By Annah Johnson
This morning, Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College welcomed faculty to the opening day of the Winter 2021 semester. He began the address by reminiscing about this same day in 2020 when we were unaware of the challenges that lay ahead.
“As we embark upon a new semester, a new year, there are a lot of ‘new’s’ that we need to pay close attention to, that we need to celebrate, and that we need to be in anticipation for,” Pink said.
Outlining the new GRCC facilities, Pink shared that the highly anticipated construction and renovation of the Applied Technology Center, the fourth and fifth floors of Raleigh J. Finkelstein Hall, and two Devos Campus buildings are all nearly finished, and some already completed.
Along with campus renovations in the Grand Rapids campuses, he gave an update on the Lakeshore campus construction that is currently underway in Holland. Pink shared his excitement in the new project and its potential to better serve the GRCC community on the lakeshore in one condensed space.
Virtual tours and photos of the buildings’ renovated spaces have now been made available online.
Pink then shed light on the tremendous efforts by staff and faculty that helped GRCC quickly pivot to offer virtual services to students.
“Our pivot was monumental because we went from 4,000 kids and hundreds of faculty on campus on any given weekday to none,” said Executive Director of Facilities Jim Van Dokkumburg.
Information Technologies Customer Support Desk Team Coordinator Kelly Webber shared that her team worked closely with the Student Life team to ensure valuable assistance and materials were provided to students during the lockdown, and throughout the pandemic.
William Knapp, executive director of distance learning, explained that the modality of course offerings jumped from 15% online or distance learning in 2019 to 80% in 2020 when the demand for faculty to teach in an online format became a necessity, even if they had never done it before.
The impact of virtual learning on the GRCC community showed to be a positive one on many fronts. Admissions and Enrollment Coordinator Celina Flegal expressed that her department benefited from offering their services online.
“It seems weird, but doing everything virtual really did make it seem like we were more available,” Flegal said.
Another department that showed strength in pivoting their services to continue showing up in a meaningful way for students during a difficult and uncertain time, was the Counseling Center. The students that utilize counseling services needed a swift transition to tele-mental-health offerings and counselors became certified to offer it.
“I think with that shared experience we are having, it’s given me the ability to also have empathy,” said Andre Fields, GRCC counselor.
Through all of the struggles that faculty faced to successfully operate a college and essential services to students, much was accomplished by perseverance and unity.
“I think it’s been really amazing to be able to see how everyone kind of came together even though it was a very stressful situation,” said Flegal. “We’re still close and we can still depend on each other.”
GRCC went from around 75% in-person learning and 25% online learning and flipped to the exact opposite. Pink extended thanks to all of the employees who made this transition possible and those who offered patience for the process.
Pink’s budget update highlighted $7.8 million in assistance that GRCC received from the CARES Act funding. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund offers assistance to be directly allotted to students, and for the institution regarding COVID-19 impacts.
Pink explained that enrollment is still down as of this week, but there is usually an uptick in enrollment just before classes begin. Three new opportunities will be bringing more students to campus, increasing enrollment. Futures for Frontliners, ReConnect Program, and the Grand Rapids Promise Zone are all expected to dramatically impact enrollment beginning in the Fall 2021 semester.
In order to best show up for students and provide accessible course offerings, Pink shared that the college will be solidifying the modes of instruction for courses in the following semesters as seven-week courses gained popularity and were in high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A spotlight on a GRCC(GRJC) alumni featured a partnership to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Dr. David Edwards worked on a project that is highly sought-after as a potential new form of personal protective equipment. In November, Edwards conducted trials on the GRCC campus for the FEND device that coats nasal passages in an effort to reportedly limit aerosol contraction of viruses like the coronavirus.
Completion numbers for community college is a long-standing issue for many institutions, and Pink explained that GRCC is often tangled in the frustration of what completion means for the government, and what it means for students. The federal government measures success of completion rates at community colleges from day one as a new student, to completing a degree or certificate within three years of that first day. Pink shared a story of a successful woman who needed one year of a community college to reach her goals and a story of his family friends whose children benefited greatly from a single year of schooling at GRCC – but are all considered “non-complete” in the eyes of the federal government.
Under the leadership of Provost Brian Knetl, GRCC is assembling a task force of faculty to dive deeper into the issue of completion. The group will be looking to find mutual harmony between the federal definition and what GRCC students have professed to move toward a completion agenda at the college.
“When you do it for GRCC, you do it for West Michigan, because we are the community’s college,” Pink said.