By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
It’s not enough to simply work within your [industry or profession] bubble – you have to branch outside of your immediate sphere of influence, and get comfortable forming those weak ties.
– Alp Mimaroglu
Familiarity often breeds contempt.
Local high school students often underappreciate the University of Toledo’s (UT) value simply because the institution is located in our backyard. Simultaneously, complacent with the small percentage of Toledo students they have drawn historically, UT has ignored the low-hanging fruit of potential local student enrollment.
Thus, UT, while located “in” the city, has not been “of” the city. The weak ties between the city and the university have left many social and economic issues unaddressed and countless UT students without relevant experience in solving real-world concerns.
Enter Valerie Simmons-Walston.
On July 1, 2022, Walston was tasked with strengthening the weak city-university ties by integrating UT into the community. As special assistant to the president for community engagement and strategic partnerships, the Cleveland, Ohio native seeks to establish collaborative university-community partnerships that are “empowering, systemic, and transforming.”
The following is a portion of our recent conversation about the new initiative.
Perryman: Please begin with a synopsis of your background.
Walston: I have a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Kent State and a Master of Arts in Counseling-College Student Personnel from Hampton University. My Doctor of Education, Higher Education Administration is in progress at the University of Alabama (ABD).
Perryman: How did you arrive at UT?
Walston: Before Toledo, I was dean of students at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, and I held that role for seven or eight years. I was hired as a residence life coordinator. I then went from that position to lead judicial officer to assistant dean of student activities, dean of student success, and finally just dean of students. My HBCU exposure and a small private college experience prepared me to become associate vice president of student services, my first role at The University of Toledo in 2016.
Perryman: What is your current role at The University of Toledo?
Walston: UToledo President Dr. Postel decided to open a new office of community engagement and strategic partnership. So, I’m the lead community engagement officer for the university and Dr. Postel’s special advisor as it relates to anything community engagement. I have been gifted with Dr. Monica Holiday-Goodman, of which 30 percent of her time as a faculty and assistant dean, she works alongside me as we’re building the foundation for this office.
I also have a colleague on the health science campus. So, I have a small team, but the president has assured me that over time we will build this team out to be what it needs to be for the city of Toledo.
Perryman: Why does community engagement matter in this highly competitive world of higher education?
Walston: Community engagement and collaborative effort are needed to move the needle forward when dealing with issues associated with diversity, equity, inclusivity, prejudice, racism, and all of that. In addition, we’re dealing with high-level issues related to mental illness and mental wellness. Therefore, it is so crucial that we engage our community experts and our community members as we move toward resolution.
Perryman: Colleges everywhere are trying to address declining enrollment. My research indicates that every student you enroll adds $1 million to the budget. So, what is the plan to address the enrollment decline?
Walston: As you said, it’s not just the University of Toledo. Universities throughout the continental United States are experiencing an enrollment decline. There are multiple reasons why that decline is happening, but what we need to do to address the issue is to serve the students who are here well. We also need to employ creative strategies within the admissions office to go after the students whom they possibly didn’t go after before.
Let’s face it. We’re the University of Toledo. We’re not Harvard. However, we are firm in our identity here at the University of Toledo. So, we need to go after different types of students and get them to enroll. Although in addition, some extraordinary projects and opportunities are going on at the University of Toledo, and we need to tell our story better.
Recently, I dealt with a sibling who got a heart transplant – a heart and two kidneys. I didn’t even realize that the University of Toledo was known for its kidney transplant center. We’re also doing some extraordinary things in the Department of Engineering. I know that we bring 600 STEM students on campus, including females, once a year to encourage them to go into the field of engineering because we need more women in that space. We have extraordinary leadership programs here. So, if we do a better job of sharing the narrative, we will be more attractive to more students, and that’s part of what this office is supposed to do. Community engagement involves consistently and strategically telling our story to the right populations.
Perryman: Where do you plan to look for potential students as you market these outstanding academic offerings, especially those programs with national rankings?
Walston: Well, I’m just going to be very blunt, I feel like we’re all admissions officers in some way, shape or form. I do not directly recruit students, but I expect some community engagement efforts to yield more students.
Let me tell you where I’m going to start, right here in Toledo. The number of students who attend the University of Toledo from Toledo Public Schools is meager. And when you think about the number of people in Toledo who have a degree, that number is also low. So yes, our admissions department needs to go to the highways and byways, overseas, right here in the United States. They need to go to all 50 states to recruit students, but I am starting right here in Toledo.
I’ve already reached out to Treva Jeffries [Toledo Public Schools, Assistant Transformational Leader of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] and we looked at the data that showed which schools had the highest transfer rate from high school to the University of Toledo. We then looked at schools with the lowest rate, and one school had zero. So I said I would start with the school with zero students coming to the university. I plan to meet with the principal, the assistant principal, and the school counselor and bring my team. We just need to have a conversation. ‘What is it that your school needs that we have? How can we better share our story about the University of Toledo? We want your students, and quite frankly, your students need us.’
