A new semester began at Washington State University Vancouver on Monday, and with it came a sense of hope for the year to come.
Though total enrollment still lags behind what the school boasted in 2019, a new wave of students said they felt that this year might allow them to jump-start many of the social aspects of the college experience.
“I hadn’t been as involved as I would like to have been,” said sophomore Josalyn Ortiz, now a photographer for the VanCougar, when thinking back to how her freshman year panned out. “Online classes were fine. I’m usually pretty self-motivated. But now that I’m here in person, I’d like to meet new people. I hope other people are motivated to come on campus and get involved.”
Sean Peck, a freshman, is excited to explore what a rekindled campus life has to offer. He’s considering launching a robotics club at the school.
“I’m definitely going to start a robotics team with a couple of my fellow iTech graduates,” Peck, 18, said, adding that he’d participated in robotics teams for the last seven years and has missed fully engaged team opportunities in recent years. iTech Academy is a public school within Vancouver Public Schools located on the WSU Vancouver campus that offers dual credit opportunities with the college.
In his time at Clark College last year, Peck said his access to in-person classes was severely limited.
“Taking classes almost entirely in person again sounds fun,” he said. “I had just one class in person all of last year — spring semester yoga.”
Now seated in the heart of campus with a handful of fellow students also interested in engineering and robotics, he said he’s hopeful things will finally start to look different.
A new role in higher education
This fall marks the fourth academic year that’s featured pandemic-related interruptions. From an academic standpoint, WSU Vancouver administrators say they’ve developed a good understanding of how to balance in-person and virtual opportunities for their students at this point.
What comes next is what Chancellor Mel Netzhammer described as an “upheaval of higher education.”
“I think there are some people who are looking for a 2019 experience, that we need to get back to looking like in fall of 2019,” Netzhammer said. “And I think that’s the wrong way to approach this.”
“There’s a whole new understanding this year that student success is directly connected to meeting the basic needs of students. That investment in making sure that their basic needs are being met as students is a priority in a way that it simply wasn’t for us prior to the pandemic.”
That new role for the school, in addition to finding new avenues to engage students in rebuilding campus communities, will focus on providing care for students still reeling from the financial, mental and social impacts of the pandemic.
“We’ve learned we need to be concerned about the whole student,” he said. “Some of the research that is coming out is that faculty members who check in with their students about housing insecurity and food insecurity, around issues of equity — that those students are going to engage more in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”
Though it’s just day one, he hopes the combination of redefining some of these resources throughout this school year, in addition to renewing on-campus events can help bring students back to campus.
“It’s pretty clear that we’re a significantly smaller institution,” Netzhammer said. “But there’s been so much energy on campus. People are genuinely happy to be back, that’s wonderful to see.”