and campuses have ramped up and launched a new academic year in person, Southwestern has adopted ConexED throughout departments campus-wide.

“We’re loving it, we were the pioneers, we got through the ups and downs and now I’m the biggest cheerleader.” ConexED is making top grades at Southwestern, earning 96 percent approval from staff and students. 

What Harris found the ConexED digital student services program helped with was easing student insecurity, the most prevalent roadblock he finds. “Students are always thinking they’re going to fail at something, and we don’t leave them hanging when we can solve their immediate concerns,” he says. “Students are struggling, we’re in the business of education, we find tools to get the job done for them.”

CRANIUM EXPANDS FOR MORE BENEFITS: Another connectivity benefit was connecting San Ysidro students via ConexED to Basic Needs like food and housing. The college offers a robust and growing Basic Needs outreach program on the Chula Vista campus, which serves its satellite campuses and centers throughout San Diego County’s South Bay region. They have a food pantry and basic personal hygiene needs like soap, toothbrushes, and housing vouchers. When the campus was closed during the pandemic, says Trina Eros, SWC’s Basic Needs coordinator, they had no access.

Eros spent over a decade working in social services before coming to SWC in 2020. “During the pandemic, we did whatever we could, like sending students in need virtual gift cards  to grocery stores.”

Earlier this summer, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Community College system invested $130 million in boosting Basic Needs outreach for its 1.8 million students, funding programs like Eros runs at SWC. The Basic Needs program represents a policy shift in higher education in recognition that students need a stronger safety net to support their academic dreams, in a state still reeling from pandemic economic disruption as well as skyrocketing housing costs and affordability shortages. 

By the second day of the new academic year 2022-23, Eros says, they had 700 applications for Basic Needs assistance for food, housing, transportation, and technology. They’re hiring more basic needs workers and moving into their own office. the biggest hurdle is getting the word out and overcoming the stigma that asking for help shows weakness, Eros says, “Trust is a big issue, students don’t want to disclose some of the personal things. But the help is here. “

They’re sending out e-blast to up to 20,000 students, and reaching them via social media like Instagram, Facebook, and the popular TikTok video platform. 

“We focus on what we need to do to help them get through the day, which is so important, but what we want to create is sustainability for our students,” says Eros.

To learn more about how ConexED is helping California colleges serve student’s Basic Needs, click here.