Fall 2023 State of the University Address, August 30, 2023

President Richard J. Helldobler

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Hello William Paterson! How about another round of applause for our wonderful student performers under the direction of Professor David Philp! Now, some of you may be familiar with the Gladys Knight & the Pips version of “The Nitty Gritty,” and I’m certainly a fan, but I really prefer the original from the great Shirley Ellis. It’s a little more raw. A little more gritty. A little more William Paterson, if you will. Either way, I think our students’ version is my new favorite, so thanks again! 

I hope you all had a restful summer, as well as a productive one. We were able to take advantage of the award-winning Summer Professional Development program, and I want to thank Vice President Allison Boucher-Jarvis and the HR team for putting that together.

Before I go on, I also want to thank the IRT team and everyone here in Shea for their great work producing and hosting today’s event, so please join me in giving them a round of applause!

This afternoon I will be updating you on the State budget (good news, with still some challenges); Fall 2023 enrollment (good news); our brand-new marketing campaign and some early outcomes (good news); and an international student recruitment plan (good news); among other topics. 

So, welcome to a brand-new semester and a brand-new academic year! There’s a special emphasis on that “welcome” this afternoon, on our newly expanded Welcome Day, when we gathered together faculty and staff to formally embrace our new students as part of our campus community—gauntlet and all.

We rightly make a big deal about Commencement and we do a really great job celebrating our graduates. My hope is that, starting today, our Welcome Day Convocation will serve as a worthy prologue, a time when we come together as a University community to celebrate the arrival of our newest members and the return of others, and a time to reconnect with colleagues and plan for the year ahead. Next year, we promise to do it without all the changes to the academic calendar!

I have been inspired by the excitement on the faces of our new students at this morning’s convocation and of faculty and staff at the luncheon, and I sense a great energy across campus. Now, over the next 45 minutes or so, I’m going to talk about some of the ways we are going to “get right down to it,”  channel that energy, and focus it in the year ahead to better serve our students.

We have been collectively thinking, talking…and doing a lot as an institution lately in regards to marketing and branding. As some of you know, my bachelor’s is in business administration, so I took a lot of marketing classes. I was recently looking back on some of my course notes—one of which said that, in marketing, “If you stand in the middle of the road too long, eventually you will get run over.” Instead, whatever the product or service you are offering, you have to pick a lane and move forward in it or—better yet—create your own lane. We are doing that with the “How” strategy that underpins the ways in which we educate and support our students. This is our lane. And some of the early data is promising, indicating that it’s the right one for William Paterson. 

The notion that I was able draw on that lesson and apply it to my work more than three decades later is a testament to the power of education. And to the value of good notetaking! Some days, I was a really good note taker and other days not so much. Either way, it might be time to let go of my undergrad notes from the early ‘80s. 

So, with that lesson in mind, as Shirley Ellis would say, “Let’s Get Right Down To It!” Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. 

And let’s start with the State budget! Every legislative and budget cycle could really be described as “nitty gritty” on many fronts. However, this year we have good budget news to report. William Paterson maintained its $7.5 million operational stability earmark for this year and we were able to gain approximately $4.6 million in additional outcomes-based allocations. More help with summer TAG dollars positively impacted our summer enrollment, which I will talk about shortly. Are we completely out of the woods in terms of our structural deficit? No, but we are in a better position. For more on the budget and enrollment, please join Vice President for Enrollment Management Dr. George Kacenga and Vice President for Finance and Administration and CFO Kirsten Loewrigkeit for the Enrollment and Budget Forum on October 5 during the common hour. Email invitations will go out soon. 

One key takeaway for me this legislative cycle is that when I first arrived at William Paterson, our State Senator, Nellie Pou, was blunt when I complained about funding. She said, “William Paterson is never in Trenton. People don’t know what you are doing, and you never ask for funding.” That was a tough but valuable lesson for a new president. I assured her there would never be another legislative session when she did not get at least three asks from William Paterson. When I met with her this year, Senator Pou said, “You have done a great job of getting your story out. Everyone knows your challenges, but they also know the steps you have collaboratively taken to correct your course.” We did well this budget cycle, and we have Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and University Relations Dr. Guillermo de Veyga and others to thank. I do want to give a special shout out to AFT President Dr. Sue Tardi and all union members who worked especially hard to get this across the finish line. Let’s give them all a round of applause. 

