HARTSVILLE, S.C. (WBTW) — Coker University leaders are focused on setting their students up to succeed and improving their sense of belonging.

The Learning Community Cluster Project, also known as LCC5, is helping the university reach those goals, said Joseph Flaherty, the school’s director of research and strategic initiatives.

“This is the good word to do in life,” Flaherty said, referring to the work that he and other seven faculty members are doing.

Flaherty is a first-generation college student, who says he did not come from an affluent family. As a result, he said he feels like he can relate to his students and also make a big difference in their lives.

“I think about how lucky I had to be to progress through the system,” he said. “I was successful, but I don’t want my children to be lucky, and I don’t want any of my students to feel like they need to depend on luck to get through the system.”

LCC5 is a project that’s funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It brings together 15 institutions together from across the country.

The LCC5 core team meets once a month to discuss practices and implementation methods. The group also meets in person with representatives from the 14 other institutions twice a year to discuss strategies.

“Equity is part of the solution, but it’s not the solution for inclusion,” Flaherty said. “When you have inclusion, that means people feel like they belong at their workplace and they belong in the classroom.” 

Coker University has about 1,000 students, with more than half of them living on campus, Flaherty said. Their rich diversity makes for fertile ground to improve teaching strategies.

“It’s low-income students that face significant challenges,” he said. “Certainly, students of color can have run-ins with different challenges, especially in specific fields, and the reality is there is really no reason they should other than we are just not approaching it from a structural standpoint that has that in mind.”

The six-year project is possible thanks to a $655,000 grant from the institute. With one year in the books, Flaherty said it has been a transformational experience.

“We just started some centers on our campus, one, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Interfaith Inclusion Education,” Flaherty said. “We knew in our heart of hearts this would help us, but I thought this project would bring these two centers together, and it has.”