by Jesse Lopez
I am a parent of two college students currently attending Northern Arizona University. Considering only five weeks of this semester was spent on in-class learning, I have been trying to wrap my head around what is costing me so much money up in Flagstaff.
We have watched the entire world change around us year after year. As new technologies flood the market, consumers and corporations become more advanced and efficient in doing things. However, the structure of our higher learning institutions seems to have not advanced with our current world. The education students receive has changed, but the schools and their administration departments are still ages behind.
This week I was privileged to sit down for a phone interview with Texas Women's Hall of Famer Dr. Diana Natalicio Ph.D., the President Emerita at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is an extremely accomplished, highly regarded, and revered educator and philanthropist: a true inspiration and role model to all of us in our pursuit of happiness.
Dr. Natalicio became the first female president of the university in 1988 and has championed educational equality for all, emphasizing first-generation students and those that come from "modest means." Born Diana Siedhoff, she was raised in St. Louis by her mother and father, where her father's retail store was their only income.
Diana's parents believed strongly in education and pushed her to continue after finishing her "unmotivating" high school years. After graduation, Diana was hired as a secretary and immediately realized that type of work wasn't suitable or rewarding. Her mother wanted an education but graduated high school when considering women homemakers was the norm, and only men received an education. Always resenting this ideology, Diana's mother pushed her to become something more than a secretary or housewife. Diana began to consider St. Louis University as a possible option for her future.
Due to her dislike for subjects like literature and arithmetic, it was easy for Diana to single out Spanish as a natural topic. The 60s were an advanced time in learning, and there was a big governmental push with kickbacks for the school, specifically for first-generation students to become faculty. While registering for school, Diana learned about several scholarships and fellowship programs that would later end with her receiving a Fulbright Scholarship to Brazil.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in Spanish from St. Louis University, she received a master's degree in Portuguese and her doctorate in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. After applying for and receiving a decade worth of grants and scholarships, Diana packed up her belonging. She moved from South America back to the US, where, in 1971, Dr. Natalicio became an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Dr. Natalicio swiftly advanced through the University of Texas at El Paso's ranks during her 49-year career. Over that time, she received a myriad of accomplishments, including the highest award given to a non-Mexican individual, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, delivered to her from the Mexican government. She also received the Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education, the Academic Leadership Award from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and made Time Magazine's list of the world's most influential people. All of these are reasons why I wanted to reach out to this true American hero and ask what she envisions for the future of higher education.
With the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we saw the "normal" world we used to know come to a complete halt. As a parent, it upset me that my oldest son was sent home from the semester early during Spring Break 2020. I wondered what would happen to his GPA, and I questioned if he'd receive credits since he wasn't living in the dorm or using his meal plan. But as the pandemic expanded, we saw our leaders lose control of society, and our public safety efforts became more and more politicized. I started thinking less selfishly about my family and finances and starting thinking about what lay in store for educators? I wondered how these changes would impact their teaching style or the efficacy of learning.
I asked Dr. Natalicio what she would say to educators that are now facing a new learning curve they've had thrown at them? Diana stated, "these job function changes are causing quite the stir up. Many of the world's top professors are mature and not up to speed on technology" and that these job function changes had "many faculty members wanting to quit their jobs." As teaching has shifted to virtual learning, many older prime educators now feel inadequate as they struggle to learn this forced new technology.
The world's best professors have committed themselves to a life of research, proving them the years of experience and knowledge obtained in their career that they pass on to their students. As these educators began their teaching careers, they adapted their personality to their teaching style and what worked best in their classrooms. In March 2020, we saw everything customary to these educators change in the blink of an eye. Now, only time will tell if anything taught in the current hybrid setting is sinking in or if the last two semesters have been an all-around waste of time.
Due to inadequate funding this year, Dr. Natalicio feels research is falling behind. Today's college attendee's dynamic changed when our current healthcare crisis put financial pressure on millions of Americans. Many students of modest means don't have the technology needed for classes, causing educators to create written assignments - double the work for these already spread thin staff. She has noticed a decline in Latino students' enrollment due to the unchecked pandemic and senses that "we need to reduce the gaps between the haves and have nots." These gaps create a social disparity between the income brackets and hold many of modest means from meeting their full potential.
I asked Dr. Natalicio what she sees higher learning institutions becoming? "These are very energetic times, but the preparation for the future begins with the conversation about it," she replied. We need to remain focused on the generational gaps between staff and faculty during this transition phase by being creative in using new technology formats and mastering them. She offered, we can potentially make adjustments to current degree lengths by establishing more two-year programs or changing the semester and school year's duration. Diana introduced me to new concepts like package degrees, which would compile multiple degrees together, proving a more efficient experience for individuals that are very driven in their academics and don't seek residency in a college community.
Hoping some caped hero will kill the Coronavirus and save the day is not realistic. We need our leaders to lead us through this devastating time. Real heroes don't wear capes. Real heroes are people like Dr. Diana Natalicio and the people who teach and have taught every one of us from kindergarten. They dedicate their lives so that we can better ours. What we do with that education is up to us.