Two years ago, a newly identified coronavirus triggered a world-wide pandemic that rapidly spread through the U.S., forcing CU Denver to move to remote status on March 13, 2020.
The shutdown brought heretofore inconceivable challenges as we grappled with uncertainty, pulled together, and learned to pivot to remote learning, lean on new technologies, and reimagine the nature of the classroom experience. The reduction of in-person, peer-to-peer, and on-campus connection, sense of isolation, economic hardship, and challenges to internet access triggered mental health challenges for many.
But even amid the pandemic, we celebrated big wins, too. Among them: CU Denver’s recognition as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, the expansion of our Displaced Aurarian Scholarship, and US News & World Report No. 1 ranking for social mobility in Colorado. We welcomed new leadership, including a new chancellor. And our students, faculty, staff, and supporters worked together to generate bold ideas and create a 2030 Strategic Plan designed to create a more equitable, inclusive, innovative future for our university and the city and state within which we continue to thrive.
As we pause to remember where we were, how far we’ve come, and where we go next, CU Denver News reached out to Chancellor Marks, a faculty member, a staff member, and a student for their perspectives on how we’ve adapted and surmounted the challenges we’ve faced. We asked them to reflect on questions we may all be asking including what trials may still confront us, what our next chapter may look like, how our pandemic experiences have changed us and, in some cases, unexpectedly helped us move forward, and what they’re most grateful for.
Changing How We Define the University Experience
“Some of the challenges our students have endured during the pandemic, such as reliable access to technology, exposed how far we have to go to make education accessible and successful for all learners,” said Chancellor Michelle Marks. “CU Denver was already a leader in digital learning, and we’ve doubled down on that work by making digital learning an essential element of a holistic strategy to meet student needs.”
Nimol Hen, MPA, director of CU Denver Business School’s First-Generation & Multicultural (FaM) program, said CU Denver has used technology to “replicate effective, student-facing interaction, including remote learning, advising, counseling, virtual front desks, and even virtual study abroad. The pandemic has underscored the notion that one size does not fit all and forced us to attune to the many different realities our students face that necessitate a more flexible approach.”
Elizabeth Pugliano, PhD, instructor of art history in the College of Arts & Media, derives inspiration from the creative ways her colleagues have adapted, “from video demos that brought students into labs, museums, or studios when they couldn’t go in person, to experimentation with different communication platforms to foster connection and discourse.”
Although the experience heightened our appreciation for the traditional, physically present campus experience, it’s also helped us embrace “a university that is decentralized, more remote or hybrid, and can exist in multiple spaces and modes simultaneously,” Pugliano said. She believes the pandemic’s challenges have provided a deeper understanding of what different modalities are best suited to, broadened the definition to a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach, and helped us “create an agile, more tailored and responsive structure for students.”
Chris Hilton, president of the CU Denver Student Government Association, agrees. “Lecture formats have changed so radically. We have gone from just recording a screen to enabling pop-up quizzes and group answers in the middle of a pre-recorded lecture. Some professors brought in really unique guest speakers which was a great way to make lemonade from remote-learning lemons. I’m taking more asynchronous classes this semester than ever and learning from and enjoying them!”
Addressing Ongoing Educational and Societal Challenges
“When you look at some of the societal challenges we’re experiencing—homelessness, sustainability, healthcare, the livability of cities—universities and in particular, public urban research universities have to be those problem-solvers,” said Marks. “We have to leverage our research capabilities and rely on our capacity for innovation to be more relevant to our communities and the world. This starts with finding more ways we can create collaborative opportunities for our faculty and promote innovation to expand our research.”
Hen believes the pandemic elevated our awareness of our most pressing societal issues from social and racial injustice to climate change. “Our scholars and learners will need to find innovative ways to speak to these problems. I’m excited about our strategic goals to become an Equity-Serving Institution and an Open Innovation District.”
The pandemic also “pulled back the curtain on the extent and persistence of the existing mental health crisis,” said Pugliano. “We have a better understanding of the mental health issues our students and colleagues face and more appreciation for how they impact our work but still don’t have enough support mechanisms and institutional structures to fully accommodate these challenges.”
Writing and Embracing CU Denver’s Next Chapter
“We’re turning 50 next year!” Marks said, “We’ve already made incredible progress for such a young institution, especially over the last decade. We strive to be a model for how universities can better serve their communities, and we have this incredible opportunity to be the kind of institution that Colorado and the nation really need right now. For our next phase, we’re focused on realizing our 2030 Strategic Plan to make education work for all—by creating equitable learning environments that expand access and opportunity, by being a university for life to meet learners where they are, by solving today’s grand challenges and strengthening innovation, and by investing in our people as a best place to work. Our community created this plan together and will help define it as we move forward. Great progress always comes with its share of challenges, but I know that, together, we will absolutely achieve our goals.”
Pugliano is likewise excited about our university’s future. “I think the next chapter at CU Denver is focused on really defining what it means to be an ‘equity-serving institution’ and–hopefully–challenging and dismantling traditional systems and structures and becoming a higher ed leader in all forms of equity and inclusion,” she said.
Hilton believes the changes wrought by the pandemic are helping us shape a brighter future. “I think we are starting to see a university that really meets our students where they are in their life journeys.”
Expressing Gratitude for Resilience, New Beginnings, and Each Other
Marks is most grateful for “the commitment of our community. Even though the pandemic has created an immense amount of anxiety, loss, and other personal challenges our community has remained incredibly committed to our students and each other. Together, we’ve spent the last two years defining the future of our institution. It’s been a remarkable process that I’ve been so honored to be a part of,” she said.
A 20-year CU Denver administrative staff member, Hen is most grateful for the opportunity to serve a student body she cares deeply about through her new “dream job.”
“The FaM program offers a holistic, supportive, and tailored approach to build trusting relationships with students and their communities, identifies their strengths, provides experiential opportunities, and fosters excellence,” Hen said. “FaM establishes an active and vibrant culture of support for first-generation and diverse students that intentionally addresses historical institutional barriers to success.”
Hilton, too, found a new leadership role by joining student government during the pandemic “so I’d have someone outside my apartment to interact with. If it wasn’t for the adjustment to digital social interactions, I wouldn’t have the friends that I now get to go to restaurants with, in person.”
Pugliano remains grateful for the people around her–family, friends, colleagues–“who have shown up every day for two years, done the work, and given unwavering support. And to my students who stuck it out and tried, struggled, and persisted in circumstances no one would have imagined. I’m in constant awe of their grit, determination, generosity, and grace,” she said.