Shannon Blevins has often been recruited for positions outside Southwest Virginia, where she grew up and is rearing her own family. Blevins, the Associate Vice Chancellor, Economic Development & Engagement at UVA Wise, has always said no. She researches the other offers, but “I can never check the box of the heart,” she says.

Instead, she is turning UVA Wise, a small rural institution with about 2,000 students, into a nationally recognized economic development actor (last year, Forbes and Sorensen Impact Center recognized one of its projects for enabling opportunity fund investments.) In an interview, she listed some of the rules she lives by to collaborate with many stakeholders and government agencies active in the central region of Appalachia. Some initiatives can move slowly, and many of the players stay the same. UVA Wise works across states, through Virginia’s higher education system and with regional and private sector actors.

You can learn more about her work in our profile, UVA Wise and Entrepreneurship in Appalachian Virginia, but here are some other words of wisdom she passes on to both students and members of the community.

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  • A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet.’
  • Don’t hold grudges. Even if someone is late to engage with you on a project, make room for them at the table.
  • If you get something started, but there’s a partner that’s better suited, step aside.
  • You have to continuously remind yourself, you can’t be married to your programs.
  • Don’t have all the answers. Somebody in the room, other than you, has the answer.
  • Be intentional about developing the norms of the group, and “don’t ostracize folks that are territorial.”
  • Don’t get above your raising. No one group could do those projects on their own. It is messy work. It is messy, messy work, and it can be emotionally draining.

September 9, 2020– By Elizabeth MacBride

Rowan University was an early leader in online learning. In 2010, the second-tier state school in New Jersey launched a division that now enrolls 12,000 students annually. Over the past 10 years, online learning has generated more than $128 million for the university by serving both adults returning to college and younger students with more than 55 course offerings in fields such as education, health administration, business, criminal justice and public relations.

headshot of Jeff Hand
Jeff Hand, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, Rowan University (Photo courtesy Rowan Univ.)

We sat down with Jeff Hand, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, to ask him for his thoughts about how online learning is likely to evolve as the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout continue.

Hand said once a higher-education institution goes online, it’s instantly up against every other online learning company or institution. As people retool for new and different jobs that may emerge after the pandemic, he said, the market is likely to change considerably. That shift to market responsiveness can be difficult for a higher education institution, he said — but Rowan is used to it. “We’re looking to morph along with those changes,” he said.

What has been the key to Rowan’s success so far?

We were founded as a teaching school. Pedagogy and curriculum is important in everything we do. As we had to move students online this spring, we had our quality standards already in place.

You’ve said one of the drivers for Rowan to start online learning was to keep costs low for non-traditional students. How low are they?

They’re about $460 per credit hour. We took out the fees that on-campus students pay for things like the Student Union and facilities fees. (Online students are allowed to use the Student Union, but they’re not charged). It’s about two-thirds the cost of in-state, on-campus tuition by credit hour.

How many New Jersey vs. out-of-state students are there online?

On campus, about 96% of our students are from New Jersey. Online, it’s 80%. You see, you’re competing with everyone. You have to be really good.

Given the financial pressures on students, families and the university itself are likely to face next year, will the pricing change?

We have committed to keeping tuition the same. We’re looking to expand student aid, to make it available to online students. We are also in discussions with financial technology companies, to offer students a way to finance their education by agreeing to pay back the cost of tuition after they start working.

Rowan would essentially extend them credit while they’re taking classes, and get paid later?

Yes.

modern school building on Rowan University campus
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September 3, 2020 – By Elizabeth MacBride

At the South Jersey Technology Park, a garden plot is being grown with some of the tastiest (and hottest) varieties of peppers, from long hots and beaver dams to ghost peppers and the scorpion butch.

The plot is tended by students at nearby Rowan University, which helped develop the Tech Park, and by Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan. Houshmand has been growing peppers and making his own special recipe of hot sauce for years. After the sauce became popular among family and friends, Houshmand decided to create a bottled version to sell as a fundraising tool for student scholarships. Asked by the university’s marketers to describe how it tastes, Houshmand said, “It’s nasty hot.”

The entrepreneurial venture, Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce, makes three varieties: Ali’s Nasty, Nastylicious and Nastyvicious.

bottles of hot sauce with flames behind them
Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauces

Houshmand collaborated with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton to get the hot sauces to market. They’re sold through the university’s website, for $10 a jar, along with swag like t-shirts and pint glasses.

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The company has earned over $130,000 in revenue that has been used for emergency scholarships for students at Rowan University who experience an unexpected financial crisis or need. With other donations, the scholarship fund has disbursed more than $3 million in assistance since its founding in 2016.

More than 65% of all Rowan undergraduates receive need-based financial aid.

“I grew up in a poor family with nine brothers and sisters. My mother and father couldn’t read,” said Houshmand in an interview, who immigrated to England from Iran just before he went to college at the University of Essex. “I’ve been through a tough time.”

Houshmand said he is committed to giving students from working class families a first-rate education at Rowan. “Give me the kid from Camden with a single mother, the one whose roof leaks when it rains. The real honor and the real accomplishment is serving that kid,” he said.

The Technology Park is also home to a technology business incubator designed to support a broad range of startups, including those led by Rowan students. Most recently, two Rowan grads set up a company which designed a new kind of reusable flexible drinking straw. In the next few years, as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurship – both startups and an entrepreneurial mindset at institutions – will be crucial to recovery. Rowan has already frozen its tuition for next year and is seeking ways to reduce costs further for students. “We have to recognize that a lot of our families have gone through serious financial issues,” Houshmand said. “So how can I make this easier? Increase the need-based scholarships.”

One pepper at a time.