New to the College, Dr. Vishal Shah was appointed the new dean of Math, Science and Health Careers in June 2021. A role that comes during a transformative time amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the new dean is excited to work with students.
We sat down to talk to Dr. Shah about his journey to the College and his plans for his new role. Read the conversation below.
1. Please tell us about yourself and your background.
I have an academic background across three different continents that first include India and the Czech Republic, and from there, I came to the United States. Here, I completed my post-doctorate at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. I was a faculty member and department chair in Long Island, New York, and in 2015 moved on to West Chester University. I was the associate dean for the College of the Sciences and Mathematics. I also served in an interim capacity as the associate vice president for the Office of Sponsored Research and Center for International Programs. Cumulative experiences of serving in various roles have allowed me to understand how a collaborative approach across units allows for greater student and faculty success.
I spend my free time doing research and reading scientific articles. Research, no matter how narrow the hypothesis, allows one to experience the journey of discovery and inventions. Contributing to the pool of knowledge makes me happy.
2. You entered this role and the College during a pivotal time in history. How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has altered learning in higher ed.?
As we look through the lens of the pandemic and consider how it has impacted us, there are two critical lessons that stand out.
First, as we navigate through this fall semester and beyond, institutions of higher education should not lose sight of the emotional and mental wellbeing of our students, faculty, and staff. With the daily influx of media reports on human suffering globally and changing dynamics of the pandemic, the emotional toll on all of us keeps rising. The onslaught of media reports projecting bleak news does not allow us to step back and distinguish real risks from the perceived risks, raising our anxieties. To me, the confluence of increased anxiety and grief many times prevents effective learning and teaching. Higher education will need to address this in the years to come.
Secondly, we’ll need to comprehend that our society is going to come out different once the pandemic is over, whenever that will be. The notion of ‘returning back to normal’ will never happen, considering the new normal will be different from what we were used to. Higher education should be leading with an example for society on how to adapt to the new normal.
For now, the new normal is miles away and there are a lot of uncertainties. The only certainty we have is the uncertainty of it all. Through all of this, I remain very hopeful and optimistic of the times ahead.
3. So, how do we prepare our students for the future with so many uncertainties?
What we must realize is, our students and faculty have gained a lot of experience through the pandemic. It was brought on by a sudden external force and we had to figure out solutions in real time. We are still figuring out solutions to changing realities. But, with the passage of time, I am confident that it will be less about the circumstances, and more about how we use the experiences. We can’t undo all the things we’ve learned or have experienced and how they’ve affected us. So, when we talk about the future, we will need to embrace all the lessons learned.
4. How does Community College of Philadelphia differ from other local institutions?
It is truly my belief that the College, and other community colleges in general, will be the catalyst of change in our society. Our role in society is transparent and it’s in our mission. The fact that we know what we need to do means a lot because we're not figuring out what we will do, post-pandemic. We're already working on how we will do it. That’s what sets our College apart from other institutions.
5. What is your opinion on the role the College plays in the lives of students?
Right now, the debate many of the high schoolers are having with their parents is whether they should go to college because of the debt and expenses involved. That's the reality for a majority of the population. Gone are the days when higher education was accessible to everybody. When students are bombarded and constantly under pressure of debt, one cannot expect them to have the freedom to think, the freedom to explore their passions. That's not the environment where a student can discover their true talents and identity. And, that is where Community College of Philadelphia is ideally placed. Here, the students do not have to pursue a degree just because they see it as a means to an end, but they can pursue their passion.
One should also not forget that not every STEM career requires four and six years of education. The College provides numerous unique pathways that lead to exciting careers after a certificate or associate degree. And these careers are critical in our society.
6. What would you like students to know?
My message to them would be, “Never lose hope and never lose confidence in your own self.” From my experience, life is always a struggle. Life throws roadblocks. Always take those roadblocks as opportunities, no matter how tall and wide they look. Do not hesitate to ask for help. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. Reach out to your mentors, your advisors, your guardians and friends. Always know nobody is alone; it's knowing who you can reach out to - sometimes that's the difference between overcoming an obstacle and not. Know the College is there for them even after they leave. This is a resource that never ends.