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Open for Learning and Ready to Restart the Economy

by Tonjua Williams

These are challenging times. There is no doubt about that. Old routines are shattered, businesses are closed, workloads more challenging, socializing is distanced and perhaps most of all, we are living in a time of uncertainty.

Through it all, we’ve come together in extraordinary ways to address this pandemic by fostering a community of care. While our lifestyles may be forever changed, we have been reminded throughout this crisis just how strong, creative and compassionate we are as a society. Our world will never be the same. We must work together as one to fearlessly embrace our “new normal” way of life.

At St. Petersburg College, we are reimagining the new normal as we remain open for learning and ready to support the restarting of the economy.

Our workforce will stabilize, and our communities will recover when people retool and, in many cases, retrain for sustainable employment in a new era. This will require industry, education, government and community-based organizations to think and operate differently. We can no longer work in silos. We are all interconnected and dependent on each other for our communities to thrive. Together, we must “learn forward.”

Dr. Tonjua Williams

During this crisis, we have learned that at St. Petersburg College, our students, faculty and staff are resilient and determined. They are adapting to new technologies and learning formats that not only provide a quality learning experience, but also lead to the integral skills for them to succeed in this new space of learning and working.

Business and industry will need to collaborate early and frequently with higher education to share new challenges, trends and needed skills, and forecast changes in job projections. This will ensure that training programs are quickly developed or redesigned in order to meet the new needs of our workforce partners.

At the same time, we must address our students’ needs, by designing online classes that simulate the “live” face-to-face experience and direct contact with instructors, offering new schedule and course delivery options for better flexibility, and helping boost confidence in the online learning space through a robust team of supporters and creative tools – all the while, remaining the most affordable option for an advanced education. These changes are particularly important for the growing number of dislocated workers who may be seeking new opportunities to re-train and transition to stable employment in order to care for themselves and their families.

Our traditional classrooms are vacant now. Our new normal is “clicking on” and not “sitting in.” We have transitioned 1,800 campus-based courses to a new live online format to help students remain enrolled and progressing toward their goals. We intend to follow the same format throughout the summer term. We firmly believe these extenuating circumstances have placed us on a pathway to new and better strategies for teaching and learning, especially with new and exciting technologies at our disposal.

In addition, this month we are hosting five webinars with a variety of industry partners to help them adapt to the new normal.  The first, with our hospitality business partners, drew more than 100 participants who received critical advice for re-opening from a panel of professionals that included healthcare leaders and a prominent attorney.

Higher education will never be the same and will require new accessible, short term, cost-effective delivery options leading to high-paying jobs. We are laser focused on short term programs to continue education and retrain workers, especially those displaced during the current pandemic, for profitable jobs in health care, manufacturing, technology, hospitality, finance, and others. In the fall, we will introduce a bachelor’s degree program in Cybersecurity, the only one of its kind at a community college in the Tampa Bay area.

St. Petersburg College will continue to play a critical role in changing lives, advancing economic mobility and supporting our communities.

Our nation is strong, and together we will learn and thrive through this crisis. Let us reopen and rebuild our economy by creating a new education and workforce model that will increase workforce talent for our businesses, improve the quality of life for our residents, and strengthen our communities. Let’s get people back to work.

Dr. Tonjua Williams is the president of St. Petersburg College. 

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