Tressel: YSU ‘Totally Prepared’ for Students’ Return

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The upcoming school year will undoubtedly be unlike any other in the 112-year history of Youngstown State University. But with work done since students were first dismissed from campus in March, President Jim Tressel says the university is “totally prepared” for the return of students Monday.

During his annual State of the University address – broadcast via YSU’s Facebook and YouTube pages – Tressel stepped away from his usual pattern of looking at the results of the previous school year and  what projects the university has in the pipeline. Instead, he focused mostly on the upcoming academic year and how Youngstown State will adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.

“As we begin to think about our 2020-21 academic year and looking forward and assessing all we’ve been through, it really reminds me that, whether it’s personally or professionally, sometimes the most difficult adversities give the opportunity for amazing growth,” he said. “We’ll be able to go forward in ways we maybe never considered.”

To outline changes at YSU since the pandemic started, Tressel turned to the acronym GROW: gratitude, reassurance, opportunity and work together. 

In terms of gratitude, the university president thanked the staff that helped YSU move its entire course catalogue online over 10 days in March, as well as the faculty and students for adapting to the changes. 

Funding from the federal coronavirus relief bill passed in April allowed Youngstown State to refund some student fees and provide aid to those who lost jobs, while state funding helped with the acquisition of masks and portable hand-washing stations that will be placed around campus. 

YSU will also be working with the Youngstown City Health Department and Mahoning County Public Health to monitor campus for positive tests and potential outbreaks.

“We know this won’t be a semester without cases. We’ve been working in step with our local government. We created a city-university compact knowing that each person has their role,” he said. “We’re grateful for their help there.”

Now that students have started returning to campus – new-student move-ins take place this week, with returning students doing so over the weekend before classes start on Monday – Tressel offered reassurances that the university is following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the state of Ohio. Youngstown State is also part of the Inter-University Council of Ohio, the association of the state’s 14 public universities. Over the summer, the schools met often – sometimes several times a week – to develop a return-to-campus plan, which has been approved by the state.

On the YSU campus, all students are being asked to take the “Penguin Pledge”: I will protect myself, I will protect others, and I will protect our campus and our community. Each section of the pledge contains suggestions for how students can adhere to it, such as monitoring for symptoms, complying with contact tracing efforts and keeping common areas clean.

The final step, protecting the community, is important, Tressel said, because of the campus’ connection to the rest of the area and the influx of commuting students.

“We know we’re not in a bubble. We know that we’re out there doing internships, going back and forth in our communities, commuting to campus, visiting businesses and taking part in all the things that happen in a community,” he said.

Three student groups have also been started. The Penguin Patrol will work to ensure that students are following safety measures such as wearing face coverings or maintaining social distancing. Pete’s Clean Team will work to ensure spaces remain sanitized. And a third group will work with health departments to provide outreach and contact tracing.

Part of the effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is having fewer people on campus. Residence halls will have fewer students living in them this year and classes that are fully in-person are limited to 50% of the room’s capacity. Many classes, however, will be fully virtual or a mix of in-person and distance education.

“You’ll still have quality faculty engagement. Some of it will be face-to-face. Some it will be done remotely,” Tressel said. “But I can promise you that our faculty will be as engaged with you as they’ve ever been. They’ve been working hard on creating that environment.”

Even with first-day enrollment down about 600 from a year ago, Tressel said the university is prepared for the lost revenue and that the university is prepared for whatever happens.

“Despite the hardship of the pandemic, we need to make sure we take charge of our future. … This might be the greatest advertisement ever for higher education,” he said. “Everyone is on the edge of their seat waiting for a vaccine. Everyone’s counting on extraordinary care or on leaders to come up with ways we can handle this situation. That’s exactly what higher education turns out.”

The only effort Tressel highlighted that wasn’t related to the pandemic was the hiring of Carol Bennett as associate provost of diversity, equity and inclusion. Since being hired late last year, Bennett has been working on assembling a group to develop initiatives that will address diversity and inclusion on campus. The university has provided funding for four graduate assistants to help with the development and implementation of the efforts, Tressel said.

“We should want to learn more about every single person. That’s the beauty of coming to a university. I like to say that ‘university’ is ‘unity’ and ‘diversity,’ ” he said. “It’s a time in our lives when we can really grow. We think we can be a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion and in the fight for social justice.”

To conclude his 40-minute address, Tressel acknowledged that making the school year a successful one will take a cooperative effort from all on campus and everyone associated with Youngstown State.

“We know this is something unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Any time you face something this great, we need to work together. We have to thoughtfully work together to keep social distancing,” he said. “We have to work together because we know people are going through things we don’t know about. We have to work together, whether it’s our department, our office, our classroom or our organization.”

He also added a new Latin phrase to pair with his trademark “Macte Virtute” – “increase in merit,” a reminder to always be working toward excellence  – that he hopes will guide the YSU community through the coming months.

“Per angusta ad augusta,” Tressel said. “Through difficulties to greatness. If we can all have that unwavering faith that we can do this and we will do this – and we won’t be afraid to face the brutal realities of things that aren’t fun – we’ll make sure that when we come out of this, Youngstown State University is going to be the greatest university it’s ever been.”

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Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.