The University Of Texas At San Antonio

Hispanic Community October 2021 PREMIUM
Getting The Most Out Of Hard Times

Written by Veronica Salazar Mendez Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President for Business Affairs. The University of Texas at San Antonio

Since the beginning of the pandemic, The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) has committed to putting the health and safety of our entire campus community first. As we  reopen our campuses for in-person learning this fall, the central focus of our planning was fulfilling this commitment to health and safety while providing an open campus with a mix of course and work modalities to optimize learning, teaching and research.

As a proud Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), UTSA also strives to excel in our institutional commitment to advance the education of Mexican Americans and other underserved populations, helping them overcome barriers to success. During this historically difficult time, we have found that many of the barriers we must help our students overcome to thrive in their education are the same barriers that are further bolstered by the social and economic challenges posed by the pandemic—those of access to health care, technology, information, and financial resources.

COVID-19 vaccines are our strongest tool in fighting this pandemic and promoting a safe on-campus experience. Like many higher education institutions, UTSA faces the vaccine hesitancy and reluctance that is common in our nation’s younger population, as well as among minority students—two key demographics which comprise a large portion of UTSA’s student population. Since the pandemic began, UTSA has made a rigorous effort to provide easy access to COVID-19 vaccines, removing the barriers to healthcare which affect many underserved and minority communities. Our convenient, on-campus vaccine clinics make getting vaccinated as easy as possible for our Roadrunners. Vaccination is free, and everyone is welcome at our clinics—no one will be turned away due to immigration status.

At UTSA, we strongly urge all Roadrunners to get vaccinated. We have worked hard to build a campus culture in which vaccination is upheld as the best way to do our part for  protecting the community. To encourage hesitant students, faculty and staff, we launched an incentive program which gives them the opportunity to win parking permits or gift cards to our campus bookstore and technology stores. UTSA’s “Birds Up, Sleeves Up” marketing campaign encourages vaccination and features testimonials of Roadrunners from a diverse range of backgrounds. While we continue to provide students with information and data from trusted sources about vaccine safety and efficacy, we also understand that the most persuasive message is often one that comes from peers.

Roadrunners also have easy access to on-campus COVID-19 testing. We work with local providers to ensure that on-campus testing is convenient, fast, and free for those without health insurance. Testing remains a key aspect of our return to full on-campus operations this fall, as the data it provides enables our COVID Response Team to quickly initiate contact tracing and quarantine protocols, containing the spread of the virus on our campuses. This proactive approach has already proven successful during move-in week for our on-campus residents, and this fall we will continue to practice these effective processes. Maintaining our institutional commitment to transparency, statistical data from testing and reporting is available on our online Confirmed Cases Dashboard, which is updated each weekday.

The disruptive shift from in-person to virtual operations, and then back again, has presented unforeseen personal, technological and economic challenges for our students, and UTSA has remained committed to minimizing this disruption as much as possible. As our Roadrunners have faced the stress and uncertainties of this difficult time, UTSA’s Enriching Campus Wellbeing Initiative is more essential than ever. This strategic initiative ensures that students have the resources they need to care for their mental health, providing integrated and expanded clinical services to promote students’ physical and mental wellbeing.

When we pivoted to mostly virtual operations in spring 2020, we provided technology grants to over 6,000 students, ensuring that a reliable computer and internet connection would not be a barrier to our students’ higher education opportunities. Over the course of the following year, we continued to provide aid to our students in need of extra assistance to cover the cost of food, housing, health care, childcare, and course-related expenses.

One of the many lessons we learned from this pandemic is the importance of being proactive and aware of our students’ needs.  We are proud that we successfully supported our students while they were learning remotely, and we continue to do so now that they’ve returned to campus. To ensure that our Roadrunners returned to a campus designed to provide a safe in-person experience, we seized the opportunity to make renovations and upgrades to our facilities in the interest of public health, including upgrading HVAC units to maximize airflow, integrating touchless technology wherever possible, and designing flexible physical spaces which facilitate safe collaboration.

Additionally, classrooms have been upgraded with technology to support the diverse learning modalities and styles that have proven effective over the last year and a half. Throughout this time,  we learned about the world of possibilities open to us when we expand the classroom beyond its physical walls.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, UTSA remained strong. We continue to uphold our institutional commitment to academic excellence and to providing opportunities for our diverse student population. While the barriers to success have seemed greater than ever this past year and a half, we have done everything in our power to raise our students up, giving them the tools they need for success. I am proud to have been a part of this journey, and I am excited to see how far we will go.

Author bio: Veronica Salazar Mendez is the Chief Financial Officer and Vice President for Business Affairs at The University of Texas at San Antonio. A first-generation college graduate who has risen through the ranks of the UT System, Mendez provides oversight and stewardship of the university’s financial resources and helps advance the UTSA vision to become a student success exemplar and nationally competitive research university.

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