This is the end! I once was told a story of how in an educator’s world, May signifies the end of the year, and August the beginning. It makes for a continual cycle of hope, anticipation, and celebration and I love it!
This month is a time to celebrate and say goodbye to our graduating students. It’s time for parents to weep when their toddler completes daycare and moves to school in the Fall. Or we weep again at watching our teenager complete high school and symbolically wrap up their childhood. We watch our friends and loved ones graduate with a degree and witness the joy on their faces as they had overcome a number of obstacles to earn that diploma. It’s time to celebrate the culmination of efforts of the many and the sacrifices made by themselves and their support systems to reach this point. Finally, it is a time to welcome the summer and celebrate the end for many students.
There’s many students graduating in our community and area that makes May a tremendous season of hope, joy, and a celebration of a brighter future. This month I’m celebrating each of our graduates but one in particular stands out to me. A woman, who decided to attend the UC to turn her life around from her past life path that was full of destruction and negativity, will be graduating with a graduate degree in Counseling/Psychology this May.
I learned quickly about her story when I first started working here that she decided to stop the path that she was on and instead of giving her life up to drugs, crime, and poverty she was choosing to go back and study to help others get out of their own addiction and developing coping mechanisms to deal with life and to secure a better future for herself and family. She quickly excelled and stood out as she voraciously attacked her coursework and soon found herself accumulating the hours she needed for a degree.
Her higher education path was not full of rainbows and sunshine, she ran into employment issues as she tried to clear background checks. Opportunity after opportunity was closed to her as her background precluded her from gainful employment. Her hope and heart faltered a few times as opportunities seemed to pass her by and she wondered if her past would even allow her a chance at a future. But as time continued, she never gave up, she soon graduated with her bachelor’s degree. She was undeterred and was committed to more, as she knew a graduate degree would open even more opportunities. Today, after countless hurdles, roadblocks and challenges, she’s walking this month with her master’s degree. I am happy to report she has found full time employment in Ponca City as she aids those who find themselves in a familiar setting she once did several years ago.
This is one reason why I celebrate graduation. Stories like these happen each semester at the University Center. We’re thankful for the opportunity to help students earn a degree and become gainfully employed. I hope you can take a moment to reach out and celebrate a recent graduate in our community!
In April, colleges are preparing students for finals, graduation, and enrollment for the summer and fall semesters. It’s an annual rite of spring that we shift into a higher gear and we build to the crescendo that is May.
As we turn our sights to graduation and spring, the UC typically hosts a career and job fair with PCDA. Over the past three years, this event has grown with the number of jobs and businesses present and the number of students and community members who attend. We are aiming to conduct this annual job and career fair for individuals searching for local gainful employment.
One of the biggest challenges here at the UC is creating pathways from degrees to employment for our students. We want our students to find success and a great career fit upon graduating. However, there have been times we witness students experience difficulty in launching their career after graduation. This is a difficult situation our former students find themselves in, and one that I myself had to overcome as I had a “failure to launch,” upon graduation.
What I like to remind these students is that in those trying times it’s not the “degree,” that solely defines your college education. It’s the skills, lessons, and achievements you acquired during the pursuit. Perhaps your degree is in a field that is in a current shortage of opportunities, but what’s not in shortage is the skills acquired such as research, collaborating with others, and seeing projects through to completion.
When I first graduated I felt I had a solid plan in place for the future. I felt I was prepared and had a great opportunity lined up for myself. But as you can suspect, it was quickly apparent I was not in the place that I felt I was going to thrive. I was back to the drawing board, but I was not alone, I carried with me a work ethic, responsibility, and an attitude of becoming a self-starter and creating a new opportunity. I drew on experiences that shaped me through college and I turned my attention to reflecting on potential opportunities and where I felt I could grow and bring benefit to an organization.
Each of these skills were manifested and shaped throughout my college experience at NOC and NWOSU. It wasn’t long before I found my fit and I started with the Ponca City Public schools as a substitute teacher. From there as I began my career, I returned back to school to create more opportunity. I enrolled at the University Center at Ponca City and after a few more years of school had developed more knowledge, passion, and skills to utilize for the future.
Today, I remind our students that they may not find their dream job right out of college. But what they will find is a sense of achievement and a plethora of additional skills and life lessons that are not listed on their diploma. Sometimes it’s these skills, attitudes, and abilities that employers find the most benefit from bringing to their organization. I encourage them to take a step back and recognize that while current economic realities may be one way, they’re shaped and equipped to find success in the future.
Welcome to March where we begin to embrace the promise of a swift and warm spring. In March we will recognize the one-year anniversary of the Pandemic in Oklahoma and the forever altering impact it has made on education. It seems like years ago, but the digitization of the workforce, the changing of how we organize, meet, and educate has changed. What’s transpired in the past twelve months is a testament to the dedication and work ethic of our leaders, community, and neighbors.
But where are we one year from the beginning of the pandemic? In Ray Schroeder’s article, “Online Learning to the Rescue,” he notes that higher ed enrollments were down nearly half a million students in the fall across the United States. Where did these students go?
For the UC at Ponca City, our enrollment dropped nearly 18% compared to a year ago at this time. Are we concerned? Absolutely, but we’re we surprised? Hardly. Nearly every journal article we read pointed to the Winter months as the time when community spread would most likely see its peak. I was thrilled we could offer services for as long as we did in the fall months. We accounted for this in our planning for the year and will be able to provide the same levels of service in the spring as we had in the fall. What I was not planning on was how one group of students appears to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and how this creates a barrier to higher education enrollment.
The UC has an enrollment that is predominately female. In my 8 years, the lowest percentage of students we’ve had in a semester that were female was 72%, and most times its over 75%. When you also factor in a large majority (over 60%) of those females have at least one child, and are employed, and we can start to imagine the sacrifice in a typical non-pandemic year it takes for an individual to decide to return to school.
The digitization of our schools and moving our young people from classrooms to the living room created a new issue for our community. The UC students were having to decide between going to class or leaving their children at home. It’s not only higher education that’s seeing an exodus of women from seeking their degree, but it is a national workforce problem. In a Bureau of Labor Statistics report from October, data showed women leaving the workforce increased significantly over 2020, with over 865,000 more women than men were leaving the workforce in September alone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed to a sobering fact that in the Fall the United States saw that the number of women in the workforce had fallen to 1988 levels. Sadly, this trend continues today as the pandemic trudges along.
What does this mean for our institutions as we move forward? We must innovate to remove these barriers for our female students. One way we’ve looked to this challenge was with the NOC and the UC partnership to offer in person weekend classes. Instead of being gone for multiple days a week, students can enroll in Friday evening classes and Saturday classes, earning their credits over the course of a dozen weekends. In addition, the UC Foundation raised a record number of scholarship funds for 2021 to help lower the financial burden our students face when deciding to enroll in higher education. Digitization of higher education continues to evolve and I believe we will see new ways to deliver a rich and meaningful experience in the coming months.
But we must not lose sight of the heroes of the pandemic. I tip my hat to those who have nobly answered the bell, our female students, who are at home helping protect our youth, ensuring their participation in their online learning, and helping drive down our COVID numbers to help us return to a new normal in the near future.