‘Can We Do Better?’ Academic Assembly Challenges Faculty to Embrace Our Mission to Serve

By Dani Moritz-Long

“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.”

Citing the opening passage of “The Divine Comedy,” College President Sandy Shugart commenced Academic Assembly with a reminder that, for some, starting the first day of college is much like awaking in a dark wood, lost and alone.

To the audience’s laughter, he said, “I lived ‘The Divine Comedy'” — recollecting his own father’s hurried departure upon leaving the younger Dr. Shugart and his belongings on the curb outside his college dormitory. Funny in retrospect, but anxiety-inducing as a first-year college student about to embark on a journey of the unknown (and as a weary newcomer about to become an unwelcome third to a perfectly comfortable duo living in a three-bedroom dormitory).

“For us, this is another chapter,” he said. “For so many others, this is an awakening in a dark wood.”

The remainder of Academic Assembly, which was held Thursday, August 23, 2018, in the East Campus Performing Arts Center, built upon that sentiment, serving as inspiration for all Valencia faculty and staff to empathize with our students’ feelings of loss and confusion and, more importantly, serve as a light in the darkness.

Faculty Association Update and Awards

Upon the conclusion of Dr. Shugart’s introduction and words of encouragement from District Board of Trustees Chairman Bruce Carlson, this year’s Faculty Association President John Niss took the stage to update the assembly on his goals as president. In true math professor style, John also offered his analysis on data from the Pew Research Center and U.S. Department of Education — highlighting the importance of maintaining Valencia’s affordability and encouraging Valencia’s faculty to make this year the Year of the Six Ps.

He then recognized Valencia’s previous Faculty Association presidents, noting, “They are the backbone of Valencia before they start this position and they are after.”

Finally, he invited Immediate Past Faculty Association President Al Groccia and Valencia Foundation President and CEO Geraldine Gallagher to the stage for their assistance in presenting this year’s Faculty Association Awards for Excellence in Teaching, Counseling and Librarianship to: Diane Dalrymple, librarian; Hemangi Patil, professor, biology; Regina Seguin, librarian; Vasudha Sharma, professor chemistry; and Karen Styles, professor, humanities.

John also awarded this year’s Innovation of the Year Award to the people behind the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Computer Equipment Program, which gifts refurbished computers to Valencia students in need while fostering hands-on training for Valencia Tech Club students. Award recipients included: Gerald Hensel, professor, computer programming analysis; Heith Hennel, professor, information technology; Dennis Hunchuck, professor, computer programming and analysis; Carin Gordon, dean, business, information technology and public service; John Slot, former vice president, information technology and chief information officer; Eda Davis-Lowe, programs director, STEM; Jackie Lasch, assistant vice president, financial services; Keith Hill, director, campus technology services; and Melvin Moodie, information technology manager.

Addressing Achievement Gaps

After celebrating these accomplishments, Executive Vice President and Provost, and Osceola, Lake Nona, and Poinciana Campus President Kathleen Plinske steered the conversation toward the future and a thought-provoking question: “Can we do better?” While she acknowledged Valencia’s impressive history and our comparatively high graduation rates that result in national recognition and accolades, she implored faculty to have even higher expectations of our students. By disaggregating data on five-year graduation rates, she highlighted performance gaps among students from diverse backgrounds.

“We know there is no inherent, biological reason for this gap,” she said. “We reject the notion that there is somehow an algebra gene, and without it some students will just never be able to factor. Or that some students will just never be good writers. Or that some students just aren’t college material.”

What we do believe, she explained, is that we can empower students by creating the conditions that best support learning and enable students to reach their potential.

To that effect, Kathleen outlined draft objectives that were developed by the Executive Council related to the goal in the College’s Impact Plan of closing performance gaps among students from diverse backgrounds: (1) by 2025, the five-year graduation rate for first-time in college (FTIC) degree-seeking students of all races and ethnicities will exceed 50 percent; (2) by 2023, 50 percent of FTIC degree-seeking students will successfully complete all five of their first five classes at Valencia; (3) by 2021, 75 percent of FTIC degree-seeking students will successfully complete 15 credit hours within two years.

Student Panel

At the conclusion of her update, Kathleen introduced a student panel, consisting of current students Donasia Harry and Leabriah Spencer, and alumni Isaac Alvarado, Daniel Salas and Marc Aristide, who is in Valencia’s new Bachelor of Applied Science in Business and Organizational Leadership program.

In the panel discussion, which was moderated by Dr. Shugart, the students highlighted their struggles and bright spots at Valencia. For example, Donasia recalled nearly dropping out of school when she lost her job and Valencia’s willingness to assist her with financial aid. Leabriah, who is currently homeless, detailed her experience failing one course each term and struggling to access the resources she needs to succeed. Issac, who graduated this spring, discussed how he recovered from his lackluster performance in high school and seven-year break in his education by taking remedial math courses and participating in programs like the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program. Daniel, who is starting his master’s degree this fall, talked about the importance of his advisors’ encouragement. Finally, Marc spoke about the importance of financial aid, the Bridges to Success program, the New Student Experience course and the Career Center, all of which Marc says have been vital in his journey to discover the educational and career pathway right for him.

Living examples of the power of the Six Ps, the panel was a call to arms to connect with students and create conditions that take our students’ struggles into account.

“Make sure what you’re a stickler about really matters for learning,” Dr. Shugart said.

A Video Message From Jehojada “JJ” Merilan, 2018 Distinguished Graduate

Although he wasn’t able to attend Academic Assembly, Valencia’s 2018 Distinguished Graduate Jehojada Merilan also offered his words of wisdom via the video message below. Faculty and staff were encouraged by his story to use their words to inspire — it makes all the difference to our students.

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