El Paso Community College President William Serrata is seemingly everywhere. Since 2012, Serrata has been the school’s president but also juggles other leadership roles that include president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, board member for Workforce Solutions Borderplex and chair of the board of directors for Excelenia in Education.
At EPCC, the school has recently expanded one of its campuses to accommodate students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
El Paso Matters spoke with Serrata about his reflections on 2021. The interview has been edited for length and style.
El Paso Matters: What’s one word you would use to describe this year?
Serrata: The word I’d choose to describe not just this year, but the last two years, is “challenging.” There’s a lot of other words that come into play, like “heartbreak” and “suffering,” but I also think of the positives from respect for the college as well as the greater community.
El Paso Matters: You stated “heartbreak.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Serrata: We lost a faculty member, we have several different members of the college community and family who’ve lost loved ones. We’re all here for a short period of time and you just think that your time will be longer than it actually is, in particular, when we’re dealing with something as vicious as the pandemic and in particular, last year. When we didn’t have access to vaccines, it was incredibly tough and it was heartbreaking to see different members of the community go through so much heartbreak during the pandemic.
El Paso Matters: What have you learned about yourself this year as president?
Serrata: I’ve learned more about how committed I am to this work. I learned how hard different individuals at the institution, my cabinet, all the vice presidents, associate vice presidents, how hard they work. Our faculty has been phenomenal since March 2020, when they had to convert approximately 92% of our courses from in-person to online in a two-week time period. They’ve been incredible. There’s so much resiliency and so much commitment from the faculty and staff at the institution.
El Paso Matters: What was a moment that made you feel proud?
Serrata: It actually just happened. We have not had face-to-face commencement ceremonies for two years. December 2019 was the last time, and was on the tail end of our 50th anniversary. But we felt that as vaccinations continue to rise, as case counts somewhat decline but vaccination rates continue to go up, we felt there was an opportunity for us to come back together and hold a commencement.
We had a significant number with just under 1,200 students who crossed the stage and we opened it up to the class of 2020 as well. We wanted to make sure that if students felt they didn’t have that rite of passage of crossing the stage, we invited them back.
It was especially a proud moment for me to be able to come back and have a face-to-face commencement. It was different; I’m used to shaking every graduate’s hand. We did not do that, instead when they came up with their diploma cover we posed for a picture.
El Paso Matters: How are you approaching the next year?
Serrata: The pandemic has really forced us to do a lot of planning and it’s forced us to understand that our plans are not final, that they’re always fluid. Our goal was to come back in the spring and have 65% of our courses face-to-face. Right now we’re at 55%. We’re still going forward with the plan but we’ll be able to shift should we need to should the (omicron) variant prove to be more challenging than we anticipate. I would like to get to 75% and I’m hopeful that as we come back in January, that numbers will start to subside where we can move forward with 75%.
El Paso Matters: What is the biggest challenge the institution is facing?
Serrata: The biggest challenge that we’re looking at right now is the effects that the pandemic has had on the number of potential students. The college is down about 15% from our peak in 2019 and in 2019 we were just over 29,000 students in the fall term. Right now we’re at about 24,600 students. That worries me about the future economic viability and opportunities for students that would have participated in higher education. I continue to check with our partners at UTEP; they’re down in enrollment this fall as well. So it’s currently that students just aren’t participating and for me, that’s the biggest challenge because there are long-term ramifications of that.
El Paso Matters: Has the pandemic affected your day-to-day life?
Serrata: It stretched all of us. With Zoom, Microsoft Teams and all the different formats that we have available to us for online meetings, time zones became almost nonexistent. And so, we’d start meetings at 6 a.m. because of the East Coast and end meetings at 6 p.m. It became easy to schedule back-to-back meetings but it gets stacked and you don’t have time to process and to think. You go from one (meeting) to the next. It became a challenge to make sure that we scheduled breaks and that we were able to have some downtime.
El Paso Matters: What do you want the community to know about you?
Serrata: When I was interviewing for the job, around 10 years ago, I wanted the community to know how committed I am to this community, how committed I am to the institution in providing an opportunity to higher education for so many El Pasoans. For our community members, whether you’re right out of high school, returning to school, or you had some credits but not a credential and now you’re looking at rescaling and upskilling, we’re here. I’m just like this community. I was a first-generation college student 35 years ago and I’ve seen the difference that higher education has made in my life and my family’s life.
El Paso Matters: What is one goal that you want to achieve next year?
Serrata: We want to continue to offer a variety of higher education opportunities to our community in a safe manner. The art, science and technology building at the Valle Verde campus will be ready for the spring term. It’s the largest facility with about 103,000 square feet. Midway through the spring term, about March of 2022, our campus addition to the Rio Grande campus will be up and ready and we expect that to be utilized.
That will complete our master plan that we started back in 2015. I’m excited to be where we are. The pandemic has delayed some of these projects but we’re about to complete that and we look forward to students being able to utilize those facilities for the foreseeable future.
Cover photo: William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College, said his proudest moment this year came in December as EPCC held its first in-person commencement ceremony since the start of the pandemic. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)