Jewél Jackson interviewed two of El Paso’s college presidents at the end of 2021 about what they’ve learned about leading in a pandemic and how they’re approaching the new year.
El Paso Community College president: The pandemic forced us to understand that plans aren’t final but fluid
El Paso Community College President William Serrata is seemingly everywhere. Since 2012, Serrata has been the school’s president but also juggles other leadership roles that include president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, board member for Workforce Solutions Borderplex and chair of the board of directors for Excelenia in Education.
At EPCC, the school has recently expanded one of its campuses to accommodate students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
El Paso Matters spoke with Serrata about his reflections on 2021. The interview has been edited for length and style.
El Paso Matters: What’s one word you would use to describe this year?
Serrata: The word I’d choose to describe not just this year, but the last two years, is “challenging.” There’s a lot of other words that come into play, like “heartbreak” and “suffering,” but I also think of the positives from respect for the college as well as the greater community.
El Paso Matters: You stated “heartbreak.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Serrata: We lost a faculty member, we have several different members of the college community and family who’ve lost loved ones. We’re all here for a short period of time and you just think that your time will be longer than it actually is, in particular, when we’re dealing with something as vicious as the pandemic and in particular, last year. When we didn’t have access to vaccines, it was incredibly tough and it was heartbreaking to see different members of the community go through so much heartbreak during the pandemic.
El Paso Matters: What have you learned about yourself this year as president?
Serrata: I’ve learned more about how committed I am to this work. I learned how hard different individuals at the institution, my cabinet, all the vice presidents, associate vice presidents, how hard they work. Our faculty has been phenomenal since March 2020, when they had to convert approximately 92% of our courses from in-person to online in a two-week time period. They’ve been incredible. There’s so much resiliency and so much commitment from the faculty and staff at the institution.
El Paso Matters: What was a moment that made you feel proud?
Serrata: It actually just happened. We have not had face-to-face commencement ceremonies for two years. December 2019 was the last time, and was on the tail end of our 50th anniversary. But we felt that as vaccinations continue to rise, as case counts somewhat decline but vaccination rates continue to go up, we felt there was an opportunity for us to come back together and hold a commencement.
We had a significant number with just under 1,200 students who crossed the stage and we opened it up to the class of 2020 as well. We wanted to make sure that if students felt they didn’t have that rite of passage of crossing the stage, we invited them back.
It was especially a proud moment for me to be able to come back and have a face-to-face commencement. It was different; I’m used to shaking every graduate’s hand. We did not do that, instead when they came up with their diploma cover we posed for a picture.
El Paso Matters: How are you approaching the next year?
Serrata: The pandemic has really forced us to do a lot of planning and it’s forced us to understand that our plans are not final, that they’re always fluid. Our goal was to come back in the spring and have 65% of our courses face-to-face. Right now we’re at 55%. We’re still going forward with the plan but we’ll be able to shift should we need to should the (omicron) variant prove to be more challenging than we anticipate. I would like to get to 75% and I’m hopeful that as we come back in January, that numbers will start to subside where we can move forward with 75%.
El Paso Matters: What is the biggest challenge the institution is facing?
Serrata: The biggest challenge that we’re looking at right now is the effects that the pandemic has had on the number of potential students. The college is down about 15% from our peak in 2019 and in 2019 we were just over 29,000 students in the fall term. Right now we’re at about 24,600 students. That worries me about the future economic viability and opportunities for students that would have participated in higher education. I continue to check with our partners at UTEP; they’re down in enrollment this fall as well. So it’s currently that students just aren’t participating and for me, that’s the biggest challenge because there are long-term ramifications of that.
El Paso Matters: Has the pandemic affected your day-to-day life?
Serrata: It stretched all of us. With Zoom, Microsoft Teams and all the different formats that we have available to us for online meetings, time zones became almost nonexistent. And so, we’d start meetings at 6 a.m. because of the East Coast and end meetings at 6 p.m. It became easy to schedule back-to-back meetings but it gets stacked and you don’t have time to process and to think. You go from one (meeting) to the next. It became a challenge to make sure that we scheduled breaks and that we were able to have some downtime.
El Paso Matters: What do you want the community to know about you?
Serrata: When I was interviewing for the job, around 10 years ago, I wanted the community to know how committed I am to this community, how committed I am to the institution in providing an opportunity to higher education for so many El Pasoans. For our community members, whether you’re right out of high school, returning to school, or you had some credits but not a credential and now you’re looking at rescaling and upskilling, we’re here. I’m just like this community. I was a first-generation college student 35 years ago and I’ve seen the difference that higher education has made in my life and my family’s life.
El Paso Matters: What is one goal that you want to achieve next year?
Serrata: We want to continue to offer a variety of higher education opportunities to our community in a safe manner. The art, science and technology building at the Valle Verde campus will be ready for the spring term. It’s the largest facility with about 103,000 square feet. Midway through the spring term, about March of 2022, our campus addition to the Rio Grande campus will be up and ready and we expect that to be utilized.
That will complete our master plan that we started back in 2015. I’m excited to be where we are. The pandemic has delayed some of these projects but we’re about to complete that and we look forward to students being able to utilize those facilities for the foreseeable future.
