VERMILLION — University of South Dakota President Sheila Gestring reminded her audience during her State of the University address Thursday that “all it takes is one second for someone’s life to change at USD.”
As she finished that statement, a photo of the South Dakota Coyotes football team’s dramatic win over the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits last year flashed on the screen above the Aalfs Auditorium stage, where Gestring spoke before a gathering of university faculty and staff.
The Coyotes defeated the Jackrabbits in that game when, with one second left on the clock, wide receiver Jeremiah Webb caught a 57-yard Hail Mary pass from quarterback Carson Camp in the endzone.
That catch is one of many moments that stand out, Gestring said, describing the past year as a time of learning, creating solutions, serving our communities and “coming together as Coyotes.”
Her hour-long speech addressed a wide range of topics, from enrollment and facility improvements, to student support and academic opportunities.
Early in her talk, she spoke of the direct, face-to-face, positive impact that many USD programs are having in helping retain and assist students.
“As I reflected on the past year, two things stood out. First, USD has always been and will continue to be a leader in supporting our students — their successes in the classroom, their access to real-world opportunities and their journeys to become lifelong learners,” Gestring said. “Secondly, as our students develop and begin the next phase of their lives after USD, they are incredibly prepared and ready to tackle the challenges ahead.
“We know this through conversations with our industry partners and through conversations with our students,” she said. “That is a testament to the hard work by our dedicated faculty and staff and I would like to thank each and every one of you for making USD a special place for our students to learn.”
Topics of Thursday’s address include:
The university president spoke of a $1 million grant received by USD from the US Department of Education, thanks to the work of Assistant Provost Lisa Bonneau.
Those funds were used to create a holistic model for student success, with a specific focus on rural students.
“Through this grant-funded program, USD will create a first-year mentoring and transition experience,” Gestring said. “The goal of this is to increase enrollment and retention for our rural and under-represented students. This program will lay the foundation for how we recruit and retain all students going forward, and I’m very excited to see this vision come to life.”
As part of this program, USD will increase its capacity for participation in internships through Coyote Career Kickstart.
“This program connects USD students to financial support and career preparation through meaningful work opportunities, alumni mentors, professional development tools and soft skills training,” she said. “It also helps build the region’s workforce by introducing students to employers and expanding our employer network.”
• Strengthening International Programs
A stronger focus is also being made to attract and retain international students to the Vermillion campus, the president said.
“Our international recruitment and support efforts will now be unified and housed in the new Gallagher International Center. This will be led by director Patrick Morrison,” Gestring said. “The Gallagher International Center centralizes the university’s International Affairs, overseeing programs and resources such as Study Abroad, International Admissions and International Student Services.”
This development better enables USD’s international program to share resources and foster a community of study among participants and international students.
“We look forward to continuing a strong tradition of serving all students interested in expanding their education through this comprehensive vision of international programming,” she said.
• Leadership Development
One way USD supports students, the president said, is by providing leadership development programming through the President’s Senior Leadership Institute.
“This unique program allows us to better connect and serve our best and brightest senior-level students and offer pre-professional training to help them become leaders in our state and beyond,” Gestring said. “In this year-long program, participants develop essential skills and non-academic knowledge that will set them up for success.
“Students who participate focus on topics such as group dynamics, personal strengths, financial literacy, responsible citizenship, professional etiquette and more,” she said. “Last year, 37 students completed this program. This year, we’re excited to have more than 75 students nominated by their faculty and staff.”
Gestring noted that the university is aware that today’s students face new pressures and their mental and emotional wellness is a top concern.
The university recently added another counselor to the USD Student Counseling Center.
“We have trained 62 new student mentors for the ‘Question, Persuade, Refer’ or the QPR Program, an industry-leading, suicide prevention program aimed at educating faculty, staff and students about suicide warning signs,” she said.
The USD president noted that while not all mental health struggles experienced by students can be completely eliminated, “we are highly focused on identifying students who may be a risk and providing them the tools they need in overcoming these struggles with professional assistance.”
Charlie’s Cupboard, a student-led on-campus food pantry, is in its third year of operation on the USD campus and has served more than 3,000 students.
“It offers fresh, frozen and shelf-stable food, as well as personal care products for students in need,” Gestring said. “Now open weekly, Charlie’s Cupboard served nearly 300 students its first week and expects to average more than 200 students each week for the remainder of the year.”
She noted that USD English students secured nearly $15,000 in grant funding for the Vermillion Food Pantry.
“I cannot express enough how proud I am of our students and their commitment to our community,” she said. “Their impact will last well into the future and as a testament to the good work I know they will perform once they are out into the world.”
On a related note, Gestring announced that the university will soon launch Charlie’s Career Closet, which is “designed to provide USD students with new or gently used professional attire to help them look their best and project confidence while working towards their career goals,” she said.
This initiative is supported by the USD Women in Philanthropy group and sponsored by the Academic and Career Planning Center in partnership with the Department of Media and Journalism.
The first clothing drive for Charlie’s Career Closet will be held this fall. The closet will open next spring.
“USD has also responded to students in need through the development of a student emergency fund,” Gestring said. “Originally launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the student emergency fund continues to provide much needed support to students facing financial hardships.”
She talked about one USD student — a single mother of two — who was struggling to make ends meet. The student received a grant to help with daily necessities such as groceries, clothing and gas. Another first-generation student, Gestring said, received a grant so that they didn’t need to get another job to help fill the gap.
“Over the past two years, 59 students have received these grants and we have shown nearly an 85% retention rate for these students and we are extremely proud of the way our Coyote community has stepped up to help these students in need.”