We also received three State grants from the Educational Facilities Authority to help support our infrastructure, most importantly a $40 million grant to renovate and expand the Sports and Recreation Center from the Capital Improvement Fund. Planned improvements and additions include a new natatorium—which is a fancy name for an indoor pool—new classroom spaces for Kinesiology and other allied health areas, and a new Health and Wellness Center, in addition to extensive improvements to the existing arena, including better seating, better lighting and sound, and better overall technology. We anticipate breaking ground on the Recreation and Health Sciences Center in the late spring/early summer of 2024 and completing by the fall of 2026. We are currently in the early stages of planning, so we are working through where athletic events and regular wellness activities will take place during the periods when these spaces are offline. So stay tuned.

Two other grants are for technology projects, including $2.2 million to upgrade our wireless internet infrastructure across campus—which will help increase connectivity and speeds for everyone—and $639,000 to help with our implementation of the Workday platform. Thanks to CIO Dr. Gamin Bartle and the IT team for taking the lead in overseeing these important projects. Let’s give them a round of applause!

 Turning to a couple of other exciting campus projects, I want to share with you a first-look at renderings for the upgrades we will be making to the Field House including refurbishing the existing locker facilities, adding locker room capacity for our women’s sports programs, increasing the footprint for athletic training, and adding 5,000 square feet for a new strength and conditioning room. Thanks to VP Loewrigkeit and Associate Vice President for Administration Kevin Garvey and their team for shepherding this exciting project. Vice President for Institutional Advancement Pam Ferguson and her team are working on a Field House fundraising campaign, and we will have some exciting news to share on that front soon. The campaign includes a new video that features an appeal from acclaimed alum and leading Fox sportscaster Kevin Burkhardt. 

Another project I want to mention is Morrison Hall, where you may have seen a newly installed Pio graphic in the windows, along with a large WP on the brick façade to welcome visitors. The building is undergoing a refresh that extends that eye-catching branding throughout, including the lobby and an upgraded group presentation space. The project also optimizes the use of square footage for the Admissions and Registrar offices, which will create more opportunities to engage prospective students and families in private spaces.

 Another exciting development—including a new member of the WP community—is our School of Nursing, which I wrote to you about last week and which will be led by founding Associate Dean Dr. Minerva Guttman who is with us here today. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Guttman! We’re so happy to have you with us! 

Nursing has long been a prominent program at William Paterson, and it has grown tremendously, especially over the past four years. We are now one of the largest producers of nurses in the state. This new School, operating within the College of Science and Health under Dean Venkat Sharma, will allow us to better leverage that growth to further raise our profile, attract more high-level healthcare partnerships, and better serve our students and alumni, who are so critical to the future of New Jersey healthcare.

Next, I want to share the latest updates on enrollment, as well as some of the new strategies behind the numbers and plans to further expand and diversify the markets we go after.

We saw the new Pio and WP branding on Morrison Hall. As with all of our branding and identity work, this is an effective way to connect and engage with prospective students and their families, as well as an indicator of the real changes taking place inside the building. There is still a lot of work to do, but there is a wonderful new energy that VP Kacenga, Associate VP Steve Quinn and the entire Enrollment Management team are bringing to their work, and I want to thank them for their efforts.

As you know from my regular email updates, we always have an eye on enrollment and retention, and I check the Power BI dashboard for this data every day. Just ask the vice presidents. Just ask Steve Quinn. Just ask Carmen Ortiz. And I hope many of you do, too. These are updated daily, so the old “I didn’t know” no longer applies. If data dashboards are analogous to the dashboard in your car, then for William Paterson, the enrollment data—especially our main campus population of traditional undergraduates—is the fuel gauge. Miles per hour matter. RPMs matter. The odometer matters. But only if there’s enough fuel in the tank. And William Paterson is fueled by enrollment. After being cautiously optimistic over the summer, we have made some gains, but we still have more to do overall, and nothing’s set in stone until the September 15 census, with a second and final census on November 7. Let’s take a look at some of the provisional numbers.

To start, here’s some really great news: For the fall semester, beginning today, we have met and exceeded our ambitious and necessary goal of enrolling a class of first-time, full-time students that is 10 percent larger than the one that came to campus a year ago. As of yesterday, we actually achieved a 14.1 percent increase, and that means that a total of 930 new first-year students are now William Paterson Pioneers. Let’s give our admissions team a big round of applause!

