(Editor’s note: This article was first published in early 2021.)
If it “takes a village” to care for children, then Northern Kentucky’s village is more like a booming metropolis – full of industry, educators and innovators alike who have worked tirelessly during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that students of all ages and stages had the tools they needed to be successful in a learning environment that practically changed overnight.
Educators were some of the quickest to pivot to fully online platforms at the start of the pandemic, and Northern Kentucky officials will learn from that shift as they contemplate the future of the region’s education and workforce initiatives.
Northern Kentucky University’s President Ashish Vaidya said the pandemic helped the school pinpoint what its students actually need like never before.
“NKU has been very nimble and agile,” he said. “We are way faster than most institutions in many ways. I think our ability to be nimble and agile will hold us in good form. We’re going to use this time to really understand and learn… ‘What do students really need and want and how do we deliver?’ Ultimately it’s about value.”
He used the Army term “VUCA” to explain what he hopes to see come out of the pandemic situation for NKU and other learning institutions.
“The post-COVID world is going to be even more VUCA,” Vaidya said. “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Organizations need to convert negative VUCA to positive VUCA and say, ‘What’s our Vision, what’s our Understanding, what’s our Clarity and what’s our Agility?’ We have a vision of becoming a more student-ready, regionally engaged university, in fact even more so in a post- COVID world. We understand the needs of our students, and the community and we are responding appropriately.”
Being the region’s flagship university, NKU paints a clear picture of what all of the region’s schools are trying to accomplish: Educating its population well, attracting new talent, preparing them for jobs that are actually available in the region, and syncing up with key partners.
Vaidya said 45% of NKU students are the first in their families to go to college, and he is proud that the university is literally transforming families through education.
But COVID-19 proved more than ever that even the most adept institutions always need their communities to support them. And Northern Kentucky’s leadership stepped up to the plate. Take the example of addressing digital inequality as students flocked en masse to at-home learning.
Over the summer, more than 1,000 Northern Kentucky families received access to low-cost internet service in time for the 2020-21 school year under an initiative launched by United Way of Greater Cincinnati, Cincinnati Bell and other local partners. The “NKY Digital Equity Initiative for Students” program focuses on increasing digital equity through programs in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky that are tailored to meet the needs of local school districts.
Erlanger-based candy maker Perfetti Van Melle also teamed up with United Way of Greater Cincinnati and Cincinnati Bell for its annual Community Day in September and helped deliver internet access to students throughout the region. The company celebrated the support at an employee drive-through parade in its parking lot.
“It’s a privilege to help make life sweeter in our community through supporting this digital equity initiative,” said Sylvia Buxton, president and CEO of Perfetti Van Melle North America. “Giving back where our Perfetti Van Melle employees live and work is a big part of our identity and values.”
The region’s major school districts – Boone County Schools, Kenton County Schools and Campbell County Schools – also worked nimbly through the pandemic process from the beginning, utilizing virtual and synchronous learning as well as practices like A-B days to reduce student contact without losing their partnerships with industry and workforce development.
Before the pandemic hit, the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet launched its third Kentucky Advanced Technical College High program for students, this time in Northern Kentucky. Known as K-TECH, the program is designed to meet a demand for health care workers in the state.
Through a collaborative effort with the Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services, Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, NKU and Gateway Community and Technical College, K-TECH focuses on preparing the future workforce for health care careers by increasing the number of students participating in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses in high school and postsecondary schools.
K-TECH provides students in grades 9-12 with an advanced STEM curriculum developed by local business and industry partners. Students will have the opportunity to meet potential employers, take dual-credit course work, receive soft-skills training, and participate in paid apprenticeships. The curriculum matches each student with an industry mentor for the duration of the program. Health care occupations are expected to grow by more than 12.7% by 2024 and account for 9.8% of all jobs in Kentucky by 2026.
Other sectors in high demand include data analytics, technology and logistics. NKU’s Vaidya emphasized that educators need to “double down” on providing internship and hands-on opportunities to learn for students in a COVID-appropriate way. And, he emphasized that COVID has proved that all students, regardless of major, need to be incredibly adept in technology, data and soft skills along with cultural competency and global awareness.
The university was able to keep pushing its entrepreneurship program forward in 2020. NKU’s award-winning Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) is making students’ professional dreams a reality, despite the ongoing pandemic.
