Q&A: FSCJ president reflects on his first year's challenges and accomplishments

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Q&A: FSCJ president reflects on his first year's challenges and accomplishments 

Wednesday will mark the one-year anniversary of John Avendano taking over as Florida State College at Jacksonville's sixth president.

Avendano’s first year has been marked by several accomplishments, but it’s also been fraught with challenges that included the threat of a hurricane and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

To find out more about his first year in office, the Business Journal spoke with Avendano to see what he’s accomplished, what obstacles he’s navigated and how he’s dealt with those challenges.

You’ve been leading FSCJ for a year now, what have been some of the highlights?

Getting acclimated to the college community. I had a chance I visited every one of our campuses and centers when I first arrived in the fall semester, and I was on the brink of doing that again for the spring term when Covid-19 hit. I had a chance to meet face to face with the faculty, the staff and the students as well – I met with students at every one of our campuses and centers. To me, that was one of the highlights. Getting to see the people, getting to know them and hear their interests and concerns and hear the many challenges they may have had.

I also had the chance to visit with 20 to 25 different CEOs around the Jacksonville area, getting to know them and their businesses and what their business needs are. A lot of that was what I called a ‘visibility plan,' which I’m going to continue here for the second year as well.

We had some institutional highlights where we were named a top 150 college in the country by the Aspen Institute, so I thought that was quite rewarding. That means we’re in the top 10% for the most part. Our student trustee, SeQoya Williams, was recognized as the top student government president in the state of Florida. So, you know, I think there were a lot of individual highlights along those lines.

What have some of the challenges been?

If I take them in order, then Hurricane Dorian was the first one. Coming from the Midwest, we would have school closures that were based on snow storms or ice storms that happened overnight – that made it very, very difficult to travel, but the decision was typically being made the day of. Here, you know something is coming, and you know you have some forewarning of it, but you still have to allow people the time to evacuate and get to safe grounds. That was a different type of challenge, when you have to make that decision – and then you bring them back.

The pandemic, obviously, is the one that’s been the biggest challenge because that altered everything – the way we deliver instruction, the way we utilize our resources and facilities – so that’s been the greatest challenge of all. Quite honestly, I don’t know any institution in the country that offers a graduate class on how to deal with a pandemic.

It’s not something we’re educated on or experienced before, and even the country hasn’t experienced this in 100 years. So you just kind of balance out – and this has really been my mantra to the college community – we know that we are those communities’ college, we know we fulfill a viable and a critical responsibility in terms of providing the workforce for our community. We know that part of our mission is to prepare students. So, we still have that mission and we have to fulfill that mission in light of a pandemic.

We still have a responsibility to help our students get to their next destination, if we can use an airline term. So regardless of the challenge, our goal, our mission and our purpose is to still get them to that destination. I point to our faculty and staff, they’re being resilient and looking for creative ways of delivering instruction and creative ways of supporting our students. Our students, as well as the college, have been very resilient. It’s been an interesting first year and each of those challenges have presented just different obstacles – but each and everyone one of them we’ve been able to overcome.

Could you elaborate on some of the ways you’ve met the challenge of the pandemic?

One of the things that we had to make sure that we still met was quality of instruction. We’ve always had a very strong and solid presence for online instruction, and I think that’s always been advantageous for us. The fact that many of our other classes had to move to an online format, we were creative in the sense that we provided both the asynchronous format for online instruction – open time, open connection with your instructors and classmates – and also a synchronous online environment, meaning it’s kind of online and live. So, we offered that as kind of a new opportunity for our students.

Delivering student services online, advising through a virtual format, was something we adapted to as well. The biggest thing is that we want to make sure we’ve hit on quality of instruction and letting students know that we care, that we’re accessible.

On the very rare occasions, if necessary, of in-person opportunities – which we’ve had to do with some of our career and technical education classes where they can’t be taught online – they have to be done in-person. You’re creating those social distancing opportunities in those classrooms and breaking those labs down so that the students feel safe and we can still deliver quality instruction. You never want to sacrifice quality of instruction in any format.

What does the immediate future hold for FSCJ?

Going through this since the middle of March when Covid-19 first hit, we were very diligent in setting up plans. Then, what would happen literally within 24 hours, was those plans would have to change because everything was changing so rapidly at the local, state and national level.

So, one of the lessons learned is the virus is going to do what it’s going to do – the spread of the virus is what we’re most concerned about, but it continues to spread. So setting dates is just not working. As we go forward, what we’re looking at is setting up phases, which many of our communities have done. We’ll roll into those phases in the safest way possible for our faculty, staff and our students.

Now, the good thing is that in light of the pandemic, we can still plan for that. We’ve been planning over the course of the summer and we’re planning for the fall term – knowing that it may even carry over a little bit into the spring term. We’ve gotten a lot better at that, quite honestly.

We’re trying to communicate as much as we can to all of our current and potential students that there are still a variety of classes that are being offered – we’re open for business.

One of the things that I think is important to note is we’ve had a number of very generous donors and companies in this community. When Covid-19 first hit, and ever since then, their question has been ‘What do our students need? What can we do to help support them?’ So we’ve been able to incorporate that, and the message I would want people to understand is we have mechanisms to overcome any and all barriers for students.

What are your long-term goals for FSCJ?

The thing that really come to mind immediately is the level of excellence that I mentioned earlier – one of the highlights was being a top 150 for the Aspen award. I’d like to see us go higher. I’d like to be an Aspen award winner someday. It’s a process, and we know what we need to continue to do to improve the quality of the outcomes of our graduates in their placement.

There’s a level of excellence that I want us to have across the board, in all of our programs, that is recognized not only by Aspen but recognized here locally so that businesses and industries look to FSCJ for their needs, their workforce and their strategies. One of the quotes that I’ve used quite often is a quote from Dr. Vincent Tinto from Syracuse University that says ‘No one rises to low expectations.’ We want to set high expectations for ourselves and everything we do.

Another goal of mine for the college is the level of innovation we can deliver – to be innovative and to be responsive to the workforce needs. The other is – and this is the challenge when you have an institution of our size – is I really want the FSCJ experience to exceed everyone’s expectations in a positive way. When people come to FSCJ there’s a certain set of expecations and what they’re looking to get from FSCJ when they’re done. When they look back and reflect on their experience at FSCJ, I want them to be surprised that we exceed their expectations well beyond what they were thinking.

A more specific goal type is that we’re in a military community, and I want us to be the most military-friendly institution in the country; not just in our region, but the entire country. I would love for our veterans, our men and women who have served our country, to know that FSCJ is here now to serve them and help them reach their goals.