Envisioning the Future Roundtable

Moderated by Emma Irving '18 and Jeannine McKnight, Senior Editor
Graphic of five speech bubbles of different colors and shapes

Two hundred years of pride, academic excellence, civic engagement, and community building are behind us. So what does our future hold?

Seven leaders from across university departments and disciplines have come together to discuss just that, as they bury a time capsule big enough to hold many diverse visions of our collective future.

Looking into Widener’s future, what is a specific point of growth you’re hoping to see in your field in the next five years?

Headshot of Eric Behrens in a green speech bubble
Eric Behrens

Eric Behrens, Vice President for Library and Information Services and Chief Information Officer: The Library and IT departments are striving every day to make the university experience more intuitive and personal. We should have fewer forms and more power to get things done in the moment, as we already expect to do from our phones with banking, shopping, and transportation.

Lombuso S. Khoza, Executive Director for the Center of Civic and Global Engagement: I would love to see numerous students traveling abroad to get a global experience through Widener, including short- and long-term study abroad, faculty-led trips, and internships. On the faculty side, outside of faculty-led trips, it would be professional development opportunities abroad, including Scholar-in-residence, Fulbright, and Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship. Likewise with the civic engagement programming, we need more students involved campus-wide to pay it forward within Widener, and in the Chester community. We are already doing great work and can continue to do better for all. In addition, practicing sustainability as it relates to the UN Sustainable Development Goals is important for all our students as they embark on global and civic experiences.

Nancy Hesse '80, Board of Trustees Treasurer, Healthcare Executive, and Chief Nursing Officer: I would hope that leadership coursework and co-op opportunities will be expanded exponentially. The need for excellence in future healthcare leadership is compounded by a very overextended healthcare workforce.

Nadine McHenry, Professor of Education and Director of the Science Teaching Center: I would like to see growth over the next five years in our ability not only to understand the constructs of cultural proficiency and culturally responsive pedagogy, but also to implement these theoretic ideas into our practices in both coursework and field work.

Headshot of Austin Duckett in a blue speech bubble
Austin Duckett

Austin Duckett, Assistant Dean of Students: I am hoping we examine and enhance the effect of sophomore experience programs and initiatives on second-year student retention and persistence.

Scott Van Bramer, Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science and Distinguished University Professor (2014–2017): Instead of just thinking about chemistry or science, when I think about points of growth with Widener, the real place I see potential is in Widener’s reaching out to BIPOC communities that have at times been underrepresented here. Widener does a great job providing students with close personal interaction with faculty and really helping the students who come here grow and meet their potential through lots of high-impact practices, including undergraduate research, internships, civic engagement, project-based learning, and group-based learning. All these factors are vital for students to have transformational experiences, and the more people we can bring here to have those experiences, the better for us all.

Michelle Meekins-Davis, Chief Diversity Officer: I agree. I want to bring more faculty and administrators that represent the diverse backgrounds of our learning community. In addition, I am hoping to achieve improved retention and graduation rates that are comparable for our majority and underrepresented student populations.

What is a challenge facing your field, and how do you see Widener programs and people rising to meet the occasion?

Duckett: Currently, there is a regional shortage of traditional-aged high school students attending institutions of higher education. I see Widener continuing to remain agile and creating academic and co-curricular programs that can address the needs of the modern college student now affected by the lingering circumstances of a global pandemic.

Headshot of Michelle Meekins-Davis in a pink speech bubble
Michelle Meekins-Davis

Meekins-Davis: I agree that a challenge is the changing student demographics in the Northeast and learner populations that are seeking degrees and credentials that meet their needs. I envision that Widener will be able to respond with new, creative, and relevant program offerings. I envision that Widener University will continue to transform lives through education well into the future.

Hesse: There was nothing that prepared the healthcare industry for the impact of the pandemic on multiple fronts. Healthcare is financially burdened, and healthcare workers’ physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing has been drained as an impact of COVID-19. The exodus from the profession is definitely going to drain the future leadership pool; Widener healthcare programs can prepare students to fill those gaps.

Khoza: The one major challenge we all face is the pandemic. That said, we work hard to ensure that challenges are mitigated by implementing risk management for students and faculty planning to travel abroad. In addition, resources to travel abroad need to be made available to students and faculty in the form of scholarships, passports, and grants, respectively. Above all, ensuring that faculty are at ease to support their students' aspirations for studying abroad and effortless coursework processes and support units for students to successfully register and complete courses abroad. Our civic engagement activities should continue to reflect a supportive and partnering nature in the community. Collaborations that are intentional and proactive in nature thrive best. We are working hard to ensure that these challenges are addressed in the short term.

Behrens: If cybercrime was a country, estimates are that it would already have the world’s third biggest economy behind the U.S. and China. Creating an environment that is simultaneously safe and supportive of scholarship and open communication is an incredible challenge. Fortunately, I think there is a growing awareness among faculty and staff that we are the most important line of defense in protecting the privacy of our students.

Headshot of Scott Van Bramer in a green speech bubble
Scott Van Bramer

Van Bramer: If the point of growth I’m seeing is the increased enrollment of BIPOC students, the challenge that we face is to do more with hiring, retaining, and promoting BIPOC faculty. We have to be really intentional about it and put a lot of time, energy, thought, and money into it, but we can absolutely rise to the occasion, as we have these past two years.