I do want to highlight one other significant improvement—transfer students. Last year, the Faculty Senate worked collaboratively with the administration to update and improve our transfer policy to make it more flexible and adult student-friendly. Those changes, along with a lot of great recruiting, resulted in an 18.4 percent increase in transfer students this year. Thanks to Faculty Senate Chair Dr. Wendy Christensen and the entire Faculty Senate for their good work here.

The positive trends extend also to summer enrollment thanks in large part, as I mentioned earlier, to the expansion of available summer TAG dollars. Enrollment for summer 2023 grew by 14.6 percent compared to summer 2022—an increase of 647 students.

WP Online continues to be a growth area for us, with current enrollment of 3,481, which represents 42.6 percent growth, year-over-year.

Congratulations to all of you. Effective admissions outreach and marketing gets people’s attention, but what convinces them that William Paterson is the place for them or their student is the great work that everyone on this campus is involved in. So thank you so, so much!

Those numbers are such a pleasure to report, and they are important indicators of our improving institutional health, but—as I’ve said—we still have more work to do. For Enrollment Management, this means that—as part of the broader University Admissions team—they are implementing a stratified enrollment strategy with the dual aims of recapturing market share across New Jersey and expanding our presence throughout the tri-state area. This approach is being undertaken in collaboration with the companies 3E and Ologie as part of the broader branding and identity work that I mentioned, with a focus on enhancing our ability to identify the right prospects and effectively reach out and engage with them. More on that in a few minutes.

Now, we have done a lot of great work in recent years that has made a real difference in the way William Paterson operates. As a result, we are having a greater impact on the lives of more students. We can all be proud of the many ways that William Paterson has anticipated and adapted to the changing needs of our students and the higher education landscape. However, we need to recognize that there are also many significant initiatives that we have talked about and planned for, but which remain—for whatever reason—stuck at the starting gate. Now—again, as Shirley Ellis sang—it’s time for us “to get right down to the real nitty gritty.” This means:

  • We are implementing Student Success Teams.
  • We are implementing the Faculty-as-Mentor Model.
  • We are revising the University Core Curriculum with a social justice lens.
  • We are implementing a branding and identity strategy that will capture and communicate the essence of William Paterson and HOW we help our students succeed; and
  • We are launching new strategic initiatives, including a new international enrollment strategy. 

Now, let’s take a closer look at these key initiatives, the ones that represent the rubber hitting the road in the “How” lane we’ve chosen. The students who we welcomed to campus this morning will be the first to benefit from the Student Success Team throughout their entire William Paterson careers. Using the Success Team model, we will show that our range of strong support resources can become even more effective thanks to a new degree of coordination and access. And most importantly, students can do virtually all of this work through their cell phones! We are confident that our Student Success Team model will provide a distinctly William Paterson experience, which will enrich our students and build a powerful reputation.

We have been working toward this over the past year with the deployment of Navigate, the digital tool that will be the primary channel for students and their team members to share and track information, get urgent questions answered, and schedule appointments when more in-depth conversations are required. Thanks to the quality and user-friendliness of the technology, as well as the wonderful work of Linda Refsland, Carmen Ortiz, and many others, Navigate is proving to be a great foundation for the full launch of Student Success Teams.

One year in, nearly 4,700 students used Navigate to schedule and track nearly 23,000 appointments with faculty for office hours, advisement for course scheduling assistance, tutors for academic help, counselors to resolve financial aid matters, and more.

We are confident that this tool helped us achieve a higher fall-to-spring first-time full-time retention rate of 87.6 percent—that’s a 1.4 percent increase over the fall-to-spring retention rate from the prior year. As of yesterday, the fall-to-fall retention rate is currently 72.3 percent, which is a 1.4 percent increase over where we were at this time last year, and 0.3 percent ahead of goal.

Congratulations to Vice President for Student Development Miki Cammarata, Carmen Ortiz, and Johanna Torres and their teams for these gains. Some of you will recall that in my very first State of the University address, four years ago, I promised that when we hit an 80 percent overall retention rate, I’m dancing a ballet variation in a tutu. That promise still stands.

