Xiaodan Hu never attended a community college.
Her higher education began at Beijing Forestry University in her native China – she grew up in Qingdao – as she pursued a degree in English for Business.
Active in student organizations, and confident in her fluency in English, she was excited and intrigued to learn about an opportunity for graduate study that existed in the United States.
“ ‘Student Affairs? That’s a major? I can major in Student Affairs and work with students as a career? That’s awesome,’ ” she remembers thinking. “I applied to Texas A&M.”
Once in College Station, however, Hu discovered her life’s true passion and direction.
“I did an internship at a community college that was a feeder to Texas A&M, with a focus on transferring students to four-year institutions. I was like, ‘This is different. They have such a broad focus – not just liberal arts; not just engineering. That’s when I started to get interested in the community college sector,” she says.
During her time at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration and Policy and served as a as a research fellow at the Institute of Higher Education, her fascination grew.
“When I started my Ph.D., my adviser was a big figure in the community college sector. He encouraged me to explore more,” Hu says. “The community college context is so rich. Transfer programs. Vocational programs, working with local agents in terms of workforce development. Partnerships with business and industry. Every single community has different demands.”
The assistant professor in the NIU Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education since August 2017 is coordinator of the Ed.D. in Community College Leadership program.
Primarily teaching doctoral-level courses in the program, including finance and policy as well as higher education administration, she also remains an active researcher.
Her dissertation, “The Impact of Performance-based Funding on Community College Retention and Completion in Louisiana,” won the 2018 Council for the Study of Community Colleges Dissertation of the Year Award.
“Research in community colleges has so much potential,” Hu says. “The majority of higher education research still focuses on four-year institutions, but half of the U.S. undergraduate population enroll in community colleges. We have historically underserved students at community colleges. We don’t have enough research. I thought, ‘This is my niche. I like it.’ ”
Questions ripe for the study include – still – their educational purpose.
“I think the current push for community college completion is always going to be there. It’s not going to go away,” Hu says.
“If our students only want to take one course, we nudge them and say, ‘Hey, you want to try another program?’ to open up opportunities for them, to show them what is possible,” she adds. “But what if they just want to test the water? Many are first-generation, and then don’t know what it’s like to go to college. Maybe they’re just testing the major, and I believe that is fine, too.”
As a woman who grew up in China and came to the United States to attend graduate school, she first became interested in research in student development theories.
“Many of them were developed among white, male students, back in the day, and the theories were derived from there,” she says.
“I was this international student who just got to the U.S., and I started to wonder if these theories really applied to a different student population. I thought, ‘I want my own theory,’ ” she adds. “I wanted to use all these international students as a different sample to understand how we can support their success instead of relying on the classic model. That’s not to say they were wrong, but I was curious about it.”
Community colleges are a fertile landscape for research beyond the students they serve, Hu says.
Some are adopting baccalaureate degree programs, but questions remain about who might pay for those – or if they would force hikes in tuition and fees.
Funding levels pose another difficult challenge.
“The financial crisis is going to be one of the biggest areas of concern for our community colleges. We’re already cutting to the bone,” Hu says. “Right now, a lot of community colleges are implementing a ‘guided pathways’ model, but they’ve only been in place for a few years, and we don’t know what are the intended and unintended outcomes in the long term.”
While state leaders in her former bases of operation in Florida and Texas are “very entrepreneurial in trying new policies and initiatives,” Hu says that Illinois “is one of the more careful states in adopting new policies.”
Meanwhile, she adds, state appropriations in Illinois are performance-based but are so small system-wide that they make little difference. “No one wants to be at the bottom,” she says, “but it really doesn’t impact your funding that much.”
Hu and other researchers in her discipline are now striving to make sure that their work is relevant for those who would implement its findings and recommendations.
“I do go to conferences that have both community college practitioners and scholars, and our current push – what we’re trying to do – is to bridge research and practice,” she says.
“The questions that we have – the questions that we study – maybe do not matter in the real world. The questions the practitioners have maybe are not studied in the research world. We’re trying to bridge these two sides to make the research meaningful, to translate the statistical models into ‘how you do it,’ ” she adds.
“We don’t want to scare people off. We don’t want to say, ‘What you’re doing is wrong.’ But we do want to work with practitioners and establish mutual trust and buy-in.”
She is enjoying her chance to build those types of connections sooner than later with the students in the doctoral program.
Most are full-time professional in higher education, including administrators at the associate vice president level; faculty; program directors; and Student Affairs staff. Although most are from Illinois, Hu currently has students from Alabama, California, Kansas and Washington.
Education goes both ways in her classroom, she says, as does networking.
“Personally, I’ve learned so much from them. They’re the experts,” she says, mentioning her desire to explore an accelerated registration initiative at one of their institutions: The college recruits, advises and registers new students during a one-day event a week before classes begin.
“That’s very innovative, and it sparks my research interests,” she says. “I wonder if these programs are working or not.”
At the same time, Hu is thrilled to serve as “the nexus for my students,” linking them with higher education professionals in her Rolodex who could advance their careers.
For now, her trajectory is steered by not only a copilot – she met her husband, Qibo Li, at Texas A&M, where he was also an international student from China studying Mechanical Engineering – but a passenger in their 2-year-old son, Eric.
“He’s such a big part of my life,” the proud mother says. “I show a picture of Eric to my class every time I introduce myself.”
The couple, who just bought a new home in Naperville, now are expecting a daughter.
But despite the changing landscape of her personal life, her professional ambitions remain clear.
She remembers with a laugh telling her hiring committee at NIU that what she wanted in five years was “happiness,” and believes she has found just that in her supportive department. Adding to that is the freedom she’s discovered to pursue her scholarship.
“My strength is in research, and I would like to use my expertise to answer these important questions that our community college leaders have,” Hu says. “If I can be helpful to them in any way, then that will be great.”