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EWU president gives her first welcoming address to students

Courtesy Eastern Washington University
Shari McMahan wants to make her new university a more welcoming place, especially to first generation college students.

Shari McMahan has spent the summer introducing herself to her new community.

Eastern Washington University’s new president, Shari McMahan, will give her first welcome address to students, faculty and staff.

McMahan has been working since she arrived in the Inland Northwest this summer to meet people in the community, both on campus and off.

She comes from the University of California at San Bernardino, where she was the provost, essentially the number two official, and the vice president for academic affairs.

How does it feel to be called president?

“That’s a great question," she said, laughing.

"A little awkward at times because I’m just doing my passion, serving my purpose and sometimes being called a president makes you something that you’re not and, for me, it’s about collaborating, team building and really supporting the great work that Eastern does," she said.

McMahan takes over as president at a time when Eastern, like all other universities, is emerging from the Covid pandemic. Students are back on campus, there’s no mask mandate and enrollment is creeping back up to pre-Covid levels.

“I knew it would hit Eastern particularly hard because of the number of first-generation students and the number of underrepresented students that we serve because they’re less likely to go to college. So I was aware that we would have some enrollment challenges," she said.

McMahan not only oversees Eastern’s Cheney campus, but also its programs in Spokane, many of which are based in the new Catalyst building along East Sprague on the southern edge of the University District. The university also recently announced its new nursing degree program. Next fall, Eastern join WSU, Gonzaga and Whitworth in offering bachelor’s programs for prospective nurses.

“I think we have been well received in terms of that because, right now, the health care system is just going through a crisis, in terms of current nurses just exhausted from the pandemic and do you blame them?" she said.

"This has just been an ongoing, really a nightmare in terms of public health. Replenishing some of that workforce and we’re even looking at programs where some of the nurses that are working with the health systems might look to teach part-time and to give back in other ways to increase their longevity in the nursing profession. We’re trying to find creative avenues of supporting not only our students, but the community, the workforce community of nurses," she said.

Eastern also has several other health sciences programs in Spokane, including occupational and physical therapy and speech-language pathology, all based on the Riverpoint campus.

EWU is working to become an official Hispanic-serving institution, which means its enrollment must be at least 25-percent Hispanic. The university hopes to achieve that by next year. Shari McMahan says Eastern is striving to become more welcoming for all students. That includes celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, which began last week.

“We’re putting together activities on campus for our Latinx students and the community at large and we want to be able to showcase that we are an inclusive environment. In fact, we just received a very prestigious award from the governor on inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students," she said.

"I’m excited about not only having a diverse campus, but an equity-minded and an inclusive campus as well. So, not only having Hispanic Heritage events for the month, but also having an advisory board that can help propel the opportunities for students to select Eastern and come to Eastern,” she said.

McMahan says she relishes the chance to include parents when students are pondering whether to attend Eastern. She did that at her previous university, inviting parents to be part of summer orientation sessions before fall classes.

“Every time I see a tour group on campus, Hispanic speaking or not Hispanic speaking, I jump in and meet the parents because I think the parents are an integral part of moving the campus forward and the students’ opportunity forward," she said.

"But we have rituals here on our campus. Pass through the pillars, which is all our incoming class, coming through those pillars at the entry as well as when the students graduate, they go the reverse direction. So there are existing opportunities here that I’m going to make sure that we all take a part in and participate in," she said.

McMahan says she wants to ensure that students have more career opportunities once they receive their Eastern diplomas. That means staying current on what employers are looking for from Eastern grads.

“I’m looking to partner more with industry to provide those opportunities to help fund students through internships, apprenticeship, types of program that help our students grow as an individual and land their job when they graduate," she said.

It is fall sports season for the Eagles. There has been a robust debate about whether Eastern should continue as a Division I [major college] athletic institution.

"We have made our decision at Eastern to keep college football and I completely support that decision," she said.

"When I look at athletics and my experiences in the past, I found that our student athletes are our student role models, for the most part. They are working hard to achieve a dream, which would be their team’s success, whether it’s soccer, volleyball, basketball, football. They are very dedicated. They’re resilient. They work as a team, if it’s a team sport. Certainly they have many values and virtues of really what we want to see. As a student and as a graduate of Eastern Washington," she said.

This morning [Tuesday], Shari McMahan will give her first welcoming address to students. Fall quarter begins on Wednesday.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.