With Navigate, students can keep track of their classes and get customized push notifications that best suit their needs. Students can schedule an appointment with their advisor during which they will map out their four-year course plan. We’ve already been doing this as part of Will. Power. 101, but beginning with this fall’s first-year class, that plan will live in Navigate, where it can be updated and adapted to accommodate things like internships and account for changes in students’ lives. Students can also use Navigate to connect with each other, as in the ability to identify “study buddies.” So anyone who wants to organize or join a study group can do so in Navigate.

Students in special cohorts or who have specific needs will also access these support specialists—such as coaches for student-athletes and EOF counselors—through their Success Teams, in addition to their professional staff advisors.

According to EAB, in its inaugural year, William Paterson used Navigate at a rate that is 57 percent greater than the next highest comparable institution. This success is due in part to our founding approach—build it out quickly, making as many resources as possible available through the app, which is how most students use it. That is now expanding to include the Career Development Center and Residence Life. So thank you to everyone involved for helping to quickly make the use of Navigate part of our campus culture. Is it perfect? No. No software alone is. But it is an important tool and the usage and retention data is proving its worth and impact. And this work will benefit from the planned addition of a retention coordinator, who among other things will monitor and triage posted academic performance alerts, make necessary referrals, and work directly with high-need populations.

As with any technology, it’s not the thing itself that matters so much as the personal connections it enables and the knowledge gaps it fills. So, another key initiative that I am going to talk about at greater length is the faculty mentor, who students can connect with through Navigate.

The faculty-as-mentor model recognizes and formalizes the fact that “Faculty is mentor.” Our sophomores will begin piloting this new model starting this fall, with plans to expand it to include juniors and seniors in 2024-25. Of course, our first-year students get mentoring support through the succession of Will. Power. courses and will continue to do so.

Our caring faculty has always filled the mentoring role to varying degrees. By formalizing it in coordination with professional staff colleagues, we are allowing dedicated professional advisors to help our students get the academic support they need, get advising according to the academic plans laid out by faculty, and connect them with all of the other social, financial, and physical and mental health resources that are available to help them succeed. With a team of dedicated professionals handling these and other important needs, while providing greater access over semester breaks and during the summer, our faculty will be free to fully focus on critical academic and career needs that can only be addressed with their expertise. 

There’s plenty of research that highlights the impact on student success thanks to their relationships with faculty. Just as meaningfully, our students tell us they’re important. The faculty-as-mentor model will allow our faculty to further help students discern possible careers in their discipline, choose electives, learn about internships and graduate programs, and help secure and consider the all-important job offer. 

We have seen an increase in the total number of students we have re-registered, from 84.4 percent from spring 2021 to fall 2022, to 86.8 percent from spring 2022 to fall 2023—that is an increase of 2.4 percent.

These results reflect both the hard work going on in the colleges and the positive impact professional advising has had for our first- and second-year students, and I believe they demonstrate that our plan is working. Of course, we will continue to track outcomes, and the Advisement Council will conduct assessments to make sure the program continues delivering and report back to the Faculty Senate.

 The foundation for this pilot program began with extensive discussions in Faculty Senate, the consideration and ultimate support of the AFT, and its collaboration with the administration. So, I want to again thank Dr. Wendy Christensen and the Faculty Senate and Dr. Sue Tardi and the AFT for their good work in getting this off the ground. 

Over the course of the next year, the faculty will be engaged in updating our University Core Curriculum. Now, if we are honest with ourselves, most students believe that UCC is a box to check off in order to get more deeply into their majors leading to a career. We have a great opportunity to make it much more than that, and transform it into a value-added component of the William Paterson experience. As I reported in a past State of the University Address, many students have an interest in and have participated in issues around social justice. 

We also know that graduates seek employment opportunities with organizations that take up issues of social justice and want to know how their work will contribute to that effort. We also know companies are looking for employees who want to be engaged in the communities in which they do business. And we know that the 18- to 29-year-old voters are showing up at the polls in greater numbers, and their voting priorities include equity and social justice issues like protecting democracy and voter rights, women’s and trans healthcare rights, climate change, and more. 

We also know that we have adopted a pillar of our Strategic Plan around decolonization, which was the number one priority of those who responded to our survey. 

