The term “first responder” is generally applied to police, firefighters, paramedics and others who are first on the scene
of an accident, natural disaster or other
cataclysm. We owe an immense debt of
gratitude to those who enter professions
in which they risk their own safety to
come to the aid of others. But let’s examine the term a bit more.
The most essential definition of
first responder is exactly what the term
implies: one who responds to a need
before anyone else.
Viewed through that lens, community colleges are the first responders of
higher education. We are the frontline
in providing pathways to opportunity
for those who have historically been
underrepresented in higher education,
and the first to respond to changing
community, industry and employer
needs with relevant workforce training.
The work of community colleges in
preparing first responders for the organizations and departments that employ
them is a case in point. Every year,
thousands of new police, firefighters,
paramedics and EMTs graduate from
public safety academies at community
colleges across the U.S., bolstering the
rosters of police and fire departments
with skilled and qualified professionals.
Community colleges are able to fill
that need because they’ve made all the
necessary investments: hiring experienced instructors, expanding the
knowledge base of existing instructors,
upgrading technology and constructing
new training centers. We recognized
the need for qualified public safety
professionals in our communities and
addressed that need expeditiously,
becoming—in a sense—first responders.
Our role as educational first
responders isn’t limited to public safety.
Throughout our communities, there
is an expanding need for qualified
employees in a wide range of industries.
From health care to STEM, transportation to business, employers need skilled
individuals to help their organizations
grow and, in turn, to grow their local
and regional economies.
Every time a community college commits resources to build a new program
or expand an existing one, it acts as a
first responder for that field or industry.
It’s something we, as the leaders and
decision makers within community colleges, must keep in mind as we allocate
resources to best serve our communities.
We must also keep in mind the
important role we play in changing
the face of these professions. This is
especially true in the public safety
field. Community colleges are uniquely
positioned to encourage and develop
a diverse public safety workforce that
reflects and can relate to the people
they are sworn to serve and protect.
This is a critical task within the
larger mission of educating public safety
professionals. Our efforts to find and
educate new police, fire and emergency
medical personnel must reach every
corner of our communities so that each
police precinct, fire station and hospital
has a diverse pool of qualified, talented
individuals from which to hire.
The plan for addressing these issues
begins with a single word: vigilance.
Much as emergency first responders
must maintain a 24-hour watch, we as
educational first responders must
maintain watch over our communities,
ensuring that we respond to education and
workforce needs with a sense of urgency.
Alex Johnson is president of Cuyahoga Community College and
chair of the AACC Board of Directors.
By Alex Johnson
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