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UW Acting President Theobald: Better days are ahead, Pokes
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UW Acting President Theobald: Better days are ahead, Pokes

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Gov. Mark Gordon recently invited me to a meeting with legislators and community college presidents to discuss how we can work together to create new economic opportunities for Wyoming. This was shortly after my new boss, incoming University of Wyoming President Edward Seidel, was hired. Dr. Seidel is the ideal person, in my view, to lead the University of Wyoming and partner with the state of Wyoming in responding to the critical economic challenges we face. He is coming to UW from the University of Illinois, where he is vice president for economic development and innovation.

Earlier in his career, Dr. Seidel played a key role in bringing the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center to Cheyenne. To give you a sense of the speed at which the NCAR supercomputer works, it would take the entire population of Wyoming more than 200 years — performing one calculation per second around the clock — to perform the same number of calculations that the NCAR supercomputer can perform in just one second. This enormous computational capacity can help add jobs — and retain young Wyomingites in the state — particularly in the state’s growing blockchain technology sector.

Another recent wonderful addition to UW is Dr. Holly Krutka, who moved to UW from Peabody Energy Corporation to direct our School of Energy Resources (SER) — a world leader in energy research. Dr. Krutka’s research and industry experience are ideal for leading SER towards its goal of retaining energy-sector jobs in Wyoming by (a) implementing technical solutions that lower the carbon intensity of energy generation, and (b) developing new carbon-based fibers and materials that add value to Wyoming coal and natural gas.

As the UW works to add and retain jobs in Wyoming, we are focused on educating graduates to fill these jobs. After extensive consultation with Wyoming businesses on their needs, we greatly expanded our online accounting degree options and added a new construction management degree. Within a year, we will add new tourism and hospitality degree programs and expanded computer science certification offerings directly tied to Wyoming’s economy. We are partnering with Wyoming community colleges on a revised K-12 career and technical education teaching certificate that will be launched this fall.

Until the COVID-19 virus exploded three plus weeks ago, I was on track to visit all 48 Wyoming high schools and talk with our high school seniors about “being intentional” in choosing among the many options available to them. Learning a trade is a great path for many of our youth. I was an electrician’s apprentice at the Caterpillar Tractor Co. when the implosion of the Midwest’s manufacturing sector in the 1970s and 1980s convinced me to seek other career options.

Our state’s community colleges provide another set of pathways through which our high school graduates can develop their skills and talents. For community college students who seek a degree from the UW, we are partnering with the community colleges to release a common transcript in the next few weeks across our institutions.

Wyoming’s community colleges and UW are focused on dramatically increasing the number of Wyomingites who earn a bachelor’s degree within eight semesters of finishing high school. Wyoming’s primary financial aid system (the Hathaway Scholarship) provides a maximum of eight semesters of funding. Students who take longer than eight semesters often find themselves incurring student debt or stepping out from school in order to earn money to pay for college. Neither of these options is what we seek for our undergraduate students.

As COVID-19 continues to impact the world, the welfare of our students is our top priority. To help financially secure our students so they can focus on their coursework and complete their semester, UW will continue to keep all student workers on the UW payroll for the remainder of the semester — four more paychecks — even though students were encouraged not to return to Laramie after spring break. I am also extremely thankful to the UW Foundation (UWF) for creating a $250,000 matching program — Pokes Make the Difference — for gifts to an emergency fund for students. I really appreciate UWF stepping up in this way.

For those of you who haven’t seen it — and even for those who have — I highly recommend a 60-second video posted for our students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4LAy3wU7mg. We are committed to doing everything we can to help our students finish this semester strong. None of us expected a spring like this, but our message is: Keep moving forward, Pokes; better days are ahead.

Neil Theobald is acting president of the University of Wyoming.

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