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How This University President Has Kept Enrollment Strong During the COVID-19 Pandemic—While Pivoting Towards the Future

Dr. Irma Becerra still remembers—with some disbelief—her first day as an undergraduate in the late ‘70s, when her university’s president addressed the incoming freshmen by saying, “Look to your left, look to your right—only one of you will graduate.”

“That has been the expectation,” says Becerra, now the president of Marymount University, a comprehensive Catholic institution in Arlington, VA. “Nationally, only 50% of students who start college finish. That is a travesty. What’s happening to the half that’s not graduating?” Becerra, who joined Marymount in 2018, is committed to ensuring that every student who starts at her school graduates. Given Marymount’s distinctive history of out-of-the-box thinking, its embrace of diversity and student support systems, its practical education underpinned by the liberal arts, and its rising national profile, Becerra is well-positioned to make good on her pledge.

Founded as a two-year career-prep college for women in 1950—right as women were being pushed out of the workforce by the return of WWII soldiers—Marymount has evolved into a co-educational institution offering undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs ranging from nursing to cybersecurity to criminal justice. “Our degrees tend to be very important for the D.C. region, but also for the nation,” says Becerra. “That’s why our students are highly sought after, and why half of our graduates stay in the area; it’s a very vibrant job environment.”

Under Becerra’s leadership, Marymount is poised to thrive in the coming decade. I recently talked with her about the innovative ways the university prepares students for the 21st century’s in-demand jobs. We also discussed how her training in crisis management and engineering—in 1994 she became the first woman to be awarded a PhD in electrical engineering at Florida International University—has helped Marymount meet the challenges of COVID-19 and keep its enrollment stable even as other colleges suffer drastic dips. And with a nod to Marymount students’ creativity, Becerra explained how her school’s commitment to hands-on learning extends to the students who live—quite intentionally—at the scene of a crime.


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