So, it seems that we have a unique opportunity with our refresh of UCC to think about this in the context of social mobility with social justice. Can we get to a place where our UCC reflects the social mobility skills that employers demand, while also providing a value-added component that says hiring a William Paterson grad gets you an employee who understands social justice issues? The benefit for our students, of course, is that because social justice is a topic they care about, they will no longer see UCC as just a box to be checked. They will see it as an added benefit of their William Paterson degree, one that more fully reflects their interests and, for many, their lived experience. It invites faculty to innovate with pedagogy and content, encourages Interdisciplinary possibilities, and enables UCC to be considered as service to the University by connecting it directly to our mission. 

Provost Powers and I look forward to being part of these conversations throughout the University and at Faculty Senate, and I want to thank Dr. Murli Natrajan, director of UCC, for taking on this challenging and critical task. Working together, I know we can make UCC more beneficial to both our students and employers by making the case that William Paterson grads strengthen their organizations and, in turn, the communities in which they do business from a social justice perspective. 

Back in February, I showed you some of the first products of our new marketing work and talked about how you wouldn’t otherwise be aware of this messaging because it was highly targeted at our prospect pool. With the launch of the full campaign now underway, however, the goals have expanded to include increasing general awareness. So now, you will see our advertising on billboards, New Jersey Transit buses, and elsewhere around the region to raise our brand profile. This new campaign follows from the broader branding and identity work and is aimed at supporting student recruitment, expanding institutional visibility, enhancing the University’s image, and bolstering our reputation. 

The heart of the campaign is robust advertising that is being integrated through the full range of marketing communications by Ologie and our own Marketing and Public Relations team. All of this work is coordinated closely, seamlessly, and strategically with the Division of Enrollment Management.

We have worked with marketing agencies through the years, but we are now working with an agency with a singular focus on higher education, a deep record of achievement, and an eagerness to view applications and deposits as those “RPMs”—the metrics that really matter for WP. That is what determines what’s working. Marketing can bring them—but we have to keep them. 

And while Ologie has been a smart and motivated partner, the real work of ensuring that the resulting campaign does justice to the William Paterson experience belongs to Vice President Stuart Goldstein and his Marketing and Public Relations team, along with Provost Josh Powers, VP Kacenga, VP Cammarata, their teams, and others. So, thanks to all of them for their vital work!

It is a dynamic campaign that will adapt to changes in the market and best reflect the latest developments here on campus. So, as we work to strengthen our brand, I am thinking of some other lyrics from “The Nitty Gritty,” specifically: “Do you know that some folks know about it, some don't. Some will learn to shout it, some won't. But sooner or later baby, here's a ditty, Say you're gonna have to get right down to the real nitty gritty.” 

This means what I have said all long, that our message of how and what we do will resonate with some, and not with others. But I believe that if we keep focused on outputs like retention (which went up), graduation rates, and career placement (which we do better than most regional publics), along with providing strong, intentional support, and teaching our UCC through a social justice lens, we will be the winners in the market. As the campaign states, William Paterson is a “Powerhouse of Progress”! 

This new advertising strategy includes two tracks—one to expand awareness and build a wider audience of prospective students of all kinds, the other to then convert the interest of prospects into applications and then deposits. The first track is right now targeting expanded audiences of prospective undergraduates, graduates, and adult learners through digital display ads, streaming audio and video, search engine marketing, and paid social media, along with highway billboards and bus ads that really pop with images wrapped right onto the vehicle itself. This track is designed to appeal to all of our target audiences, grounded in the brand, leveraging its benefits, and capturing our unique personality. 

The second track will convert that interest into applications and then deposits through targeted ads. This is where our ability to segment our messaging based on interest as an undergraduate, graduate, or adult learner prospect will come in to play with really powerful possibilities.

We are excited about the design and content of the ads, and we’re confident that they will be able to break through and stand out in a very crowded and competitive marketplace. You’ll notice that there are no ivory towers or ivy-covered gates. Instead, the design is edgy, gritty…more authentically William Paterson. The photos in the ads are real William Paterson students, proudly presenting their promise and the institution’s significance as one of the largest producers of diverse graduates in New Jersey. One version of the ads in particular conveys the potential impact of our students not just on their own careers but also on the world that awaits them, a world that needs their talents and energy. It reads, “Powering the people who will power our state.” And now let’s take a look at one example of a video ad from the campaign. Pretty cool, huh?

