Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, devastating weather events and a massive shift in operations and day-to-day procedures, Northwestern State University enrolled a record number of students in 2020, introduced new degree programs and developed innovative ways to ensure the continuation of learning in a year fraught with uncertainties. “2020 was a year in which we had no choice but to introduce new and ground-breaking ways of living, learning and helping our communities,” said NSU President Dr. Chris Maggio. “Making hard decisions in unpredictable circumstances is always difficult, but we were guided by maintaining the health and safety of our university family and how we could help those in need.”
In March, faculty and staff accomplished the monumental challenge of shifting all classes online and developing protocols for operating under modified conditions in compliance with state health and safety mandates. As a pioneer in online education, the university embraced the digital transformation and developed hybrid classroom models that were introduced at the start of the fall semester when enrollment reached a record 11,477 students. NSU continues to develop new and emerging degree programs, partnerships, fast track curriculums, credit transfers and articulation agreements with other institutions to eliminate barriers for students seeking a bachelor’s degree, as well as post-baccalaureate and post-master’s credentials for working professionals.
Faculty have secured grants and funding to support academic programming, professional development and technology enhancements. Earlier this year, NSU’s College of Nursing received Louisiana State Board of Nursing approval for the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree to offer a concentration in Nurse Anesthesia and the program is under capability review by the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs.
The College of Business enrolled its first cohort of students seeking a master’s degree in Computer Information Systems. NSU’s online programs were ranked third most affordable nationally by Study.com and the university began enrolling students in Compete LA, a program designed to reengage individuals with some college credits but no degree. NSU enrolled its first Call Me MISTER cohort in which African American males are recruited to be teachers and mentors in low-performing schools.
Northwestern State was among 12 colleges and universities named Excellence in Assessment designees for the schools’ commitment to the comprehensive assessment of student learning outcomes as a means to drive internal improvement and advance student success at the institution-level. University staff and administrators utilized social media and other digital platforms to communicate plans and protocols as they were developed and faculty volunteered to translate health directives to non-English speakers. Staff also used social media to recognize alumni on the front lines of the public health crisis.
Although many campus events were cancelled in 2020, Northwestern State hosted a successful virtual commencement ceremony for spring 2020 graduates and adapted Freshman Connection, recruiting events, job and career fairs, seminars and presentations to an online format in an effort to provide meaningful and safe experiences for students and others in virtual settings. Student Affairs personnel were also diligent in making services available to address mental health needs. Over the summer, staff and administrators developed careful health and safety protocols and communicated plans to the university community. In light of national events, administrators thoughtfully and intentionally affirmed the university’s commitment to providing a safe and inclusive learning environment with the hiring of Dr. Michael Snowden as vice president for Inclusion and Diversity.
As the fall semester began, faculty, staff and students were able to continue with research, service projects – particularly in the area of storm recovery assistance – and other academic endeavors despite limited face to face interaction. Among many individual and organizational leadership accolades, NSU’s chapter of Alpha Lambda Delta won a national award for the second time in three years.
The university also introduced NSULeAds and IGNiTE, faculty/staff development programs for early and mid-career professionals and newly positioned campus leaders. Following the devastation of Hurricane Laura, administrators worked with McNeese State University, a sister school in the University of Louisiana System, to provide McNeese students access to NSU campus resources such as Wi-Fi, libraries, computer labs, rec centers, dining options, counseling and health services. Students organized The Cowboy Collection to collect and deliver clothing, paper goods and non-perishable food to the McNeese campus. The NSU Foundation created a relief fund for individuals negatively impacted by COVID-19 and Hurricane Laura and sought support from external partners to award assistance to applicants. NSU Child and Family Network worked with partnership with the North Louisiana Economic Partnership and the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce to facilitate the distribution of $200,000 in grants to individual childcare centers to cover COVID-related expenses to childcare businesses in Caddo Parish.
The NSU campus served as staging ground for about 800 utility linemen from around the country as they worked around the clock to restore power to affected areas after Hurricane Laura. Planning is ongoing with facilities projects as well. This year, Northwestern State received funding in the state capital outlay bill to begin the process of constructing a new academic building to replace Kyser Hall. Last year, NSU regained management of CENLA campus in Alexandria (formerly the Learning Center of Rapides Parish) and completed a $500,000 renovation of A.A. Fredericks Auditorium. The university also relocated the Advising Center, Disabilities, Tutoring and Academic Success Center to Watson Library to centralize those services for students. With athletics suspended for the fall, the Athletic Department worked with conference officials to reschedule games, beginning with men’s and women’s basketball. Football, soccer and volleyball games are scheduled for spring 2021, along with regular spring sports.
The NCAA’s recent Graduate Success Rate (GSR) data released in mid-November saw the 2013 freshman cohort of NSU student-athletes produce the highest mark in school history (89 percent), which tied them for first in the Southland Conference. On Dec. 8, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association announced that NSU would host the 2020 high school football championship games, a series of nine games moved from the New Orleans Mercedes Benz Superdome because of what the LSHAA termed COVID-19 capacity restrictions, financial responsibilities and risk of cancellation. NSU has hosted the LHSAA cross country championships in Natchitoches for over 30 years.
“Certainly, we will all remember the hardships of 2020 but we will also remember how we pulled together to help our friends in crisis, whether by assisting students struggling with online learning, showing up to help with storm clean-up in our neighborhoods, collecting food, water and supplies for those who went days without electricity, feeding crews of utility workers who worked around the clock to restore power to storm-affected areas or offering a listening ear and words of encouragement to those who felt overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control,” Maggio said. “Let’s hope we can take what we learned in how to cope with crisis in 2020 to be better and stronger in better days ahead.”