Michelle Marchante/Staff Writer
On Thursday, April 6, faculty and students met with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Mark B. Rosenberg at the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing and Health Sciences for a roundtable discussion on the current and future state of education while student protesters voiced their opposition outside.
After visiting CARE Elementary, a Christian school in Overtown, FIU was the second stop DeVos made Thursday and is the first public university she visited as the Secretary of Education for what Rosenberg called a “listening tour” to NBC6.
“I’m very honored to be here and very much interested in hearing from you about your experiences here, what things you are finding to be particularly strong and successful, what some of your challenges are, and what you see as your opportunities for your future,” DeVos said during the panel.
DeVos, Republican billionaire, faced a difficult confirmation by the Senate over her lack of education administration experience with Vice President Mike Pence giving a historic tie breaking vote to get the required numbers of vote to be confirm.
During the roundtable discussion, faculty and students, such as Idaykis Rodriguez, a post-doctoral student, voiced concerns over the accessibility of education and federal funding, particularly for a commuter school that is minority-majority.
“FIU serves as a beacon of hope for a lot of our students in order to achieve that American dream,” Rodriguez said during the panel.
The future of undocumented student immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was also brought up by Tarkiu Menberu, an Ethiopian doctor participating in the school’s foreign physician retraining program to become a nurse.
According to DeVos, besides pushing for more STEM and STEAM programs, the new administration is taking on a “bigger picture, larger look” approach and is looking to see what programs and initiatives are the most effective for students and instructors.
Once these programs are identified, the department will be able to target these resources more effectively to help them “flourish,” while defunding those that aren’t working, DeVos said.
DeVos also reiterated Secretary John F. Kelly’s words, saying that the new administration is “sensitive” to DACA students and that they have no intention of searching for students in the schools.
“We have an obligation to care for the students that are in the schools and in the system,” said DeVos.
But Francesca Riccio-Ackerman, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering and the newly elected senator for engineering, is worried that these are empty promises and doesn’t understand why FIU would accept her visit and only allow a select group of students to participate in the discussion.
“If she is against public education, why are we opening our arms and saying we are so honored that she came to visit?” Riccio-Ackerman said to Student Media.
DeVos has been a strong promoter of charter schools, school vouchers, the privatization of schools and school choice. Beside her lack of educational background, Riccio-Ackerman also feels that DeVos’ anti-public school stance is going to have disastrous consequences for the students who depend on it, which is why she participated in the student protest held outside the Academic Health Center 3 building where the visit was held.
“Public schools are a source of safe haven for the poorest of the poor children that really need it,” Riccio-Ackerman said.
Riccio-Ackerman tutors children in low-income communities with her mother and said that she’s seen how important public education is. The free lunch provided in public schools for low-income students, she said, will many times be the only thing those students will eat in the entire day.
“If this woman didn’t attend public school her whole life, and didn’t put her children in public school and isn’t a supporter of public school, she must think that public schools are not doing well, that they are failing,” Riccio-Ackerman said. “But as secretary of education, you would think that she would want to fix that but instead she’s saying ‘no, let’s take more money away from them.’”
The focus of the administration, however, according to DeVos, will be to give states and locales the most power possible when it comes to education because she believes the best decisions are done locally.
“FIU is a great example of that,” DeVos said. “The partnership that has been formed with the Miami-Dade schools and the system here and the mutually symbiotic relationship there is, is one that has to be encouraged and further fostered.”
Robert Wood, a graduating senior with a dual-degree in psychology and chemistry, spoke at the roundtable and while he felt that the issues discussed were legitimate, he wished they would have had more time to discuss the successful initiatives FIU was doing that could be implemented in the rest of the country.
During the discussion, Wood, a learning assistant in the Chemistry Department, explained his role in bridging the communication gap between students and professors, and how the school has seen success with active learning. DeVos, he said, appeared to be engaged with the concept of guided independent learning prior to class.
“That is a new way of teaching and all the test grades have gone up,” Wood said to Student Media. “You can imagine that for chemistry, physics and all these guys that usually struggle in these classes, having a percentage of the class that is passing go up 20-40 percent is huge.”
According to Rosenberg, this idea of being active is part of FIU’s culture, and is not just promoted for the classroom, but for the community as well, as the recent Dance Marathon showed.
“Part of our effort is to encourage students and faculty to take responsibility,” Rosenberg said. “If we don’t take responsibility, who will? If we don’t get engaged, who will?”
Prior to the roundtable, DeVos met in private with Rosenberg to discuss important University issues such as pell grants, internships, tuition, the STEM Transformation Institute, and was also given a tour of the Simulation Teaching And Research Center, which hosts different nursing simulation rooms and is partially funded by the federal government.
During an exclusive interview with Student Media, DeVos said that besides FIU’s academic success, it was the school’s “great reputation” with the community that led to her visit.
Visiting these schools, she said, is like a learning experience for her, allowing her to see what makes a school work effectively.
DeVos also recognizes that student loans, scholarships and the cost of tuition is a main concern for students and that the administration is examining these areas to see what they can do to help alleviate these problems in the new budget, but that it’s difficult and will take time.
“A one size fits all package is the worst thing to do when it comes to education,” DeVos said.