Reflections of successes and challenges

Reflections of successes and challenges

Interim President Ara Aguiar poses for a portrait at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif., on Dec. 23, 2021. Aguiar was named interim president on May 24, 2021, after Alexis Montevirgen resigned. Photo by David Pashaee.

With the semester coming to an end, Ara Aguiar reflects on her tenure as interim president at Pierce College. 

 

Q: The title of interim president doesn’t last forever, and applications have opened for the full time title of president. I was wondering if you have put your name in?

 

A: I haven’t yet. I’m actually going through a lot of self reflection in terms of what my next steps are going to be. I love doing what I do. I am having a great time and I get along very well with all of the leadership.

I’m reflecting and I’m trying to make my final decision. I have my documents ready. You know, I can just hit submit, everything is prepared. But I’m also in consultation, discussing things with my husband and seeing what we want to do next and going from there. 

I can’t give you a final answer. My mom is also ill and needs a little bit more support. So there are other factors that are influencing my decision, but certainly it’s not because I don’t love being here. 

 

Q: What deciding factor would make you stay or convince you to put your name in? 

 

A: That’s a tough one. I enjoy being president at Pierce. The fact that the team is now in place and that there’s great opportunities to grow enrollment and to serve our community, those are all the things that really matter to me. 

In terms of making the decision, it’s a very difficult decision. And that you know, what’s really most difficult is like, oh my God, I’m getting old. You always equate retirement with doing nothing and with not being valuable any longer. And that’s not the case at all, even if I decide not to continue. 

I plan to continue in education and to continue to teach. I plan to work on projects that I’m very committed to and get baccalaureate degrees into community colleges. I would support and continue to be engaged with Pierce.

 

Q: Can you tell me about the challenges that you faced with being named interim president in such a challenging time?

 

A: I think by far the most challenging thing was really keeping our faculty and students safe in a very difficult time. With all of the uncertainties, implementation of health orders, and modifications in individual schedules, and just the upside-down processes that we needed to do everything was new.

We all worked well together. The faculty and certainly the staff did tremendous work shifting. We provided all of the resources that were needed to ensure that we were ready. 

One of the hardest things has been the things that are out of our control, things that we needed. For example, there is a lag of time waiting for inventory in terms of IT, computers and monitors. They’re just backordered, and so we don’t have access to the things that we have from a technology standpoint. 

We were limited in terms of who we could have working on campus. And so those were I think some of the hardest challenges. Also, we are getting the campus ready for instruction now that we are transitioning to more on-campus classes from an overall institution standpoint, so that’s more like personnel and staffing and the impact on the team.

From an organization standpoint, the biggest challenge for us right now is enrollment and how we can re-engage our students. How can we reach out to them and let them know that our facilities are safe? Everybody is uncertain, and so slowly but surely I’m noticing more and more students are enrolling. I think we’re beginning to recover a little bit. I’m hoping that the trend will continue.

I’ve seen a slight uptick this summer compared to last summer in terms of our enrollment, and we are doing more outreach. We’ve also changed. One of the things we’re doing is reaching out to our students, providing more resources and more support.  

 

Q: What would be your biggest highlights throughout your year as interim president?

 

 A: I think one of the things that I’m most proud of is our students, and the fact that our students hung in there. I mean, they were diehards. They stuck it out, and so the graduation further reinforces the strength and the commitment of our students. Our students had this dedication to continue with their education in this very difficult time when I’m sure their families were going through difficult times. 

I’m really proud of the fact that the faculty, the staff, the classified professionals and all of our team really try to focus on the students. Everyone did it together, so that’s what I’m most proud of. 

Pierce was first with the utilization of technology that created an environment of flexibility for our students. We had the faculty and now the staff trained on the OWL technology to be able to have that flexible classroom that education instruction could continue, even though someone was remote and someone was on the campus. 

There’s a lot of things that are changing. We hired an outreach coordinator. We’ve hired some Student Services representatives to further support our outreach efforts into our high schools and to our partnerships. We went for some grants and achieved a couple of grants in the automotive area, and we have some applications into the National Science Foundation. I’m proud of the moments that I’ve been able to get additional funds coming to Pierce College for programs. I’m hoping to continue to support that initiative and pursue foundation grants for things that the campus wants to achieve.

 

Q: What are you looking forward to about graduation?

 

A: I just want to see the students. I think it’s probably one of the happiest times. This is a big accomplishment for our students. Celebrating good things and good outcomes are very rewarding.

 

Q: So it is the first graduation ceremony since the beginning of COVID. Can you tell me a little bit about what that feeling is like?

 

A: You miss that connection. That cannot be replaced. I think that as human beings, we really enjoy being in each other’s company versus a computer screen.

I think people just really like being around people, and I personally do too. So I’m really looking forward to it, and it’s a lot of fun, meeting faculty and staff that I have never met except for that I’ve seen them virtually. So it’s going to be fun, and we’re trying to make it as engaging as possible. I love graduations, I have always attended graduations as a faculty member and it’s so much fun seeing your students walk. It’s just really rewarding.

  

Q: The plan next semester is to have classes half in person, half online. I wanted to gauge your feelings, your optimism and your hopes for that semester in terms of enrollment, student engagement and faculty returning to campus.

 

A: The reality is that our future of exactly how much is going to stay remote and how much will come back is still uncertain. The key is going to be to remain flexible. 

Number one, Pierce needs to stay flexible and be responsive to what our students need. We will be able to serve our students and that will lead us to be successful in achieving our enrollment goals. 

We had an expectation that online education could not educate students in the same way that an in-person class can, and that is not the case. We can be just as effective. It’s just a matter of personal preference and the students’ flexibility. 

What we’re finding is that maybe our students now have more opportunities to take more classes. Once this is over, what we may find is that students are going to do a combination of both. They’ll probably come to campus for some classes, and maybe then take some classes online so that they can still be meeting their home or work obligations. Faculty are learning that students can learn online. You just have to be creative and engage in a different way. 

 

Q: What makes you hopeful for next semester?

 

A: The number one thing that makes me hopeful is that the percentage of vaccinations for our area is very high. My understanding is that it’s approximately 80%. What that means is that individuals are safe and they’ve taken the situation seriously and have been responsible.

The pandemic transitioning into an endemic makes me hopeful that we can gradually return to our campus safely and add more classes. Then as our society is safer, I think students will feel more comfortable coming to campus, especially those students that can participate in on-campus classes and be able to really experience college. 

I know that last year when I had one of the events, we did them outside in the Botanical Gardens. All that the students were saying was, “Wow, this is so great to come to college,” because there were some students that had never been on campus and they had been attending Pierce for a year. They had never stepped foot on the campus and so they were so excited to be there and see people and see their friends. 

 

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