I was very grateful to have opportunity to speak with Dr. Tonjua Williams, President of St. Petersburg College (SPC) in St. Petersburg, Florida. She’s had a long career in higher ed, moving up the ranks of SPC since she started working there in 1986. We spoke about her unique story and the nuances of her current role as President, as well as what she and her team have been doing to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dustin Ramsdell: What led you to working in the higher ed world?
Dr. Tonjua Williams: I grew up with a very humble upbringing but my mom had such high hopes for her kids — she knew we were going to go to college. She used to tell us, “you’re going to be better than I am.” So, I graduated from college with two baccalaureate degrees and I was working as an accounting clerk at a swimming pool company when the woman who owned the company shared with me that I had reached the maximum of where I could go. She said, “Why don’t you just go out to that college and get a better job? I can’t pay you more. I can’t give you a different job.” I said, “Sure!” So, I went out and in two days I got a job as an accounting clerk in financial aid. The rest is history.
I think I’ve been here a little over 33 and a half years in various roles. I fell into higher ed and, as I started working here, I fell in love with the ability to help people succeed. I made it my life’s journey and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life.
DR: What’s the most exciting part of your role?
TW: If you could see me right now. I am literally smiling. There’s so much to love about working in higher education and in this space, whether you’re at a college or you’re a support services type program or business. What’s the most exciting to me is being involved with helping people change their lives. Having a positive impact on them, whether they’re an employee who strives to move up the corporate ladder or they’re a student making a change later in life.
To be completely honest, my favorite time is graduation. You see those faces cross the stage, you see their families, sometimes 30 to 40 people, in the audience screaming their names because they know the hardship and what they went through to get to that point. I’m very proud of that work and it’s so exciting.
Even in times like this, knowing that we’re supporting students is just exhilarating for me because it’s the kind of support that I received throughout my educational pursuits — from the time I started college until the time I finished with my PhD.
DR: What’s the most challenging part of your role?
TW: Well, I would say there are two things that keep me up at night. One is finding the resources to keep the college operating at a high level, seeing as the funding for state colleges in Florida has become more and more difficult to get over the last 10 years and we have not been able to increase tuition as the cost of education continues to rise.
The second is making sure that I’m able to retain my talent. We have excellent employees here at St. Petersburg College and many of our employees throughout the state have not been able to get raises and things of that nature. So, a lot of it boils down to finding the funds to continue to operate our institutions that support the largest portion of the workforce in our communities.
We’ve got to support them by finding the funding needed to help them thrive and keep things moving. Our students at the college are amazing individuals and they deserve the best. We always strive to provide nothing less.
DR: St. Petersburg College (SPC) is quite diverse, how do you think about diversity as it relates to student success? Are there tools, programs, and/or initiatives that SPC has adopted or installed to ensure there is equitable access for learning and support services?
TW: Diversity is critical to student learning. Not just diversity, but equity as a whole. This means ensuring that each individual has access to the tools and resources that they need. Education cannot be a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. We have to be willing to delve deeper so we can get to know our students and the needs that they have, as well as our employees and the needs that they have.
Understanding our differences as well as our similarities is critical. One of our core values is that we are a diverse organization that serves and supports all individuals. We learn to value, appreciate, and operate with that in mind.
One way we try work to ensure that that there’s access to the college and to learning is we try to make sure that we hire individuals who not only look like the students they serve but also understand and appreciate the students that they serve. We make sure our employees understand the value of diversity and equity, as well as the role that it plays in student success. We also make sure that we celebrate, learn, and value different groups and different patterns of thinking because people may think diversity is just ethnicity. It’s not. It’s also appreciating individuals who think differently than others and those who have different belief systems. I really think diversity and equity is the cornerstone of student success and building healthy communities.
DR: What have you, as a college president, along with your leadership team learned given the COVID-19 impact?
TW: Community colleges are known for being responsive, flexible, nimble, and meeting the needs of the community even when those needs are forever changing, whether it’s a workforce initiative or a support initiative for K-12.
That said, this pandemic has been a major learning experience for us. We talked about how we want to keep learning going for our students but also as an institution, how can we maintain our own learning and what can we do to keep the college moving forward.
