The Voice of Experience: Sharon DeVivo

President, Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology

16 November 2020

4 min read

When the pandemic reached New York, Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology transitioned from on-campus to remote learning in just five days. Compass asked Vaughn President Sharon DeVivo to recount the story.

Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology was at the epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States, but we rapidly shifted to remotely educating our students through the lockdown. While our story is not unique, I hope it may help to inspire educators at all levels.

Vaughn is located in Queens, directly across the street from LaGuardia airport. COVID-19 had the worst impact on Queens, one of the five boroughs of New York City, which was the hardest-hit city in the United States. About three-quarters of our students live in New York City; most of the rest come from Long Island and nearby states.

Queens is the most diverse county in New York; the population here speaks more than 130 languages. It also is one of the nation’s poorest counties, so we are proud that Vaughn ranked Number 1 among 2,137 colleges, in a study by The Equality of Opportunity Project, for our success in moving students from the bottom 40% of US incomes to the top. In large part, that success reflects the fact that 99% of our graduates are employed – 83% in their chosen fields – or continuing their educations within a year of graduation.

Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Queens, New York City, treasures its number 1 US ranking for advancing students from the bottom 40% of US incomes to the top. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Vaughn’s remote-learning capabilities helped the college meet its goal to ‘Make Spring Count,’ with testing and grading that ensured students achieved meaningful progress. (Image © Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology)

No time to waste

When nearby New Rochelle experienced New York state’s first major outbreak in early March, we hoped that we could keep our campus open until Spring Break on March 23, giving us more time to plan. By March 11, however, in-person teaching was no longer an option. That day, we announced a shift to remote learning for all of our 1,600 students and remote operations for our 125 faculty and staff. We had just five days, including the weekend, to make it happen.

“While we could not have switched to distance learning in less than a week without our extensive digital capabilities, our strong sense of community was invaluable to our success.”

Several factors aided us in moving so quickly. First, Vaughn is well versed in distance learning, which we have offered since 1997. About 80% of our campus-based courses also use our online learning management system – which we fortuitously upgraded in 2019 – for posting resources or collecting finished assignments. Our engineering students also use a cloud-enabled technology that – while it typically is used in-person on our campus – allowed us to continue some of our laboratory sessions.

During the first week of lockdown we digitally enabled our support services, including advisement, financial aid, tutoring, student activities, and career and counseling services. Because many of our students are the first in their families to attend college, providing digital access to these services was critical.

Training and culture

While most of our faculty and students had some experience with our distance-learning system, there is a vast difference between posting a file and teaching (or learning) online. Our most experienced faculty members quickly rose to the challenge of sharing their knowledge and insights with the full faculty. Sessions covered everything from how to encourage participation in an online environment to how to prevent cheating on digitally administered tests.

While we could not have switched to distance learning in less than a week without our extensive digital capabilities, our strong sense of community was invaluable to our success. Our administrators and faculty members called every student early in the lockdown. Many of them told us of patchy internet service and communal laptops shared with siblings, so we arranged to close those gaps. Those residence hall students who could not go home because of the distance, or because the learning conditions at home were not ideal, were permitted to stay in our hall, which remained open.

We also established a help desk on Zoom, staffed 10 hours per day every day, where students could remotely ask questions or report problems on any aspect of their needs. We offered “Wellness Wednesdays,” a series on resiliency and mindfulness, to support emotional well-being. We posted videos, sent emails, held online town hall meetings and parent information sessions, and continued our one-on-one outreach with text messages and phone calls. This layering of messages was invaluable. Because the pandemic overloaded everyone intellectually and emotionally, repetition across multiple channels proved vital to breaking through and ensuring our messages were heard.

A spirit for success

Through it all, our vision to “change the world, one student at a time, with a transformational education that provides a lifetime of learning,” was our constant guide, making each step of our journey clear. We know that both students and faculty will expect us to do even better this fall than we did last spring, so we used the summer to resolve (we hope!) the last remaining gaps in our remote-learning programs. We have reopened in a hybrid mode, allowing those students and staff members who want to come back to campus to do so, and offering remote education to those not yet ready to venture into a world still grappling with the virus (and those who discovered they actually prefer the flexibility of online learning).

Though our digital capabilities were indispensable, our spirit and mission are carrying us through this marathon, even as the finish line continues to move.

PROFILE: Sharon B. DeVivo, who holds a doctor of education degree, is the seventh president of Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology and the only woman to hold the title. Since she became president, Vaughn has raised more than $20 million in federal and state grants to support the college’s transformation from a training institution to a college offering bachelor of science degrees in engineering, management and aviation and a master of science degree in airport management. She serves on the board of The Wings Club; on the advisory board to the International Aviation Women’s Association; and recently was appointed by US Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao as chair of the Youth in Aviation Task Force.

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