College celebrates new school year at Fall Convocation

With enrollment, retention, and graduation rates all on the rise and a narrowing of achievement gaps between White students and minority students, President Dr. Tracy D. Hall says it is time for Southwest to move from ‘what’ to ‘why.’

Dr. Hall celebrated the opening of the 2019-2020 academic year by welcoming a packed house of faculty and staff to the College’s Fall Convocation Aug. 19. She presented a report on the previous year’s achievements, along with her vision for the coming academic year and the next steps in her Big Audacious Goal to Redesign, Reinvent, Reset Southwest.

Southwest President Dr. Tracy Hall outlines her “Big Audacious Goal” for 2019-2020.

Southwest President Dr. Tracy Hall outlines her “Big Audacious Goal” for 2019-2020.

Hall said while Southwest will continue to focus on improving internal processes and procedures and building a culture of excellence, the new imperative going forward is to expand the definition of student success to include increasing the social mobility of every student who chooses Southwest. “Upward social mobility is the ability of our students to transcend their current socioeconomic status by improving their earning potential through education and credential attainment,” Hall said. “Our goal is to get them to the next level. That is the measure of our success. I want us to focus and never lose sight of that.”

Hall looked back on the path so far since her appointment as president as she outlined the work ahead. When she arrived at Southwest, the numbers were discouraging. Enrollment, retention and graduation rates were at all-time lows and the equity gaps were too large.  Although the College has seen some quick wins since her 2017 arrival, Hall says the work to foster student success will be more challenging as the College continues to achieve its goals.  “The work will be harder, but that is what makes it all the more worth it and we can do it.”

Dr. Hall also introduced a new, lofty goal:  The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.  Every two years the Aspen Institute recognizes exceptional achievement and performance among America’s community colleges. The prize is $1 million.  “That’s a great incentive,” Dr. Hall said as the crowd agreed with applause. “But an even better one is increasing our student's social mobility—moving them from poverty to prosperity.”

Dr. Hall emphasized the tenacity our students exhibit when they come to Southwest, despite the societal and economic challenges they face.  “When our students arrive, they come to us with systemic and institutional barriers that have been placed in their path from birth,” Hall said. “But they arrive, and that is the rejoicing moment because, in spite of the playing field not being level, despite the lack of advantages, they are trying. They still come to our doors.”

Iliana Ricelli, associate vice president of Human Resources, introduced the Big Audacious Goal: Part 2 and how the redesign, reinvent, reset applies to the employee experience. Ricelli said Southwest is focusing now on the 3 R’s: recruit, retain, and retire in an effort to make the College an employer of choice in Memphis. The College recently raised its minimum wage for all staff employees to $12.24 an hour and is working to boost that to $15 an hour. “We want people to be excited about working here at the College,” Ricelli said.

Mike Neal, vice president of Business, Finance & Strategic Initiatives, added there has been a five percent growth in salaries and benefits over the last five years on an annual basis.  “We have made an intentional investment in compensation here at Southwest, and we do that because we understand that in order to better serve our students, we need to have a better trained, motivated faculty,” Neal said.

Jacqueline Faulkner, vice president for Student Affairs, provided an update on enrollment and said Southwest’s goal is to get back to an enrollment of 10,000 students. “We truly have turned the corner,” Faulkner said. “We know that getting back to 10,000 will be a major milestone for us and we are working very hard to make that happen.”

The convocation ended with Table Talk, an opportunity for faculty and staff to break out in groups to brainstorm about how to improve the College. Suggestions ranged from the need for preloaded textbook and lab access codes for students on computers at the start of the semester, to offering a free shuttle for students who don’t have transportation to and from Southwest’s campuses.

The convocation also took a moment to honor two current students who exemplify the Saluqi Way. Sara Tinker, a mother of three who returned after a 27-year hiatus and is now enrolled in the human resources management program, and information technology major Phillip Johnson, were featured in two emotional videos where they recited “I Am” poems describing their experience at Southwest. Johnson, whose wife and daughter were in attendance, enrolled at Southwest in 2000, but had to drop out because his mother could not afford tuition. “But a dream delayed is not a dream denied,” Johnson declared in the video.

President Hall said hearing student success stories is the best part of her job. “It is important that we never lose sight of the voice of our students.”

Faculty and staff talk over ideas to improve Southwest.

Faculty and staff talk over ideas to improve Southwest.

Sara Tinker reads her special “I Am” poem at convocation. Phillip Johnson reads his special “I Am” poem at convocation.

Sara Tinker and Phillip Johnson read their special “I Am” poem at convocation.