One of the first things we’ve learned is how resilient our students are. There’s not one student that comes to SPC who wants to fail or not achieve their dream. Even with this pandemic, we have students who are saying, “I will not give up.” That has been a huge resounding noise from our students that we’re going to keep moving. We’re going to keep striving. We’re going to keep thriving.
The second thing we’ve learned is that our faculty refuse to lose and our administrators have stepped up to the plate. Within two days of coming back from spring break, everyone transitioned our institution from one that has face-to-face courses and online courses to one that has entirely online courses and services for students. We learned that we are just as nimble as we thought we were. I think we’ve even surprised ourselves a little bit.
Ultimately, what we’ve learned is that we can really do this thing online. We’re using technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to help those face-to-face students see their instructors and their classmates online. The students are catching on and the faculty are excited, so we’re getting a lot of positive feedback.
DR: How has SPC handled and responded to the pandemic?
TW: We saw the true reality of the struggle that our students go through. Those who need food, those who need toiletries, those who are concerned about their next paycheck.
SPC has found funds to provide emergency help for students. We gave out over 250 laptops to employees and students who need technology at home. We worked with Spectrum and Verizon to help find free Wi Fi so that students can do their work. We opened our food pantries as well — we have one on every campus and we announced those days and times for students and employees who may be struggling.
We have also decided that we’re going to go ahead and stick with online learning for the summer as well, so that we can maintain the continuity of learning for our students. We’ve got over 2,000 students graduating in May and we have just about that many for the summer. We’ve got to help them get to the finish line, so we have to keep going.
DR: In times like these, prioritizing student safety and student success is key — can you give us some examples of how SPC is thinking about safety and student success given the impact?
TW: Our academic advisors are actually doing their regular jobs from home. They have case loads of students and are actively working with them. Also, our admissions recruiters are doing the on-boarding work for new applications, believe it or not. We’re seeing an uptick of students who want to go to school, so this team has always been prepared to work from home.
The team that was not prepared to work from home was tutoring, so we are beefing up our online tutoring services. We also made sure to announce to students that online tutoring is available and we’ve had a lot of students take advantage of that.
The other piece is the emotional side, so we’re going to have mental health counseling sessions and we’ve highlighted that those services have gone online as well.
Making sure that our students are still involved during this time is still an emotional rollercoaster for our Student Activities team. They’re holding student government meetings online, and I’m working with the student government about how to use their funds to support students online.
So, the student services side has been pretty good. The side that I learned a lot more about that needs more support is the business operations side. We are now digging into our actual operating processes to make all of those changes and improvements too.
DR: More holistically, what sort of ‘wake up call’ does this ring for the higher ed community? What have we learned and how might we evolve?
TW: Education will never be the same after this.
I believe that we are going to find ways to give students the credentials they need in a quicker modality. I think we’re going to look at our credits and find ways to shorten those and help students gain the same competencies.
You know, one of the things that’s happening out in the workforce is that jobs are evolving faster than the education and we’re going to have to fix that. I think we’re going to evolve to be more aligned with the workforce and we will spend time with them to understand their strategic plan and what kind of jobs are forthcoming so that we can create the necessary training.
We’re going to have to step our game up in that space. I believe you will see some major changes and movements going forward.
DR: What long-term impacts do you see COVID-19 having on higher ed?
TW: I’m sure that enrollment folks are getting nervous that the system itself is going to lose a lot. When you lose a large amount of enrollment, then you have to make decisions that make it difficult for you to retain your talent, which is a big concern for me.
For colleges, the majority of their money is from enrollment, tuition, and the state. If we’re seeing enrollment decline and the state budget decline, that’s a double whammy. It goes back to what keeps me up at night; finding resources and funding to keep us moving on.
Note: This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
It was so great to get Dr. William’s unique perspective on everything we discussed. There is so much that goes into running an institution like SPC on a normal day, not to mention doing in the midst of an international crisis. Having committed leadership and a devoted team certainly helps. I’m thankful for all that she shared and hope the whole SPC community is able to keep pressing on!
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