Guest opinion: Meeting students where they are, one student at a time
As I was warmed by the glow from our most recent class of more than 6,000 Weber State University graduates, I couldn’t help but again be amazed by the resilience of our students. Over the last two years, they overcame unprecedented academic, economic, mental and physical health challenges. They earned their degrees at a time when one key element of student success was jeopardized: the loss of the personal touch on campus.
Personal connections count. Throughout my educational journey in India and the United States, I benefited tremendously from mentors, faculty who dramatically influenced my perspective and offered invaluable insights on my career path.
My story echoes that of others. A 2018 Strada-Gallup survey found that a large majority of college graduates credited a faculty mentor as the factor that most contributed to their professional achievements. When faculty care and offer opportunities to participate and learn from in-depth projects, students remember these experiences throughout life and use them to excel at their job.
Knowing these important realities, imagine how I felt when, one week after arriving at Weber State as provost, I was forced to close campus and move entirely online. It was my trial by COVID.
Don’t misunderstand. There are real benefits to online learning, starting with how customizable it can be. For example, in our Computer Science Flex program, students can better set their own pace, more easily repeat materials that didn’t make sense on the first pass, and take self-assessments that offer clear, real-time feedback. COVID dramatically increased our digital competencies as faculty bravely converted their curriculum to a different medium and context.
But no matter how dynamic the pedagogy, how thorough the lesson plan or how user-friendly the technology, digital can’t substitute for personal connections.
Now in the third year of the pandemic, Weber State, like every other organization, has been forced to rethink and reassess its strategic priorities. Moving forward, our goal will be to ramp up efforts on student access, academic quality, completion and post-graduation outcomes — as personally as possible.
We will continue to make a regional impact with affordable programs that lead to great careers for our graduates and great talent for Northern Utah’s aerospace, manufacturing, health care, outdoor recreation and other industry sectors. The success of our graduates propelled us to the top 10% among 4,500 institutions for return on investment, according to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce. More than 9 out of 10 of our electrical engineering graduates work in Utah at Hill Air Force Base and at companies like Northrop Grumman, BAE and Boeing.
Faculty are also creating new programs to meet the growing demand for professionals in social work, biomedical engineering, physician assistant medicine and cybersecurity, including collaborating across campus through interdisciplinary programs in data science, environmental science, film studies and neuroscience.
They’re building bridges off campus as well. We now co-manage the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health with the University of Utah, a center designated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to create new programs, experiential learning and research opportunities. We’re launching the new Advanced Research and Solutions Center at Falcon Hill (formerly USTAR Innovation Center). By providing access to research and development equipment for advanced materials, the center will boost new and existing businesses, afford educational and internship opportunities for students and offer applied research opportunities to faculty.
Personal connections play a key role in erasing long-standing educational disparities. This past year, we partnered with the National Institute of Student Success at Georgia State University to better understand and document systemic barriers that hinder student success. The assessment is leading to a redoubling of our efforts to track and support students, better coordination among academic advising and financial aid entities, and greater use of analytics to create personalized educational pathways based upon student academic background, interests, economic needs and co-curricular activities.
Faculty have and will continue to lie at the heart of our student success playbook. They pushed hard to adapt during the pandemic, often at the cost of their workload and mental wellness. We intend to invest resources that help professors continue the high level of engagement with students inside and outside the classroom through high impact activities such as study abroad, community projects and undergraduate research.
There’s a role for digitized approach to learning and there’s a role for high-impact human interaction. In the brave new post-pandemic world, we are working to find the balance, one student at a time.
Ravi Krovi is the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Weber State University.