It’s great to see examples of the new campaign wording on the T-shirts that many of our faculty and staff are wearing today. I especially love the line, “Powered by Pioneers,” which will soon be in motion on our freshly wrapped campus shuttles, and we’ll certainly make good use of that message in other ways!

So, what’s next? The campaign has launched, but there is much more to come. Over the next few months, it will extend beyond paid advertising. For example, we just completed a brand-new viewbook for undergraduate prospects. Other elements currently in the works include branded upgrades to our website, a new promotional video, print and digital collateral materials, social media messaging, and support for open houses—the next one is October 14, so mark your calendars.

A key reason we chose to partner with Ologie, in addition to its emphasis on crafting great marketing materials, is their skill in measuring their effectiveness. They have customized how they track campaign performance, including a number of key metrics. Most importantly for us, they closely monitor the impact of ads on applications and deposits by tracking actions taken by prospects who were served Ologie ads and measuring them against a control group. They also track engagement indicators, including information requests, as well as the performance of ads using benchmarks such as click through rates, web page traffic, and how much time prospects spend on our website. We will also be leveraging an expert consultant to help us make better use of Slate, which will make the recruitment and admissions cycle more seamless for students while giving us better data.

Now, VP Kacenga has been so busy and such a regular presence on campus that it seems like he’s already been here a long time. And yet, it was just six months ago, at my spring State of the University address, that I introduced him to the campus community, and that was before he actually started his job. As you may recall, one of the many strengths that he brings to the role is a deep background in international enrollment. I’ve talked before about our success in growing international institutional partnerships over the past few years. Together with Dr. Kacenga’s expertise, these developments offer a lot of opportunity for significant growth in our international student population.

So, how will we get there? We have developed an extensive strategy that begins with a restructuring that we believe will better prepare us to execute it. International Student Services has merged with International Admissions to form the new Office of International Services under the Division of Enrollment Management. This new Office of International Services has been tasked with the ambitious goal increasing international enrollment to at least 5 percent of the main campus population over the next three years, which would mean an additional 412 international students—more than tripling their presence on our campus. Here is how we will achieve that goal:

  • Partner with Certified Recruitment Agents: We will collaborate with international recruitment agents, targeting those certified by the American International Recruitment Council, to broaden our reach and extend our efforts into additional markets.
  • Targeted Recruitment: We will focus on recruiting both undergraduate and graduate international students, with a renewed emphasis on graduate enrollment following the addition of more STEM/business graduate programs, and others, especially a master’s program in computer science. We believe we also have an opportunity with our main campus MBA program. We are really focusing on in-person international students.
  • Priority Markets: We will concentrate on key regions known for sending a significant number of international students to the U.S., including China and India, which together account for more than half of all international students in the U.S., as well as focusing on South/Southeast Asian and West African regions as potential growth areas.
  • Niche Markets: We will explore additional markets with strong connections to specific academic programs or faculty initiatives. To our faculty, especially, if you have relationships or other leads that can advance these efforts, please let the folks in OIS know!
  • Market Monitoring: We will continuously monitor emerging, sustaining, and growing markets to identify potential areas for expanding recruitment and enrollment efforts. And, finally,
  • Alumni Recruitment Initiative: OIS will partner with Institutional Advancement to develop and implement an international alumni recruitment initiative, leveraging alumni networks to attract prospective international students.

 It’s a sound strategy, and you can hear more about it at the October 5 Enrollment and Budget Forum. Now, though, I want to share with you one example of why I think this strategy holds great promise for us. While international students have been a steady presence at William Paterson, they have not been an especially large one. And yet these students mostly have a positive experience here. They come for the academics, as well as for the chance to study in the U.S., just miles from New York City. But once they get here, it is the campus culture of William Paterson that often makes the biggest impression. 

A case in point is Hugo, one of three students from a French university who spent the spring semester at William Paterson. I met Hugo and his French classmates when they arrived at the semester’s first “Pizza with the President,” where they sat wide-eyed and somewhat in disbelief. They couldn’t quite grasp that the president of the University and other senior administrators would make themselves available to students to discuss serious matters and also just chat over pizza. Hugo explained that this level of access was unheard of at his university and others in his country. 

