Students at the University of North Texas returned to class Monday morning for the fall semester. President Neal Smatresk says this is the school's biggest freshman class ever, and the graduate student population has increased 40% from last year.
"Our [Carnegie] Tier One reputation has really spread out across the world," he says. "That stresses the system, so we're going to be hiring a bunch more faculty and lecturers to make sure we can take care of the graduate students we bring in. It's a great problem to have."
Smatresk says UNT is moving up rankings as a research university.
"We want to bring that cutting edge research to every one of our students to help build their success," he says.
Smatresk says UNT was able to pivot with COVID-19 restrictions, moving more classes online last year, but he says in-person classes offer the greatest reward. He says a return to more in-person instruction helps students focus but also helps them build relationships.
"Our top value is caring. What we want to do is have a campus where people come, network, celebrate, have a good time and build a sense of community," Smatresk says. "Caring combined with community equals better student success."
Smatresk says UNT has worked to improve affordability and retention. This year, he says they will work to improve career and professional development for students.
"When I graduated from school, I didn't know how to write a resume. I didn't even know what one was," he says. "We're going to make sure they know how to write, interview, negotiate a salary, know how to network, know how to pick a career."
This year, Smatresk says UNT is adding more than 1,200 students and will have about 42,000 students total. Students on campus Monday said they were glad to return to in-person classes and labs.
"There was not a lot of people on campus [last year], so coming back and seeing this many people and all the doors open, all the cafes open, it's kind of like I'm a freshman all over again," one sophomore from California said.
A freshman who grew up in Texas says she had spent about a week on campus getting accustomed to college life. She says she had hybrid classes for her senior year in high school but was glad to get some in-person instruction for her senior year.
"I really appreciated that," she says. "I feel more prepared than some students because they didn't get that opportunity to come in-person."
She says she plans to study environmental science and is glad to be able to attend labs and get hands-on experience that would help her prepare for a career.
"I feel kind of like a bright-eyed, baby deer wandering around," she says. "I'm just trying not to stress myself out. My dad's advice was just pretend you know what you're doing, and you'll be successful."
Smatresk urges students to follow safety protocols and wear masks, saying those are the best options to maintain face-to-face classes. Students are encouraged to get vaccinated. Those who upload proof of vaccination can opt-out of regular testing.
To urge vaccinations among students, he says UNT has given away parking passes and $1,000 scholarships. Smatresk estimates about 90% of faculty and staff are vaccinated.
"There's a pent-up demand for this type of experience, so we're seeing a pop in our enrollment right now, and it's great," he says. "The job market's hot. This is a seller's market. These students are going to enjoy the best career prospects of any class we've ever had. We're going to make sure they're ready. We're going to make sure, along the way, we have fun this year, but we do it in a safe fashion."