Texas Tech Health Sciences Center president: The pandemic made me a better leader
In 2014, Dr. Richard Lange was named founding president of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. The university has been pivotal in increasing El Pasoans’ health knowledge. Most recently, TTUHSC El Paso opened the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine, the only school of its kind on the border.
El Paso Matters spoke with Lange about his reflections on 2021. The interview has been edited for length and style.
El Paso Matters: What’s one word you would use to describe 2021?
El Paso Matters: What have you learned about yourself this year as president of the university?
Lange: I learned about every leader on campus. Everybody talks about leadership and there are different kinds of leaders. But in the times when things are challenging, or there’s a crisis, or it’s just out of the ordinary, it requires leaders to coordinate, to communicate, to help cast a vision to make sure that we stay true to our mission. Not just a leader, it takes multiple leaders. All the clinical chairs that take care of patients during these challenging times or all the educators that have to change their curriculum and make sure that the students are successful.
El Paso Matters: What is a key lesson that you learned this year that you will take with you or remember for years to come?
Lange: Early on in the pandemic, we didn’t have vaccines, we didn’t have enough personal protective equipment, and we didn’t know a lot about the virus or how it spread. We spent a lot of time trying to figure this out and, oftentimes, with different entities. So I would talk to my chairs, or my deans, or the hospital CEOs, health care providers here in the area. And we decided Monday through Friday at 7 a.m., we would all get on a joint phone call together and share information. It usually took me three or four hours to prepare for that every night. We did that here in our community but also the Texas Tech (University) System’s presidents got on the phone to lead discussion about how to keep students in school safely. The “aha” moment for me was how incredibly important that half hour was. It saved me hours every day. It coordinated our efforts across the city and really did involve more than just the medical school.
El Paso Matters: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your own life?
Lange: It’s made me a better leader. Everything that we’re facing in the city, there isn’t a single thing that was easy about it. And coordinating everybody to work together requires a leader that listens, a leader that is able to assimilate the facts and distill it down so that it’s bite-sized, everybody can grab it and understand it and move in the same direction. And during that time, there were a lot of disparate opinions about what we ought to be doing and how we ought to be doing it. But how do you take all that and make sure that we are moving in the right direction as an educational institution, but also as a health care provider? I think it helped me rise to the occasion.
El Paso Matters: As an institution that is educating the next generation of nurses and doctors, what were some of the unique challenges that you had to think about in order for students to continue their education?
Lange: All the students had to have adequate PPE and you don’t necessarily have to do that in a college situation. But we’re talking about complete PPE.
A lot of places around the country were asking their students not to see COVID patients. We gave our students the opportunity. Take our nursing students, we asked them, “What do you want to get out of this situation?” Because we could have delayed their education a bit, maybe it would have been safer. And the students said, “We don’t want that. We want to be a part of the health care workforce and we’re not gonna be able to do that if we delay it. We need to know how to take care of these patients.”
We made sure our students had adequate testing available and we vaccinated everybody as quickly as we could. We made health care providers and students a priority, even at UTEP. We vaccinated UTEP pharmacy students because we knew their pharmacies were vaccinating their students and so we got them early on. And then having students continue to see patients in a way that was still safe with PPE. So there were a lot of things that we had to think about that maybe other schools didn’t have to.
El Paso Matters: What was a moment that made you feel proud?
Lange: This is going to sound very strange, but when I had a first-year dental student repair my tooth two weeks ago.
So there are two things. One, the dental school is the first dental school in the state of Texas in the last 50 years, and there are only 67 in the entire country. So to have it here in El Paso is phenomenal. Then we have the most innovative curriculum in the United States. Typically in dental school, you spend the first two years in books and don’t begin to see patients until your third year. We have an integrated education so students start seeing patients really early on.
About two weeks ago, I had a chipped tooth and the students had learned how to do restorative work. So I had my first-year students fixing, restoring and it’s only the first semester of the dental school. Not only was I most proud, but it’s funny because the students I heard were on their phones, texting their friends around the country, saying, “Look what I’m doing as a first-year student.”
El Paso Matters: What is a goal that you set for yourself next year?
Lange: I want to invest in my leadership team to advance their leadership skills. Leadership is incredibly important and if you have poor leadership, it does not serve you well in times of crisis.
From an educational standpoint, we’re always doing surveys to find out where we’re doing really well, and what things we need to improve. We’re increasing the residency programs to meet the professional health care shortage demands here, and we’re going to attract more of our students to train here.
El Paso Matters: What are you looking forward to most next year?
Lange: I’m looking forward to normalcy for the students. I have a group of first- and second-year medical students that don’t know what normal looks like. I spent time with them last week, and I said, “You’re in the most incredible time in medical history. I’ve been doing this for 40-plus years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. So you’re learning things that we’re learning on the fly.”
El Paso Matters: What do you want the community to know about you?
Lange: Our mission is to meet the needs of the community. We are a gem that belongs to El Paso. I know it says Texas Tech and Texas Tech is somewhere out in Lubbock, West Texas, but this health science center is in El Paso. I want them to know that our mission is to meet their needs.
Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.