Author, Teacher Works to Create a ‘Humane and Caring Higher Education’

Written by
Mary Lou Santovec

May 10, 2022

May 10, 2022 • by Mary Lou Santovec

Karen Costa’s life mission is to make higher education “more humane and caring.” Her work has morphed into a three-part strategy featuring online pedagogy, faculty well-being and trauma-aware teaching. 

Working with high school students before becoming a former mid-level manager at Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC) in Massachusetts, Costa saw first-hand how otherwise promising students could easily become derailed and drop out. Faculty would either blame the victim for the student’s troubles or themselves for not working hard enough to help the student succeed.

Neither action put a dent in the dropout issue. So, Costa employed a different strategy.

No correlation between access, success

Growing up in New Jersey, Costa earned a master’s of education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study from Northeastern University in Massachusetts. She went on to earn certificates in trauma, trauma-informed organizations, and neuroscience, learning and online instruction from Florida State University, the University of Buffalo and Drexel University, respectively. 

Costa’s career in higher education began in 2002 when she worked for a GEAR-UP-funded college access program in Rhode Island. There she first confronted the issue that just because students were “ambitious, smart, passionate, strong and caring” it didn’t mean they’d be successful. 

Costa believed that students’ drive would likely help them succeed if they could just overcome the barriers to access they faced, chief among them being cost. She soon learned that access didn’t always translate into success, so she joined MWCC as a staff member responsible for both academic advising and student success. 

While at the community college, Costa developed an interest in brain-based teaching when she was tasked with teaching a class on student success. With no pedagogical training and after rejecting the previous faculty member’s choice of textbook, Costa developed her own curriculum grounded in the latest neuroscience research about how people learn. 

Finding engaging resources as well as creating her own, she sought answers to the question “What do we know about how people learn best?” Costa realized that faculty really wanted their students to succeed but were often treated as barriers to their students’ success rather than partners. 

Scaling solutions to student success

After eight years at MWCC, she transitioned into part-time teaching and the beginnings of what she termed a “hyphen career.” Costa created a niche as an adjunct faculty member, teaching college success strategies as well as faculty support and development in a variety of spaces, mostly online. 

She went on to develop a business, 100 Faculty LLC. “I started to realize that by recognizing and supporting faculty it would be a lever for student success.”

There’s a lot of talk about student success in higher education and what’s appropriate. But “faculty sacrificing themselves doesn’t do anything for people on campus,” she said. 

Costa believed that if she helped 100 students succeed, then those 100 students would succeed. But if she was able to help 100 faculty, the impact was twofold: helping the faculty and potentially thousands of students, which led to her business name. 

In focusing on faculty, she had tapped into the concept of “mutualism,” a biological term that defines a symbiotic relationship where all species benefit from their interactions. Rather than putting students first, mutualism represents the “spaces that benefit both faculty and students.”

Working with a pressure valve
Costa now works with faculty at various institutions around the world helping faculty learn how to teach online. 

She compiled her research into a book, 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos: A Guide for Online Teachers and Flipped Classes (Stylus Publishing, VA). Released in April 2020, the book offers strategies for using smartphones and other accessible technology to develop instructor-generated videos designed to reinforce learning. 

As her business “gelled and started to grow,” Costa launched the third component, trauma-aware teaching. Costa’s definition emphasizes “telling the truth about the hard stuff.”

“Trauma affects work, teaching and learning,” she said. “The brain redirects resources when it perceives a threat.”

Because of a past or present trauma, the brain “shifts resources away from the executive functions.” If you’ve forgotten an appointment or have been “spacey” lately, blame it on your brain being off-line because of the chaos surrounding the pandemic and recent world events.

If your students are checking out and not paying attention, it’s not because they’re lazy. Their brains are using that behavior as a pressure valve to release stress.

“Some faculty will perceive this lack of attention as ‘disrespect’ or a failure of their teaching,” said Costa, who urged them to take a step back and realize it’s a normal reaction to what’s going on. “Learning doesn’t take place when we’re faced with threats and survival.” 

In the first year of COVID, Costa found herself with an “immense demand” for her trauma work. Unable to keep up with the requests and at the same finding her work emotionally draining, she created a self-paced online course, Trauma Fundamentals for Higher Education, which represents another example of mutualism.

Focus on critical connections

The practice of yoga is an integral part of Costa’s higher education story. Having practiced the discipline since she was eight, she spent 200 hours training to become a certified yoga instructor.

Although she doesn’t currently teach it because of an accident, Costa said yoga is “a great complement to my higher education work”; both address trauma and work to improve learning. 

For Costa, another self-care practice is making art. A trip to the art store to get supplies for her husband piqued her curiosity. 

“I never thought of myself as an artist or a creative person,” she said. Despite her “productivity mindset” that questioned what she would ultimately do with the art she would make, one day Costa purchased a set of watercolors. 

A plethora of online art courses popped up during the pandemic. Costa has since added collage and, more recently, art journaling to her list of newly acquired creative skills. 

Making art helps her process some of her emotions and overcome the academic pressure of always having to produce. “I learned I’m healthier and happier when I strive to keep my head where my feet are.” 
Costa also revels in the power of small acts, encouraging us to focus on the critical connections rather than the mass connections we’re expected to make. Those small acts, she said, open up “the spaces to move in different directions.”