Perryman: How about collaborating with some of the local private schools?
Walston: They’re on the list too, but frankly, the private schools have a better transfer rate to the university than TPS. So, trust and believe the private schools are on the list too, but I want to start with TPS.
Perryman: If you were to tell the story of UT to a local community to rebuild trust or foster stronger community relationships, what would that story be?
Walston: I think that the University of Toledo is under tremendous change right now. We have a forward-thinking president, and change is one of the things that the faculty, staff, and students will experience. When I say change, we have a strategic plan that is student-focused. We want to make sure that even though our numbers are low, we want to make sure that our students are served at a higher level.
The community engagement office will build more strategic partnerships to benefit our students. For example, strategic alliances with Dana, Jeep, Owens Illinois, and Owens Corning ensure that our students have a successful academic experience in the classroom.
So, students’ post-classroom experience and internship opportunities will also prepare them for their careers. Our career services office brings hundreds of employers in to expose our students to that postsecondary experience and the workforce. Still, even before they are poised to meet with these employers, our career service officers meet with our students to do interview prep and resumes.
We believe in relationships. We believe in meeting those students’ needs. So, with these changes that our leadership is imposing, we’re moving in the right direction.
Perryman: What would that future look like if you did everything you proposed? How does that story improve so that more people want to be involved and engaged?
Walston: Well, our enrollment is going to increase drastically. We will have paid internship and co-op opportunities for all our students in every major, especially those tech majors. We will actively expose our students to some of those cultural overseas academic experiences. That gives them a better lens for returning to the workforce when they come back stateside.
In the long term, we will have engaged relationships that include students doing research alongside faculty, with faculty identifying problems within the community, but that research will truly solve problems and make Toledo a better place. I am speaking specifically of gun violence and our water treatment problem here. So I’m talking about real-life problems, and U Toledo is the lab where we can research to solve some of these problems.
In my fantasy world, since we’re doing all these things right, the University of Toledo will eventually be the model for other institutions. We are the model now for some of the sciences, nursing, and engineering. But, long-term, look toward us being the model in multiple areas of higher education.
Perryman: Do you think the university is prepared to collaborate with activists?
Walston: That is a good question. Whether we’re prepared or not, this is the time to partner with those activists in the community because our students have become activists. Their participation is preparing us to connect and partner in the community, especially among underrepresented populations, and have a voice as it relates to things that take place that are unjust.
So, are we 100 percent ready to get out there and collaborate? We probably could do a little bit more to prepare, but guess what? There is no more preparation time because the time is now. Our students are calling us on the carpet. They want to know, ‘Why?’ They want to know what we can do to ensure justice is served to our students and the community.
Perryman: The university has historically poured millions into venture capital projects and other market-oriented investments while neglecting the social problems. Yet, it can be profitable to address social issues and achieve a social return on investment that lowers the cost of the effects of some of these problems. I hope you can affect policies through your position to change the university’s thinking on these issues.
Walston: Yes! And that requires having very hard conversations with the highest level of the administration.
Perryman: Well, you’re in the position to do that.
Walston: Yes, and I think they picked the right one. We’ll see.
Perryman: Many view the term community engagement as merely a buzzword at UT. Instead, we want to see ‘no more business as usual.’ The university is perceived as isolating itself from social concerns, and then when students graduate, they are unprepared for the context in which they will live and work.
What could the university’s system look like if each discipline was committed to providing more grounding in civic engagement and service learning? What if UT focused substantially more of its intellectual resources and human and economic capital on finding solutions to the problems students face when they arrive at school and face when they graduate?
Walston: I believe that what you just mentioned gives the work in community engagement purpose and meaning because that’s what it’s all about. Until now, I’ve talked a bit about preparing students academically and studying abroad. Still, I firmly believe that much learning occurs outside the classroom.
The honors college has a capstone course where no less than ten nonprofits are brought in annually. Those nonprofits identify a problem, and a group of students do the research. Then, with all ten nonprofits in the room, the students present their research and the answer to the problem. I witnessed this class; it was life-changing, but it’s all make-believe. So, they’ve done the research and presented the answer, so my question was, what’s next?
What needs to happen so we can implement some of this research? What are the next steps?
I think it starts with their volunteer experiences. Still, I think we need to aggressively spend more time teaching them how to become leaders at work and successful and making a certain salary. But also, as leaders in the community and the importance of them giving back. If we do this locally, I hope to retain more students, teaching them the importance of working and volunteering in the community. They get this great job, but they’re so attached to the community engagement work that we retain the talent right here in Toledo.
That is the epitome of community engagement and strategic partnership work. If we can retain students here because they have had such a transformational experience related to community engagement.
Then, I think we can just say the benediction and go home. That is the end goal.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at email@example.com