NJCU sits in the heart of N.J.’s COVID-19 outbreak … but that’s not necessarily bad

Among all the uncertainties surrounding higher education during the COVID-19 crisis, one belief seemed to be clear: The schools in the hardest-hit areas would have the hardest time reopening.

Turns out, even that idea can be called into question.

New Jersey City University President Sue Henderson makes a compelling case for the advantages her school will have this fall — and onward.

“No one really knows what is going to happen — the principle for the fall is going to be the concept of fluidity,” she said. “That’s all we can commit to right now. But, there are some advantages.”

For starters, she said, it won’t be difficult to get students and faculty and the entire NJCU community to buy into whatever social distancing and health guidelines are put into place.

Masking … temperature scanning … limited capacity in classes — there’s no reason to think anyone would push back on any of those practices.

Then, there’s the possibility — and Henderson emphasizes it’s a possibility — that, because COVID has been so prevalent in Hudson County (there have been nearly 18,000 confirmed cases and over 1,100 fatalities), many residents may have developed antibodies to it and the area may not be as susceptible if a predicted second wave comes in the fall or winter.

“We’ve been through it, our numbers are going down, it may be spreading other places,” she said. “We just don’t know.

“It will be interesting to watch how much it returns to Wuhan (China). So, in some sense, maybe it was good to be one of the first ones to go through this.”

Henderson is sure about one thing: The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how nearly every issue is a global issue. And that, going forward, the need for a global education — the type of programming NJCU has been offering for years — will only increase in value.

Henderson, who serves on the American Council of Education’s International Commission, said she recently told her fellow members why COVID-19 is a perfect example of why schools need to think globally.

“The solutions won’t come from one country,” she said. “It will be scientists from all over the world. And that’s true whether we’re talking about science or technology or anything else. There’s competition, but there’s also collaboration.”

NJCU President Sue Henderson with former U.S. Rep. Frank Guarini.

NJCU got a boost in its international initiatives from a recent $10 million gift from longtime benefactor Frank Guarini. Part of Guarini’s gift will go to establishing an International Studies Institute that will bear his name.

Henderson said Guarini, a former seven-term congressman from the area, always has preached the global workplace.

“His big passion has been international,” Henderson said. “He said you really should be reaching out to other institutions across the world. If you look at his giving practices, they generally foster globalization.”

Henderson spoke with ROI-NJ about all things COVID, higher education and New Jersey City University. Here is more of the interview, condensed for clarity.

ROI-NJ: Talk about how your school and your county have handled COVID-19 — and how you see that evolving moving forward?

Sue Henderson: The response in Jersey City from Mayor (Steve) Fulop has been really good. Our cases are continuing to go down and we have free antibody testing. We know we’ll need more of that on campus.

We have to come up with a way for us to easily test people to see if they’re sick. We know that taking a temperature is not a completely reliable source, because you carry it around for a couple of days before you get a temperature. So, we know we need something more.

Then there’s the idea of the classrooms. We know we are going to have lower densities. Maybe it will be a situation where half the class is in the room and the other half is online. And they switch every other class. We know people want to interact with people. We’re social beings. We have to figure out how to do this in a smart way. We have to be nimble.

That’s what we’re trying to figure out. But, as I said, I think our community wants this and expects this.

ROI: You are bigger proponent of global learning. Talk about some of the programs NJCU has.

SH: We have partnerships with two universities in China, where we bring in about 100 students a year. We have partnerships with two universities in India, where we bring in about 20 students. And we’re now partnering with Ocean County College with some universities in Egypt. We’re working on a partnership with an institution in Turkey. And, through Frank, we have a partnership with John Cabot, a relatively small institution in Rome.

It’s been really exciting to us, because it has increased the number of international students that come to our campus. But the game-changer for me has been to take first-generation students here and get them out of the country. Many of our students have parents who came from another country as immigrants. Now, we’re sending them back out and they have a very global perspective and I think will make a big difference.

I think globalization is what business in the future is going to be. And this is what Frank keeps getting to — if you don’t have a global perspective as a businessman, it’s going to be complicated. The world’s going to be complicated.

ROI: Travel restrictions obviously have impacted global learning. How are you adapting?

SH: The pandemic will very clearly accelerate the adaptation and adoption of learning online. You have to find new ways. I’ll give you an example: Our partners in China bring their students here the senior year; we’re now setting up ways to do this online until we can do face-to-face.

The question we need to be asking is, ‘How can we harness the power of technology to make the interaction even more powerful?’ We’re putting in a virtual classroom that we’re getting from Harvard in our school of business. It will allow us to do very robust online experiences with students from around the world.

ROI: We can see why you are so excited about the International Studies Institute. Talk about what you see — what Frank Guarini sees — in that program.

SH: I’ll start with what Frank said about it himself. His father immigrated here from Italy. When Frank went to Dartmouth, he got the opportunity to travel abroad. He said it absolutely opened his head up to another world.

We see that here. I could name you student after student after student of ours who we’ve sent out, who come back just very different. That’s so important here, because we are so connected to the world in Jersey City. Some of our biggest buildings are built by China Construction America. There’s a huge Indian population and a large Filipino population in Jersey City. So, it’s important that our students get out to other countries. And it’s important for students to think about how they’re going to do business across the borders.

One of my board members, Luke Visconti, is the founder of DiversityInc. One of the things he’s found in his research is that more-diverse organizations are far healthier and far more profitable. And, to me, that diversity is not ethnic diversity, but also diversity of thought. That’s why I think this idea of a much more global perspective is really important. And our institute is going to spend a lot of energy thinking about the global sense of work in the future.

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