Last spring, when COVID-19 forced colleges across the country to close down and move their courses online, The Universities at Shady Grove was no exception. But many USG students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and lack good internet access at home. So they would drive to the Rockville campus and sit outside the shuttered buildings, just to tap into the school’s Wi-Fi system and attend class.
“That’s when we recognized that we had to do something much more substantial,” says Stew Edelstein, who retired as USG’s executive director in October.
This fall, the school wired its parking garage so students could sit in their cars, protected from the weather, while connecting to the internet and doing their course work.
That experience typifies the special challenges facing USG, a unique institution that has few parallels. On its campus, individual divisions of the University of Maryland system offer degree programs to students who have completed two years of study elsewhere. (Three out of four students come from Montgomery College.) For example, the University of Baltimore offers health management, Towson specializes in early childhood education, Eastern Shore teaches hospitality and tourism. Shady Grove itself does not confer degrees—those are awarded by the home campuses—but the Rockville location provides centralized services for all students, such as career advice and academic coaching.
USG started in 2000 with five schools offering seven programs, and the first graduating class had 36 students. Today, nine institutions provide more than 80 different majors, and each year about 850 undergraduates and 250 grad students complete their degrees.
When I asked Edelstein, who is 73, to explain the culture of USG, he pointed to the diversity—and the determination—of the student body. Almost two-thirds of students are non-white, and half are the first in their family to attend college. He quotes one woman, who wants to be a doctor: “I love my biology class, it has 25 students and every single one of them is from a different country.”
“They know this is an opportunity that many of them didn’t think they would ever have, to get a higher education degree, to be able to improve their lives,” Edelstein says. “They know that they’re modeling this for their kids and for others in their community, and they are driven. They are driven.”
The pandemic has hit these students hard, however, and technology is only one of their problems. Another is lack of privacy at home, and as one nursing student, the mother of three, told Edelstein: “Help me. Give me some space on campus where I can spend time studying. Any time. Give it to me. Please.”
Providing that space is a top priority, but doing it safely presents a challenge. When the fall semester began, all but two campus buildings were closed. Only a handful of courses—such as lab sciences and nursing clinics—were conducted in person. All the rest were online, and the result was to separate students from each other in potentially damaging ways. “Isolation is dangerous. They want the interaction with people who look like them and who are going through the same circumstances,” notes Edelstein. “One of the strongest support systems at USG is the students themselves, they help each other.” The pandemic has weakened that network, but student organizations, like a club for first-generation college students, continue to meet virtually. Online mental health counseling has also helped replace the loss of in-person inspiration.
Hunger is another issue, in part because USG had to shut down its onsite food bank, so it erected outside lockers where students can pick up pre-packed boxes of food. The school has also raised more than $100,000 in emergency funds to provide Target gift cards so students can buy groceries and other essentials like diapers and toiletries.
Edelstein can relate to these problems because of his own background. His grandparents were immigrants from Poland and Hungary, and he grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a working-class neighborhood where his father taught at the local high school, his uncle was a union organizer, and he breathed in the fumes of left-wing politics. His father also ran a local community center “and was very much involved in helping new immigrants,” mainly from China and Latin America, who were then replacing earlier generations of Jewish settlers, Edelstein says. “I picked that up from him.”
After undergraduate work at SUNY Buffalo, Edelstein earned a doctorate in education from the University of California at Berkeley, perhaps the nation’s most progressive campus at the time. He came back east for a job as an administrator at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus and moved to “the People’s Republic of Takoma Park,” as he puts it. “It was the closest I could find anywhere in the region to Berkeley. Not quite the same thing, but the closest.”
In the 1990s, local business and political leaders were pushing the University of Maryland to create a new campus in Montgomery County. The administration of College Park, just across the line in Prince George’s County, opposed the idea, notes Edelstein, fearing a new school would “siphon off” too many of their prospective students. So USG was created as “a political solution to the problem,” he recalls, and “nobody thought it was going to work.”
A year after USG opened, Edelstein became executive director and, as he remembers, “I was told, ‘make it work, make Montgomery County happy, because Montgomery County is not happy. They wanted a University of Maryland campus and we gave them something different.’ ”
It did work, and when I asked Edelstein why, he replied: “One, we were local, we were accessible, we were not residential, so students could live in the community, they could work and support themselves and go to school full time.” A second reason, he added, is that USG understood that their students were quite different from the largely white and often privileged youngsters who enrolled at College Park.
“We needed to accept the students where they were,” says Edelstein, and that meant recognizing they needed “personalized services” like remedial writing classes and special study sessions in particularly difficult courses. And it meant raising more than a million dollars for annual scholarships from donors who understand the importance of “giving back” to their community.
Edelstein recounts the story of one recipient of financial aid who almost failed his accounting course, but stayed in school, got his degree, and used his first bonus check to establish a book fund for other needy students. Perhaps someone sitting in that parking garage this fall, struggling to get a Wi-Fi signal and complete her course work, will someday do the same thing.
Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Steve Hull, editor and publisher of Bethesda Magazine, is a member of The Universities at Shady Grove Board of Advisors.