As a lifelong educator with over 40 years of experience in the field, I’ve been party to many changes to the education landscape. Many of these shifts occurred at an institutional level; however, some, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, are so widespread that they disrupt the very tenants we’ve become moored to. Now, as President of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, my leadership team has been faced with the same question each of you has faced. How do we, as decision-makers in the academic realm, lead in the midst of unprecedented change? A crucial step in effective leadership is to provide more seats at the table.
As a first-generation college student, myself, I have long understood the need for multiple perspectives on how best to serve students. As we invite diverse experiences to be heard, we can better prepare actions which address the necessities of our full student body, faculty, and staff. When I began my degree program at the University of Alabama in 1968, I never planned to one day become a university president. Now that I hold this honored role of leadership, I am committed to understanding the paths, and yes, obstacles, which our students face when trying to further their own education.
As the scope of the pandemic evolved throughout 2020, our administration looked not just to find ways to keep courses available to students, but to examine what other life events might prevent them from continuing their coursework. An ongoing dialogue with our student population was essential.
Here at UTRGV, our students are eager for education and advancement, but they don’t feel entitled. A majority of UTRGV students hold jobs while going to school. Even many of those whose tuition may be covered by scholarships and grants work to help support their families. In order for our institutional leadership to clear a path for them to continue their courses, we had to recognize their obligation was not solely to completing their higher education.
Our approach to the pandemic couldn’t be shaped by a generic vision of just any U.S. institution. We needed to explore and embrace the uniqueness of our students at UTRGV. Due to our ongoing communication with our student body, we understood that finances are, perhaps, the largest hurdle most of our students face and the best way to address that issue, even prior to COVID-19, has been to provide employment—on campus.
As the pandemic set in, many of our students were losing their jobs at restaurants and retail outlets, so we expanded our work opportunities on campus to accommodate them—even though most of those “campus” positions were work-from-home in nature. We understood that the pandemic was disrupting students’ lives, so we sought to clear obstacles that might cause it to disrupt their education.
We wanted our students to maintain control over their education while so many other factors were outside of their power. As the spring semester gave way to summer courses, we continued our focus on the financial impact our students and their families were dealing with, establishing full-time course discounts which were so popular that our summer enrollment increased nearly 30 percent.
Realizing we were effectively identifying and addressing a pain point, we used fall semester CARES funds to provide cash grants to students so they could purchase computers, broadband internet, or other resources which would enable them to continue their coursework at a distance. We installed hotspots in our parking lots so students could safely access internet from their vehicle, if need be.
Our line of thinking has continued to revolve around the question, “What would disrupt this student’s education because of the pandemic?” Now, our goal each day is eliminating those obstacles.
As anyone in education can attest, there is no magic bullet. Especially in these unprecedented times, flexibility and open-mindedness are essential tools to address the ever-evolving issues our students face. With that in mind, the better we can work to see students as whole individuals, with multi-faceted lives that effect their education, the more effectively we can aid them in accomplishing their goals.