The CIE has been named one of the world’s best in creating, advancing and enabling entrepreneurship educational opportunities. The Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers selected the CIE as one of three finalists for the Excellence in Entrepreneurship Teaching and Pedagogical Innovation Award, its third recognition in as many years.
The CIE allows students to take ownership of their future through innovation and entrepreneurial activities both inside and outside the classroom. Many students take these classroom concepts and start their own business through NKU’s INKUBATOR program, an internationally ranked 12-week business accelerator. CIE’s guidance and access to capital creates opportunities for businesses at all stages, a commitment distinguishing the center from its peers.
Other initiatives are focusing on training nontraditional students in the constant push to grow the region’s workforce. For example, the Life Learning Center in Covington collaborates with statewide partners and offers help and hope for people in poverty and those with histories of addiction, mental illness and abuse. One of the employers it partners with is sustainability solutions provider Close the Loop in Hebron, which has made a commitment to second-chance hiring.
On a larger level, the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has a program that begins in elementary school. GROW NKY is a comprehensive, holistic workforce development/talent strategy initiative led by the NKY Chamber in conjunction with key workforce partners who are committed to driving outcomes for talent pipeline management for both supply and demand needs. The efforts will ensure that NKY can attract future businesses and retain current businesses as a result of a strategic workforce effort, unique to Kentucky.
Key focuses are on the region’s high-demand sectors, including advanced manufacturing, IT, advanced logistics, health sciences, financial services and construction.
NKU also links up with key regional industry sectors as it seeks to impact economic development and quality of life in the region through education.
“We think of NKU’s impact on the region in three intersecting buckets,” Vaidya said. “Talent development: We produce the talent the region needs, and 82% of our graduates stay this region, by far more than any other in this region. The second is through research and innovation. We add value to economic development by aligning our research and scholarship to innovation. We have partnered with Kroger, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Gravity Diagnostics, CTI and many other strategic partners across the board. And third is our stewardship of place by being an active community and a civic partner.”
He is proud of how the school has accomplished these tasks in the era of COVID-19, and the school also swiftly addressed mental, emotional and physical needs, even partnering with Kroger to create a food pantry for students. For now, students are spaced out in residence halls and masks are mandatory on campus.
In May, NKU broke ground on a new residential building, the first student housing construction on campus since 2003. The five-story, 77,200-s.f. development will fulfill a need for affordable living space. The development will house 297 beds in a semi-suite style. The design will help create a sense of community among residential students, with large lounge areas, meeting rooms and a lighted event plaza. The project is scheduled to open this year and will be the first housing complex to achieve LEED Silver certification (a global rating system that measures a building’s sustainability) upon completion.
Gateway has big impact on local economy; Thomas More expands digital focus
Growth is happening in the region’s other postsecondary schools, too.
Gateway Community and Technical College in Florence, part of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, added nearly $90 million to NKY’s economy in 2018-2019, according to a study by Emsi, a national provider of research to educational institutions. Much of this impact, the college said, is made by Gateway’s highly skilled alumni, who fill a growing need for skilled trade and technical positions.
Gateway’s graduates who are currently employed in the region’s workforce added $69.9 million in added income to the local economy. In the 2018-19 academic year, 1,580 graduates were awarded at least one credential aligned with one of Kentucky’s five high-demand industry sectors, the college said.
“The numbers are astonishing,” said Fernando Figueroa, Gateway president. “At Gateway, we have always known our work was greatly impacting our community; this study validates our work throughout our region.”
Gateway started its fall 2020 semester with classes in a variety of platforms, including online classes, face-to-face classes with social distancing, and a mixture of both.
Thomas More University, a private institution in Crestview Hills, signaled its increased dedication to fine-tuning online platforms when it appointed Angela Crawford, dean of Thomas More’s College of Business, as vice president for digital, graduate and professional programs at the university.
“As we continue to work and develop Thomas More’s next strategic plan, we must invest in expanding digital, graduate and professional program opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, including our working professionals,” said Joseph L. Chillo, president of Thomas More.
In September, the university announced that its fall traditional enrollment was the second largest in its history, despite the pandemic.
“This year’s returning student enrollment (817) is the largest in the university’s history, surpassing the previous record of 806 last year. In the midst of COVID-19, our enrollment results are strong,” Chillo said.
The “village” in Northern Kentucky is proving it can handle any challenges thrown at it.