After they realized that this “Pizza with the President” they’d heard about wasn’t a prank being played on naïve international students, Hugo and his French classmates were regulars at these and other gatherings throughout the semester. They shared with us their impressions of New Jersey and America, told us of their excursions to New York City and travels from Boston to Washington, DC, and they tried to convince us—without success—that you can get better hamburgers in Paris than in New York, although we did agree that you cannot beat French-made croissants.  

Most importantly and most meaningfully, they shared their deep appreciation for the personal attention they received from caring faculty and staff, including Director of International Students and Scholars Services Cinzia Richardson. Hugo puts it best, and with his blessing, I’d like to share with you some of what he wrote to me after returning home to France last spring. Hugo wrote:

Even though my time in the U.S., and at WP was short, I couldn't possibly forget it…The fact that we could openly talk with the teachers, the staff, the administration, and you…gave me the feeling of being supported and listened to. The sense of attentiveness is unlike any other I have known…[W]e had the opportunity to be accompanied in our struggles, and journeys. As for the teachers, they have truly been amazing, and so helpful in so many different ways. I even stayed in touch with some of them. They did not teach me, they educated me…I truly hope I will come back to WP in the future.

They did not teach me, they educated me! And that after just one semester. What a wonderful endorsement of our amazing faculty and our caring staff, as well as a most encouraging sign for our new international enrollment strategy.

 I want to close this afternoon by sharing with you another story. This one is about one of the most powerful experiences I have had in more than three decades in higher education. Like Hugo’s story, this one goes back to last semester during an open forum for students. In this case, it was the “Office Hours” series that I host. This particular session was a virtual one to accommodate those among our growing WP Online student population who wish to ask questions of me or share concerns. 

Now, I always come to these sessions prepared for anything. Some students bring serious individual issues that require prompt attention. Others share broader concerns or provide some productive criticism; but, hey, that goes with the job. Many students simply want to share what’s going on in their lives. I am happy to say that much of what’s shared is good news. But on this particular evening, I was still somewhat surprised when I heard first from one, then another, and ultimately several students who had just finished a virtual forum with faculty in their Leadership and Professional Studies program. Each of them wanted to share with me their personal experience of how the WP Online program and their professors and the staff were making a huge difference in their lives. 

They talked about the strong commitment of caring faculty and staff and how it transcended the virtual environment. They talked about how they had long wished to advance their careers, but that work and family commitments made returning to college difficult or even impossible. They talked about their sense of relief and excitement when they found WP Online and the flexibility it afforded them to be able to manage the competing demands of their lives while furthering their education. And they talked about what the career advancement they are all working toward will mean for them and their families when they graduate from William Paterson. Perhaps most impactful to me is that they said they felt heard and seen, many of them for the first time in their educational careers. 

Any one of these stories by itself would have made my month, let alone my day. But hearing them in succession and seeing just how completely WP Online and the Leadership and Professional Studies program are empowering these adult students—many of them single mothers—to improve their lives, was awe-inspiring. They are one of the reasons that we do what we do. And they are one of the reasons we must continue to expand and grow and provide new opportunities for new groups of students. 

In my quiet moments, I often think about my own journey from a first-generation student, son of immigrants, and how I ended up as a university president and my own moments of doubt along that journey. Some of the stories students share with me continue to be about belonging and fears about their own imposter syndrome. As president, I worry at times that William Paterson has taken on that persona, afraid to be big and bold, to take risks, wondering “do we have a place?” We do have a critical place in the higher education landscape, and—based on the data—our confidence should be growing. Every time we bet big, we won:

  •  WP Online;
  • Will. Power. 101 and 102;
  • Moving into the adult market;
  • The Child Development Center, where enrollment is almost at capacity;
  • Bold policy changes like the transfer policy, and
  • Bold changes to the way we support students, which is resulting in more students re-registering.

So I challenge us to take those risks, to be bold, and to live up to the word “powerhouse,” and to enhance our work of powering the people who will power New Jersey. Now, especially, when the populations we serve are having their histories questioned or stricken from curriculums; when their stories are being removed from libraries; when their healthcare options are being taken away; when we are being gas-lighted and told slavery developed “transferable skills”— they are the reason that—right now—we need to get right down to real nitty gritty, so everyone will shout about it!           

Thank you all, and have a great semester!