Fall Quarter Q&A With President Willis


Simon Krane

President Dr. Daria Willis.

As EvCC President Willis enters into her second school year she has much to celebrate and even more accomplished. In Spring quarter, President Willis successfully moved nearly all EvCC classes to an online-only format as a safety measure to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Her quick response led to EvCC being one of the first community college’s in the state to do so. This safety measure has continued into the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

President Willis discusses with The Clipper how this Fall will be like no other, and why this isn’t a bad thing.

There are many students who are also parents to children doing online learning because of COVID-19. Do you have any advice for them?

I think it’s important to keep things in balance and not be so tough and hard on yourself or the kids because this is a tough time, to begin with. What we’ve been doing is trying to be as flexible as possible because it’s hard on the kids you know they’re used to getting on the bus and going to see their friends and now they’re stuck seeing people on this screen. It’s a weird concept for them too. So take it easy, talk to their teachers and you know if you miss something you just missed it, it’s not the end of the world.

You were able to quickly shift from a largely in-person school to one that was strictly online. Are there any advantages to online learning you’ve discovered in that time?

For me, the cool thing about this transition is we (we as in Higher Education) just did what we said we could never do. Pivot, be flexible and still make it happen at the same time. I’m proud of the college for moving so quickly. While I don’t think that will keep every aspect of what we’re seeing online, I do hope that we keep a lot of it. Some students do well in online classes; other students want the face to face opportunities. What I’d like to see is an increase in our online courses and online programs. Give students more of an option and more of a choice whenever we are able to come back but I’m proud of the way we shifted. I’m proud of the way that we’re looking out for the health and safety of everyone. It’s still going to be some tough times ahead but we’ll get through it.

Many colleges are now participating in online learning because of COVID 19 but how is EvCC serving their students better?

What makes us different is our support services that we’ve been able to offer students. Chromebooks are available so that students could have access to that technology. I was on campus earlier and Wi-Fi hotspots were being distributed. We had the food pantry open and available for students, that never really closed. We had the Volunteers of America delivering literally truckloads of food to the campus. That was distributed throughout the community. We stand apart from other colleges because it’s been more of a labor of love and not this we have to. I think that our faculty did a fantastic job getting courses online. I think our staff did an amazing job putting our student support resources online, advising online, financial aid services online and there are several others. What I would say that we did it better than most is our nursing program. Which was one of the first in the state to pivot and get approval to operate simulations online and they’ve been doing a really good job. They have set a model for how the rest of the college will gradually reopen.

There’s been a shift in management with new positions such as the Vice President of Instruction and Vice President of Student Services. Why are there these new roles? How will these changes impact students directly?

The college had an Executive Vice President (EVP) before, and that person was responsible for both academic affairs and student services. We are not a small college and that’s a lot for one person to have to manage. I decided that it was wise to separate the EVP position, essentially dissolve it and then get the Instruction Vice President and the Student Services Vice President. Those positions are important because they can work directly with the two largest areas of the college. Basically, we can move faster at getting change in the college, responding to the community and student means by having two VP’s in the two larger areas of the college. They can work on their particular niches to get us to where we need to go for students.

How will the 9 million budget gap in tandem with COVID-19 affect the student experience?

I’ve been telling my leadership team there’s a bullseye approach. When you think about a bullseye, at the center of it is that big red dot. For me that red dot is students and that’s a piece that we’re not going to touch. The things that are closest to the students, those are the areas that we need to be most concerned about right now. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has been certainly disruptive to the state revenues and we depend a lot on our funding from the state. We had a budget gap of $9,000,000 not only from COVID-19 but other decisions that were made at the college prior to my arrival. It’s really a perfect storm of issues and it all came to surface this year. My job as president is to make sure that you all have the least amount of impact when it comes to the reductions that have to be made. It’s a great balancing act, if I make this reduction here, what is the ripple effect down the line? It takes a long time to figure that out. Is it going to be a perfect process? No, it’s not. Are we going to make mistakes down the line? Yes, we are. I’m going to know those mistakes, when people tell me, let me know what we need to be considering. We didn’t mean to make that decision that affected it this way, and we can quickly reverse if need be. But the focus for me is the bullseye, students at the center, and making sure that the reductions don’t hit that centerpiece. That’s what we’ve worked on at least all summer is making sure that students remain whole as much as possible.

