When I arrived at Fort Lewis College as its president in August 2018, I knew the faculty and staff had tremendous potential to face any challenge.
However, I knew there was serious work to do to improve campus culture, secure resources and best serve our students. No matter the challenge, I was – and still am – inspired to lead the college because of the incredible students, faculty, staff and friends of FLC who work tirelessly to make a difference on campus and in our community.
In the last three years, we’ve worked in focused and strategic ways to best serve students and the community. We’ve put students back at the center of everything we do as an institution, working with them to understand and address tough topics like diversity and social justice in our community and beyond, and the reconciliation of our history as an Indian boarding school. We’ve leaned into our shared values of transparency and togetherness to reshape campus into an engaging environment to which everyone belongs.
When COVID-19 hit, colleges and universities across the country felt the extreme effects of the pandemic, but FLC emerged on the other side stronger. Amazingly, while navigating the demanding nature of the last year, our faculty and staff performed at their highest level – teaching courses, mentoring students and securing transformational external funding.
As an example, our humanities faculty collaborated to receive a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support undergraduate research and faculty development in the Native American & Indigenous Studies Department. Additionally, our science, technology, engineering and math faculty received two grants from the National Institutes of Health – an accomplishment only a major research university in Colorado usually can claim.
The accomplishments of the last three years were possible only because of the people who care so much about the future of FLC. I feel a tremendous sense of optimism about the future of FLC. Our relentless focus to put students at the center has allowed us to foster student success, increase their sense of belonging and build a strong fiscal future. In the coming years, we will keep the same focus on our students and their success and development. The care our faculty and staff bring to students is why we find ourselves in a strong position: Enrollment was up last year, and our incoming class looks to be the largest in many years.
Success for FLC extends beyond our focus on students, too. The pandemic drove home what we have long known – as a community, our fates are directly linked. Our history and future as a college are tied to our region. With this in mind, we have sought to build partnerships that leverage our assets to improve the community.
Our belief in interconnectedness is why we partnered with local school districts to build career pathways for high school and college students within local industries. Our partnership earned $3.7 million, the largest grant awarded from the governor’s $32.7 million Response, Innovation, and Student Equity Education fund.
That is why we were honored to have amazing partners like San Juan Basin Public Health, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, who throughout the pandemic helped us keep our students and community safe. It is why our faculty and staff sought (and received) funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build internet connectivity centers in and educational connections to Ignacio and Antonito and on the Navajo Nation. It is why we foster economic development with community partners at the Center for Innovation in downtown Durango.
As we look forward, FLC will keep its focus on student success and we’ll be doing that with the great collaborators in our region to solve the next challenges we face – housing shortages, the move to renewable energy and systemic social inequities. We feel fortunate to have so many amazing community members whom we consider partners.
The work continues.
Tom Stritikus is president of Fort Lewis College.