BY KENDYL HOLLINGSWORTH
Local education at every level is moving in a positive direction, according to the leaders of Auburn University, Southern Union State Community College and Opelika City Schools.
The Opelika Chamber of Commerce hosted professionals at a “Business Over Breakfast” event Sept. 7 to hear a panel discussion on the current state of education featuring Dr. Chris Roberts, president of Auburn University; Todd Shackett, president of Southern Union; and Dr. Farrell Seymore, superintendent of the Opelika City school system.
Topics ranged from enrollment and student preparation to cutting-edge programs and partnerships with local businesses and industries.
“It’s important to know that they all work together because Dr. Seymore’s students will move up and become the students of Mr. Shackett and of Dr. Roberts, so it’s very important that we all stay connected,” said moderator Tracie West, who serves on the Alabama Board of Education.
ENROLLMENT AND STUDENT ENGAGEMENT
While enrollment everywhere took a hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, the leaders said numbers are climbing again, thanks to the good reputation of the schools and the community.
“A lot of families have moved in over the last, really, couple years, and our enrollment has increased, and that’s evidenced by a new school actually going up just down the street here at Fox Run,” Seymore said. “That’ll be a sixth-grade school. It’s an exciting time to be in Opelika because of the great jobs and economies, and the great schools that we offer.”
Shackett said accessibility and affordability are likely two of the biggest draws for two-year colleges. For Southern Union, enrollment was increasing in 2019 for the first time in about eight years, and after a period of decline, those numbers are once again on the rise.
“We saw a significant drop [during the pandemic], which hurt,” Shackett said. “But this year we’re up — not quite to 2019, but very, very close. I think what’s driving that is just an understanding of what we have to offer with career-based programs.”
Seymore noted that students and families in Opelika have long been ready to embrace the return of “normal” classes and other aspects of student life, and that has been true for higher education students as well.
Southern Union has placed a greater emphasis on student life with the hire of a student life coordinator to oversee several clubs and activities, Shacket said. The school started up men’s and women’s golf last year, added cross country this year and hopes to add soccer to the mix in the near future. Last year, the student center also received an upgrade and now provides games for students to enjoy between classes.
Shackett hosts “Pizza with the President” monthly at each of the three campuses with about 10 to 12 students at a time. He holds similar lunches with faculty members. The goal is to get to know each other and get feedback on what’s working and what could be better.
“A lot of the improvements you’re seeing have come from the input from our students,” he said.
Auburn has also seen a significant increase in applicants as the school’s brand and reputation have grown. This year marks 150 years since Auburn became a land-grant institution, and Roberts said part of the mission of a land-grant university is to serve the citizens of the state.
“That’s really the essence of the land-grant mission, is to make sure that we’re not only educating people, but translating knowledge into practice within our communities, and I do think that a lot of students are attracted to that,” he said.
In fact, Roberts said Auburn’s reputation has caused some “growing pains.” The university received about 55,000 applications for the incoming freshman class, which had only about 5,000 slots to fill, but in-state students still make up more than half the class.
“Our board of trustees effectively mandates to us that we have at least 60% of our freshman class as Alabama residents, and I’m really proud of that action,” he said. “It’s something that helps ensure that we’re serving our state.”
PREPARING STUDENTS FOR THE FUTURE
All three leaders discussed various offerings that prepare students to contribute to their communities.
Seymore highlighted the career-technical programs at Opelika High School, particularly the engineering program. Students work hard to hone problem-solving skills as they get a glimpse of what the field entails, but the different programs aren’t just for students who want to work in those fields.
“The lessons learned in those courses are those of hard work, dedication, of opportunities beyond high school,” he explained. “That’s what we want in all of our courses, but particularly our career-technical offerings — that it gives someone an interest or a skill that can lead to a better life, better employment opportunities and that kind of thing. Certainly, our engineering pathway is one to do that.”
For Southern Union, Shackett explained how the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) program is helping students become leaders in the manufacturing industry. Students in the program are hired into companies before they come to campus. They dedicate Tuesdays and Thursdays to classes and work Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“The last three that graduated — just watching them, you can tell they’re going to make a difference in this community,” he said. “… [Students in the program] are the folks that are going to be leading these community industries for years to come.”
At Auburn, Roberts said research is booming. Whether it’s discovering new opportunities in agriculture and forestry or a collaboration between engineering and psychology students to revolutionize mental health care, Roberts said Auburn students and faculty are always aiming to conduct their research with a purpose.
For example, researchers with Auburn’s veterinary school made a breakthrough in Tay-Sachs disease treatment by studying how the disorder affects cats. The findings were then used to treat a young child at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The fact that we were able to use technology developed right here in Auburn, Alabama, and to translate that into being able to save this young child’s life, and how they’re being able to implement this on other children — I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding for a faculty member at Auburn to know that the work that we’re undertaking is improving people’s lives in that way,” Roberts said. “Those are the kinds of experiences that we want our students to taste so that they can take this knowledge that they develop on campus, a good work ethic and translate that into the communities they live in.”
According to Roberts and Shackett, helping students succeed and make a positive impact in society are some of the most rewarding parts of the job.
“I’ve seen several underdogs that thought maybe they didn’t have a place to go do incredibly big things with their lives,” Shackett said. “… There’s plenty of those stories. To me, that’s really at the essence of ‘if you really want it, we’re here, and we can help you get it.’”
CONNECTING TO COMMUNITY
While many students dream of moving away for college or a career, the leaders said they hope to alert students to the many opportunities that await them locally.
Part of that effort includes partnering with local businesses and inviting them to classes and job fairs. At Auburn, Roberts said there has been a greater effort to showcase local companies at fairs to “ensure that that talent stays right here.”
“We’ve talked about having a local career fair the week before the big career fair on campus, and I think those are the types of things that I’ve been challenging people with here this semester so far so that we can provide the best opportunities to our own community,” he added.
Shackett said many Southern Union students choose to stay in the area, partly because many are first-generation or nontraditional students who have already established roots in the area, but the schools also try to keep students connected to the community through work-based learning experiences.
“While they’re studying here, [they can] work for some of these local companies, work at the hospital, and they develop a relationship with that employer, and it’s more than natural … that they want to stay on,” he said.
All three leaders touched on the importance of staying connected with local businesses to evaluate the community’s needs and make sure educators are preparing students to adequately fill those roles.
Seymore said OHS offers a “Career Preparedness” course that teaches students about the cost of living and how to meet those needs. With that knowledge, he said students can better see how a career in town might provide all they need to meet those goals.
For students who are looking to enter the workforce right out of high school, OHS also offers the “Ready to Work” program to help them gain job skills and introduce them to potential employers.
“We’re the envy of the state of Alabama, I think, regarding business and industry, so making sure [students] know those opportunities are present goes a long way,” he said. “We inform them of that and actually take many of our students on these tours so they can see what our offerings are locally.”
Overall, Roberts said the transformation from a “wide-eyed freshman” to a confident graduate is always rewarding to see.
“I like to think that we provide our students the opportunity to dream the biggest dreams, and so I just love being part of that,” Roberts said. “That’s very motivating for me.”