One of the answers to the budget gap was the raising of the student classroom cap. Do you think that does affect the students or the student experience? Was that a concern?

It was a concern but when I think of this in a larger context, I think of the university. For example, I think our average class size mid 20s low 30s mostly your liberal arts classes. When I think of a four-year institution your average class size is probably twice that much, so I felt a little bit more comfortable raising the caps in our classes. We don’t have large classes, to begin with at EvCC. It’s just one of the special things about being at a two-year institution, that you have more interaction with your professor because there are not 100 students in the class. The second piece is you also have to look at the cost of the class. We could not afford to run classes at too low of a number. There were some that we did because of students that needed that particular course to graduate. The Vice President of Instruction worked with the Deans to make sure that we weren’t impacting graduation for students. The other thing to consider is we are seeing a decline in enrollment this quarter. I’m hard-pressed to think that the raising of the class caps would have made a huge impact. We’re going to have some classes that aren’t full just because we’re not getting the same level of students coming in for obvious reasons such as COVID-19. By the time we reach the tenth day, we have some students who decide you know for whatever reason not to continue this quarter. Although we want to hold on to them as much as possible, it’s a trend that you see every quarter no matter what institution you’re at. It’s something that we had to do because of the financial situation otherwise we wouldn’t have made that decision.

Do you have any advice for student success in this new online environment?

I do and I’m going to put my advice on watching my daughter going through her EvCC classes. What I’ve

President Dr. Daria Willis inside Jackson Conference Center. (Atira Roberts)

been watching her do as a new student to the college, is stay organized. Engage with your teacher, if something goes wrong email them and let them know. She’s learning how to use her voice to advocate for herself. One thing that I’ll add from my experiences: take a break every now and again. It can’t be all work and no play although there’s not much play with COVID-19, in Snohomish County Phase 2. There are opportunities to just relax, take a breath, watch Netflix, do whatever you need to do to get your mind out of the books. Get into something fun, read the Clipper, or go to one of the student LIFE virtual activities.

From the student’s perspective, what are the differences between spring quarter and fall quarter?

Students will see that our faculty are much more prepared for the change. We offered the faculty professional development from Innovations Academy. With some of our Cares Act dollars, we gave the innovations Academy extra funding so that faculty could take part in more of the sessions throughout the summer months. I think that it will do nothing but help our faculty be more prepared than they were in March. I think the other piece is we have a new group called the Accessibility Task Force. The Accessibility Task Force provided a workshop for faculty and from my understanding over 80 faculty participated. Accessibility training is important, and I hope that students will see that the training the faculty were able to take part in enhanced their courses for the fall quarter.

With this new environment and new opportunities, what do you think this will bring students in the future? Is there going to be a positive ripple effect from all this?

I think first and foremost this is the perfect time to start planning for the future because when we get back there’s going to be this new normal. No one knows what that new normal is really going to look like, but what we’re going to get out of this is a different, more innovative, more creative, way of being. So we are going to embark on as a college including students on an initiative plan and that plan is going to be focused on the future of the college over the next five years. Who do we want to be because we can’t be the same old thing. Not saying that the same old thing was bad but times are changing. I think that students can expect more innovative program offerings from the college and more flexibility from the college. We are embarking on a weekend college program and it’s going to be programs offered in the evening and weekends in the hybrid or basic full face-to-face modalities. The goal will be if you’re working 9:00 to 5:00 during the day and you aren’t able to take classes Monday through Thursday in the daytime, you can come to the College in the evening and earn a degree. That’s the direction that we want to go. I also want to offer extended childcare services hopefully we can get a partnership with the YMCA going. It will be a two-generational approach for our students, so it won’t be just a student but it will also be the little ones. The Learning Resource Center I’m looking forward to because we’ll have a new family space in the library. Where you can freely bring your children in. While you’re studying your kids can be in the family part of the Learning Resource Center on their own computers, do their homework or just playing Mickey Mouse clubhouse. I think the future is bright. We just have to be in a space to imagine it and be daring enough to be okay to achieve whatever that future goal is, knowing that mistakes will happen along the way. We may fail on some concepts but we pick ourselves back up and we keep going.