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fall 2021

A Firm Foundation For The Future

How One University Is Adapting to the Demands of the New Normal
Written by: Javaune Adams-Gaston

As President of Norfolk State University (NSU), one of my proudest moments as a leader has been to watch the way our entire university community rallied around each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. We all worked together to provide a high-quality and affordable education for the 5,000-plus students that we serve at NSU.


As we prepare for a full return to school in a post-pandemic world, what we know is that the higher education landscape has been forever changed. We must do more to showcase the value of higher education and how it can lead to progress, equity, and societal change.


Nationally, enrollments are trending downward, and more and more students and parents are beginning to reassess what a college education should look like. Fortunately, NSU has been able to maintain enrollment. Moving forward, technology will play a more dominant role in the delivery of higher education beyond the boundaries of the traditional brick-and-mortar campus walls. Institutions of higher education will also be called upon to play a larger role in helping our society solve long-standing issues of equity and racial reconciliation.


Over the course of the last year, we have learned how to endure, but we have also learned how to be innovative. We can never forget how the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd reignited the nationwide discussion about social justice and racial inequities in America. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) like Norfolk State will continue to be leaders in facilitating these important discussions and driving meaningful change. We have learned a lot about our community, and the role higher education can play in community progression. We have seen firsthand the resilience and tenacity of our students, faculty, and staff.


Diversity and innovation
Norfolk State is Virginia’s largest HBCU and a U.S. News and World Report Top 20 HBCU. Founded during the Great Depression by local community leaders who believed that African Americans could achieve greater heights with a college degree, NSU has always defied the odds and leaned into the headwinds of change to advance the common good.


Today, our university is a recognized leader in Cybersecurity, Engineering, the Arts, and Nursing and Allied Health. NSU’s vibrant living-learning community is where cultural diversity and innovation converge to produce transformative outcomes for our graduates and the community at large. We have also seen our strong stewardship of the university’s financial resources pay off in a big way as we confronted the economic challenges of COVID-19.

The biggest lesson learned from this pandemic is the importance of embracing change.


The biggest lesson learned from this pandemic is the importance of embracing change and leveraging growth opportunities even in times of incredible uncertainty. Well before the pandemic hit our shores, we were making contingency plans to ensure continuity of our teaching and learning mission.


Like many of our peers, we quickly pivoted to virtual learning for the duration of the Spring 2020 semester, but also made plans that enabled us to safely bring students back to campus for the 2020-2021 academic year. Because of our strong stewardship of financial resources, and the enhanced financial assistance from the federal and state governments, COVID-19’s fiscal impact on the university’s bottom line has been minimal.


Ending student debt
Norfolk State is a proud recipient of a transformative $40 million gift from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott, which represents the largest private gift in the history of the university. Thanks to historic federal and state financial support, we have been able to eliminate more than $2.5 million in student debt so that Spartans can return to campus in the fall focused on their studies and ready for success. Throughout this pandemic, NSU has remained resilient and in many ways stronger than at any point in our history.


At Norfolk State, we recognize that the higher education landscape is rapidly shifting and have already begun the hard, but necessary work to ensure that our institution is poised and ready to take on these new challenges.


For example, Norfolk State is the first HBCU in the nation to engage with Academic Partnerships, an innovative edtech company that partners with public institutions of higher education to help drive growth in the online learning space. This collaboration will allow us to truly meet our students where they are by growing our inventory of online degree programs to reach non-traditional students.


We are also working on several campus infrastructure projects that will impact our current students and benefit the Norfolk community. Some of these new additions will include a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math facility. We are also in the planning phase of a world-class Fine Arts Building. We are establishing a new facility for our Norfolk State University Preschool Academy. Providing access to quality child care will be important for individuals returning to the workforce.


Doorways to jobs
Now more than ever, students and parents expect college degrees to translate into job offers. At NSU, we share these concerns and over the course of the last year have secured more than $7 million in public-private partnerships with some of America’s leading companies and nonprofits to include Apple, Netflix, IBM, Amazon, Bank of America, Diageo, Dominion Energy, United Negro College Fund, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and others.

We are serious about our students’ future and we are taking bold steps to ensure that they are prepared for the 21st-century workforce.



These partnerships will provide our students with valuable internship opportunities and direct financial support that will open the doorway to full-time jobs upon graduation. We are serious about our students’ future and we are taking bold steps to ensure that they are prepared for the 21st-century workforce.


Some weeks ago, I was able to be a part of an important moment in the life of our institution. We held commencement exercises for the Class of 2021 and the Classes of 2020. It was our first large in-person event since the pandemic. Watching these graduates walk across the stage as their families and supporters exuberantly cheered was a stark reminder of the challenges that we have overcome together, and reassurance that brighter days are well within our reach.


A return to campus in the fall will not be a return to the status quo, because the world has changed. What will not change is our ongoing pursuit of educational excellence and our commitment to delivering access, opportunity, and success for the students of today and tomorrow.


Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston was named the seventh President of Norfolk State University in 2019. A higher education professional and scholar for more than 30 years, she previously held leadership positions at The Ohio State University and the University of Maryland.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of WayMaker Journal.