The Northwest College campus has been closed since March and last week, as it prepared to begin face-to-face classes again, NWC President Stefani Hicswa delivered her annual State of the College …
The Northwest College campus has been closed since March and last week, as it prepared to begin face-to-face classes again, NWC President Stefani Hicswa delivered her annual State of the College address.
Hicswa’s speech touched on the college’s five-year strategic plan, social distancing protocols, and budgetary issues.The newest topic the president discussed in her annual presentation was racial diversity and inclusion.
“I’m appalled that in 2020 systemic racism is still alive and well in our society,” Hicswa said.
She said everyone had a “moral imperative” to stand with those who face such injustices “now more than ever.”
The president said she read a book this summer that influenced her to think about how “white people have a limited understanding of how racism works in our society.”
Referring to the book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, Hicswa said it was a “wake up call” about how she’s been complicit by not taking action against systems of inequality.
“Interrupting racism takes courage and intentionality,” she said, adding that it’s important to “align our values with action.”
Hicswa said she went into her field to “help students dream the dreams they didn’t even know they had.” Even though she is a first-generation college student from a low-income background, Hicswa said some of her racial privileges came at the cost of the well-being of other people.
She said people need to examine their “unconscious biases and have difficult and uncomfortable conversations.”
The policies and curricula of colleges and universities, the NWC president urged, need to be crafted in such a way as to not “exclude or diminish the histories and futures of people of color.”
She said NWC needed to make sure that COVID-19 wasn’t an excuse to silence these activities.
The college’s communications department is developing an online depository for resources on these issues.
“We can and we must do better,” Hicswa said.
Hicswa’s main intent was to usher in the school’s reopening, which began last week and continued with the start of classes on Wednesday.
“It’s great to see students on campus again. It’s been way too long,” she said.
Hicswa recalled the events that led up to the campus closure. She said in January, when reports were coming out of a virus outbreak in China, they had international students coming back from China after the holidays. College administrators talked about hygiene practices similar to what would be done every flu season.
The college already had a plan in place in the event of a pandemic, and they reviewed it to make sure it was up to date. During annual emergency training held over spring break, they discussed what would happen if the COVID-19 pandemic came to Powell. When the pandemic was declared to be an emergency in Wyoming, Hicswa said, the college had everything in place to deal with it.
“At Northwest College, we were very proactive. And we closed campus before almost every other school or business in our area,” she said.
Classes were moved to online formats, and employees worked from home as much as possible. Hicswa commended the faculty and staff for their quick response and flexibility, which she said contributed to their students’ success. Only three full-time students completely withdrew in the summer semester, she said.
On July 6, the Board of Trustees approved the college’s proposed reopening plan, and that’s when they began the process of transitioning back to campus. The plan requires strict social distancing and mask protocols for anyone on campus. Everyone on campus is required to wear a face covering indoors — except when alone in a closed room — and outdoors whenever 6 feet of distance can’t be maintained between people.
“I put my concerns about political backlash aside for the health and safety of Northwest College employees and students,” Hicswa said.
Additionally, employees and students are being asked to agree to a COVID-19 prevention form and complete a health screening every day. Hicswa said it will enhance everyone’s safety and aid in contact tracing — a process of identifying people who came into contact with an infected person.
The president said students and employees aren’t required to submit the form, but they must keep track of the data. For the sake of everyone’s safety, Hicswa requested that people on campus comply with the protocols.
“Now is the time for us to join together to keep each other safe and keep ourselves safe,” she said.
A tight budget
Hicswa also discussed the college’s budget challenges. She said Gov. Mark Gordon has asked colleges in Wyoming to implement 10% cuts to their budgets next year. That would be on top of the cuts the college has made over the past five years, which included layoffs.
Hicswa said college officials are expecting about $3 million in federal CARES Act funding from the state, which would help cover some COVID-related expenses, but not all of them.
“We need to be very, very careful with our finances this year,” Hicswa said.
She said there is a lot of uncertainty concerning revenues in the coming year, including local appropriations. In light of that, the college will need to make “tough” budget decisions for the college’s future. With budgets so tight, all expenditures are requiring prior authorization at the department and administrative level.
“We need to thoughtfully and strategically plan for budget reductions next year,” Hicswa warned.
Enrollment is still continuing to trend downward at the college, as is the case with many institutions this fall. From this time last year, the college has had a 9.4% decrease in its full time equivalent enrollment. However, the figure was much improved from earlier in the summer, when college leaders projected a drop of around 25%; just two weeks ago, the figure was at about a 12% decline year over year.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few weeks,” Hicswa said.
The president also mentioned a number of state resources related to the CARES Act that are available this fall for students, which she hopes will bolster enrollment.
Hicswa also discussed the college’s plan for the coming years, as outlined in its strategic vision. Last year, the college held a number of meetings to solicit public input on a five-year plan. The data was processed and four categories emerged. At the top of the list was educational programming (which was related to the need for good access), general programming, workforce programming and career and technical education.
Recruiting and marketing was another category that emerged strongly in the data, including branding of the college. Facilities, including student housing, was another category prominent in the data, as was student retention and success, involving academic support, student activities and student services.
The college’s communications and marketing office developed the categories into a compass logo, which points to the northwest, with strategic initiatives NWC will pursue in the next five years. They include championing student success, innovation of academic programming, attracting new students and revitalizing facilities.
“When we have positive expectations, we’re bound to yield positive results,” Hicswa said. “That’s the strategy behind our strategic vision.”