McHenry: I agree. A challenge facing my field is improving the numbers of teachers of color in urban, suburban, and rural schools. The Widener Community Engaged Teacher Education (CETE) program has the capacity to attract teachers of color as we fashion our undergraduate mission and vision statement around the ideas of cultural equity.

When you envision Widener’s future 50 years from now, what do you see?

Behrens: Stop and think about what we didn’t have 50 years ago that we take for granted today. Now imagine the pace of change is many times faster for the next 50 years. Current arguments about the virtues of online vs. in-person education will become dated sooner than people realize. With new technologies—many of which don’t exist yet—and the challenges of living through climate change, I imagine an incredibly diverse community of learners who learn wherever they are. And some of their learning partners will probably use artificial intelligence!

Right now, the alma mater (the literal “soul mother”) evokes nostalgia for a place that once nurtured us in our youths. I dream of a nurturing connection to Widener not just for an intensive period of a few years, but across different stages of a learner’s life. That will require us to reimagine what we do beyond conferring degrees.

Headshot of Nancy Hesse in a teal speech bubble
Nancy Hesse

Hesse: That digitalization is definitely key. I see an increase in the opportunities to complete coursework online so we can accommodate all students who desire to advance their degrees. Creative work payback programs and more co-ops to develop the future nurse in a more meaningful manner would also be amazing, as would expanding those learning opportunities to the community, the home, and the point of patient care delivery that makes it easy for all to access.

Duckett: I see a campus filled with a rich fabric of diversity in students and employees whose hallmark will be a just and celebrated community woven together by hard work, innovation, and forward-thinking leadership.

Meekins-Davis: I see every student (undergraduate, graduate, extended learner, etc.) being encouraged to obtain a passport no later than their first semester to take advantage of opportunities to travel abroad. All students, regardless of socio-economic means, will have access to travel abroad opportunities. I also see more collaboration between Widener University and the community of Chester.

McHenry: Yes, that deepening of a community bond is so important. For me, Widener’s future 50 years from now includes an education program that is fully culturally responsive across both graduate and undergraduate programs. It is one that is partnered with the city to encourage civic engagement and a community of practice that brings experts together from varying backgrounds—city representatives, Chester Upland School District teachers, Widener faculty, and the children and families of our city. This learning community is synergistic and able to solve problems together.

Headshot of Lombuso Khoza in a red speech bubble
Lombuso Khoza

Khoza: I see as well a more diverse campus from student, faculty, staff, to administration, with robust programs that seek to serve the community and on a global platform, sharing knowledge with campuses globally. The Chester community will be embraced by all students, and there will be a vibrant community that accepts all individuals regardless of background because of Widener students' interaction with the community.

Van Bramer: I too see this happy world becoming real. That would be a wonderful place to be—if students from across the region and across unique life circumstances come to Widener and are successful and have those transformative experiences.

There’s space for you to add two things to the time capsule: one tangible and one intangible. What are you adding to the capsule for the Widener community to find in the distant future?

Headshot of Nadine McHenry in an orange speech bubble
Nadine McHenry

McHenry: For my tangible item, I would love to include the 2018 Community Engaged Teacher Preparation Award, a national award dedicated to the promotion of community immersion for teacher education. I’d also like to add this thought, a quote from Ms. Hilda Campbell, one of our community mentors: "Changing hearts is as important as changing minds."

Khoza: I am adding a map with the students' and faculty members' travels abroad destinations, a list of civic engagement activities, and the same digital footprints however they are beamed in the distant future.

Meekins-Davis: I am adding two pieces of Widener University swag: one with our brand from the 1990s, “We Take Your Education Personally,” and another with our current guiding principle, “We’re All Widener!”

Van Bramer: I’m adding an artifact from the beginning and end of a student’s journey here. Including a presentation or paper from someone’s first semester at Widener next to their senior thesis will show just how much growth our students are experiencing. And for the intangible thing, I’m putting in the springtime bloom of the trees outside my office.

Hesse: Too much has happened lately in the world of healthcare for me not to put in a few tangible things. I would like to put in a list of all the vaccines available today—what they are for and the schedule that we are to receive them. I have a vial that my Moderna vaccine was from, as well as Pfizer and J&J vials to showcase these historic feats.

I would also add an example of genomic testing results. We are in the early stages of offering “PRECISION medicine” for cancer care (where the immunotherapy is specifically matched to the tumor) and it will be amazing when this is further developed.

I’ve also always appreciated seeing historic job descriptions and nursing writings, so I would add in today’s BSN, RN job description. Florence Nightingale’s practice and writings in the 1860s impacted worldwide health reform and epidemiology. What will our writings post COVID-19 do to frame the future of modern-day medicine?

Behrens: I’m also putting in an artifact to represent these COVID-19 days. The tangible thing I would include is my Plantronics Blackwire C3225 headset with microphone arm. Nothing more completely commemorates the experience of the last two years of remote work and learning.

The intangible thing I would include is the electric energy I feel when I enter the atrium of Wolfgram Memorial Library, lit by sunshine from the skylights above, and see students filling every group table on the main floor and the floor above.

Duckett: My tangible item is a branded Widener University mask to remind us of our agility and a time in the history of the United States when leadership, advocacy, and courage matter on all levels. My intangible item is Love – Love of self, love of others, and love of our physical world.

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