BROOKINGS – “This will go down in the history of the University as one of the most challenging times that we’ve had,” said South Dakota State University President Barry H. Dunn in a recent interview with The Brookings Register.
“And I certainly recognize that. I don’t mean to diminish how hard it’s been or how challenging it might remain. But actually I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
The culmination of meeting those challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic will come in the spring, when SDSU graduating seniors – about 2,000 of them – will include nurses, pharmacists, engineers, medical lab scientists, engineers and teachers.
“They’re needed right now, very badly, in the workplace,” the president said. “I hope the general public understands that that’s our job: to get young people through here as fast as we can and as high a quality as we can, because we all need those nurses. We need those pharmacists, those medical lab scientists, front-line workers. We need scientists.
“I’m very proud that SDSU and the faculty and the staff have been able to keep that engine going and keep those young people coming through the system.”
And he recognized how different the “system” has been for this year’s graduates.”
“It’s a different experience, and we know that,” Dunn explained. “I’m especially sensitive to the graduating seniors. This is their third semester for them in this very challenging learning environment; and they’ve got to get ready to graduate and take life-altering plans if they’re teachers or engineers or nurses or pharmacists. It’s a lot of pressure right now.
“It’s a tough atmosphere. They’ve been extremely adaptable. I give them enormous credit. I’m very proud of them.”
Worn out by COVID
One issue that SDSU has had to deal with in the days of COVID-19 is the mental health of its students. A report last year by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities identified student mental health as a challenge exacerbated by the added stress of the pandemic and the changes in traditional learning methods.
“Boy, this has been tough on people. It’s been tough on students. This is not quite the life that had been projected for them. It’s been a big adjustment for our faculty, how to teach in multiple new ways. The staff has had to do just remarkable work, preparing classrooms every day and several times during the day, with cleaning,” Dunn said.
“People are tired. They’re worn out by COVID, and we’re not at the end of it. They’ve got a lot before them. I know it’s been stressful for just about everybody.
“On the student-counseling side, we’ve had a lot of activity. I think we’ve got more counselors here then we’ve ever had before; and they’re very, very busy: talking students through the challenges of having a college experience that they didn’t sign on for and they were hoping for. It’s been really challenging for kids.”
However, there has been an ongoing move to somewhat more traditional instruction, Dunn noted.
“We have more face-to-face classes and what we call hybrid classes than we did in the fall. We have fewer online classes; we still have a lot of classes where the students are in the classroom one or twice a week rather than three or four times a week.”
Looking at now and ahead
As the pandemic continues to impact just about everything the University does, the president continues to deal with issues that will always be there as big parts of his job at the helm of a Division I land-grant university: enrollment, scholarships, finances and athletics.
Looking to the fall, he said he’s “cautiously optimistic that we’ll have a larger freshmen class.”
Noting the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine around the world, Dunn said, “I think international (student numbers) might be stronger and our domestic applications are looking pretty good for the freshmen class. I’m encouraged about that.”
However, one aspect affecting overall enrollment numbers is “the accelerated graduation rate due to dual credits and other things. … No. 1, you’ve got to get a strong freshmen class and so that’s what we’re working on.
“We want kids to graduate on time or early; that’s a good thing, where they can get out into the work force.”
Of course, a big tool in recruiting students is scholarships. Dunn said that in this academic year, which is still underway, the University has awarded more than $10 million in scholarships, “the highest amount SDSU has ever awarded. We’re very excited about the potential for the endowments that are being discussed, from both private individuals like Mr. (Denny) Sanford and also from the State of South Dakota, to help students if they qualify for federal financial aid and give them an additional scholarship on top of that federal aid to help get them to college.” Add to that bright spot another one: finances.
“The university is in a very strong financial position. We made the adjustments we needed to make. We were kind of ahead of the curve, so we’re happy about that.”
SDSU received some aid from the federal government, and it looks like more will be forthcoming.
“If we had to end the year right today, we’d be in very good shape,” the president said. “With spring enrollment this year higher than last spring’s enrollment and with some additional aid from the federal government, I think we’ll be in very good shape.”
Back to normal come fall?
Jackrabbit football fans will be glad to hear that SDSU is planning on a regular fall football season. While football is a solid source of revenue, the president sees it as “more than that.”
“Those Saturday afternoons and evenings are a tremendous opportunity to build community amongst alumni and friends of the university,” he explained. “So we really missed that last fall, and we look forward to those fun afternoons before the game.”
However, like planning for what might be a return to some semblance of normalcy across the entire country come fall, the name of the game is vaccination.
“We hope that the vaccination level of not only the community but certainly our staff and faculty and then you add in the current students and then new students,” Dunn said. “We hope that vaccinations will be at a level where we can return to some sense of normalcy around the fall sports.”
He would like to see the student body vaccinated before they go home.
“That’s my hope, that we would be able to offer them to everybody that wants them and that everybody wants them before they go home,” Dunn said.
“I’m frustrated at some of the aspects of the vaccine distribution. I’m actually very optimistic. In August or September of 2021, I think SDSU will be back to normal.”
In looking back to where SDSU was in the early days of the pandemic and how it has come through, the president expressed his appreciation to those entities that helped the University make it through.
“I absolutely know that the reason we were able to be successful last fall was the coalition we had and the teamwork we had with the City of Brookings, Brookings Health System, the local Sanford and Avera clinics and the Brookings school system. That’s how we got through it together; we worked together as a team. It was a wonderful experience.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]