Writer: Felipe Rivas
2 min read October 2020 —Agnes Scott College is a private women’s liberal arts college in Decatur. The college enrolls approximately 1,000 students. President Leocadia Zak spoke with Focus: Atlanta about the highlights for the school in the past year, being ranked the most innovative liberal arts college, and the school’s most popular programs.
What were some of the highlights of the last academic year and how are you dealing with the pandemic?
Our faculty and staff have done an amazing job engaging our students during this difficult time. This fall, our enrollment is the largest in the college’s history, which is a testament to the ability of our faculty to pivot so effectively. Our faculty and staff volunteered over the summer to reach out to students and assuage any doubts about returning in the fall. Another priority was our signature experience, SUMMIT. SUMMIT focuses on global learning and leadership development, and is, in part, why we have received the No. 1 ranking from U.S. News & World Report for the past three consecutive years. Components of our students’ first year are a global experience and a focus on leadership. Last year, we built out a new initiative called SCALE, which stands for the Sophomore Class Atlanta Leadership Experience. SCALE is held over a week in March to connect our students with a local corporation or organization to gain real-life work experience. We had a tremendous response from the Atlanta community for our pilot year last year. We are looking forward to a similar experience for our sophomores next spring.
Another area in which the pandemic actually helped was catalyzing creativity. At the beginning, there was a fear that the pandemic would bring internships to a halt. While a pause may be true for in-person internships, our faculty and staff developed virtual internships throughout the spring. This innovative approach has opened up a whole new world of opportunity for the scope of our student internships.
Why is it important to be ranked as the most innovative liberal arts college?
The ranking of No. 1 for innovation three years in a row is unprecedented. We are also ranked first for first-year experience and No. 2 for teaching. We are also proud of our social mobility ranking, which again is in the Top 10. We will continue to offer global learning and leadership development to our students at all levels. The other aspect of our student experience is our focus on professional success. Thanks to the support of local foundations, our students now have access to sector-specific career advisers. Our campus innovation includes believing that it is never enough to be excellent. We’re always striving for more on behalf of our students.
What are the school’s most popular programs?
One of the things people have to remember is that the liberal arts provide skills that employers are looking for. We hear from employers that they are searching for employees who can write, think critically and communicate effectively. That is what the overall liberal arts education provides. Some of our most popular majors are psychology, public health, English, business management, economics, neuroscience and math. We are proud of our STEM program, which is bolstered by our resource center for math and science. Many of our students tend to study a double major where they combine a STEM major with something a little more creative. This approach gives them an advantage in the job market.
How has the student profile changed to reflect changing demographics?
One of the factors people don’t realize is the extent of our racial diversity. We have no racial majority on our campus. As a result, ours is a special community where students can learn from each other. Coming to Agnes Scott may mark the first time some students have been in a classroom with a person of a different race. Last year, we launched a series of conversations regarding racial equity and ways to respectfully bring everyone together. Like innovation, being in a diverse environment gives our students a unique experience and perspective on life.
What is motivating students to continue their education in such a challenging time?
I think, now more than ever, people crave a connection given this isolating time. Colleges like ours that continue to provide opportunities for ongoing, meaningful, innovative faculty, student and staff interaction are highly valued. Our classes are small and attention is given to individuals. We have been presenting our extracurricular activities in a virtual format since we went remote last spring.
What are some of the lessons learned from the spring semester and how have you applied these to the fall semester?
One of the things our faculty did was survey the students to gauge how we could improve the teaching and learning experience. Part of the solution was listening to our students to understand the most helpful initiatives. We had to ensure that all students and faculty were trained in using the technology, that they were all using the same platforms and that these tools would work in smaller groups. We received feedback on the optimal amount of time to lecture versus engage. All of these extra efforts are yielding preferred outcomes for our students. We like to make a plan, evaluate it and adjust it to the needs of our students based on their feedback.
For more information on our interviewee, visit: https://www.agnesscott.edu/