FORT WALTON BEACH — University of West Florida President Martha Saunders is planning the school’s next 50 years following its golden jubilee. 

Saunders sat down with the Northwest Florida Daily News recently to discuss her first year as president and what, exactly, is planned for the future of the university, which is based in Pensacola but has a campus in Fort Walton Beach.

Q: How did you come to serve as the University of West Florida’s president?

A: You may not know that I got my professional start at the University of West Florida. I came on board as an instructor in the department of communication arts. I worked my way up the faculty ranks and was later named honors director and then I was dean of arts and sciences. And then I left for a few years to go on a grand professional journey that took me to two other presidencies. I thought I had retired and then got the call that UWF could use a provost. My husband and I already planned to retire here — we kept our house — and I said let's do that. I came back thinking I would come and maybe make a contribution and be done. And, stuff happens, and here I am as president.

Q: What accomplishments are you proud to have achieved your first year as president?

A: We have a lot of focus on cyber security. We built a cyber security center that has grown widely beyond our exceptions. In four short years we were named regional hub for the Southeast for cyber security education by the NSA. Yesterday we launched a program in partnership with the State of Florida to train employees on cyber security. That's just one.

Q: What short-term goals do you have planned for the university?  

A: We expect to expand our physical presence. You're going to be seeing a lot more of us in all kinds of different places. One of our visions is that when you're in this region, you know there is a university around. You can see it and feel it and taste it and hear it. So we're expanding our physical presence in lots of different ways. We also are building the intellectual infrastructure, taking what we have now and building more.

We certainly have an interest in maintaining our status in the state with performance-based funding. That was new about four years ago. We are compared with every other university in the state and, last year, we were number three in the state.  We want to hold onto that position, or maybe be one or two.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge during your first year as president?

A: Being able to embrace all of the opportunities that have popped up in front of us. We only have 24 hours in a day and seven days a week, and we get up each morning trying to figure out how to get it all done. The environment in higher ed is changing, though. Different demands, different stresses. Being able to get students through is not simple anymore. Students have financial needs that maybe 25 years ago didn't exist. I think those are challenges we share with every university. Competition is there. Students have more options. We struggle with that. There is a demographic dip. There are simply fewer high school graduates that are looking for colleges than there were before. All of those are sort of typical. Our advantage is that we are flexible and agile. 

Q: As president, do you get to interact with your students?

A: I spend a good bit of time walking around. That's my favorite thing to do. At least one day a week I try to go wherever the students are. I'm at the Starbucks or I'm at the cafeteria. Given my options, sometimes I'll just sit on a bench and watch the students go by. You can learn a lot by overhearing a phone conversation. I don't eavesdrop, exactly, but you can learn hearing students come out of classes by what they're talking about. If you listen to students, you can learn about a lot of what they want and what they need.

Q: What would you say to a student who is considering attending UWF?

A: I would tell students, we are going to take care of you. We want you to be all you want to be and go out and change the world. I think also I would advise every student thinking about going to UWF, or anywhere else, to spend time thinking about the years beyond college. We sometimes go to college because someone told us we should. Think, when I get that degree in my hand, what is that going to get me and what do I want next? That requires sometimes talking to people. It requires more than just thinking about what I want to be or do when I grow up, but what do I want my life to look like? I think that's an important question we could also help answer.

At UWF, it's very much part of our culture that our goals for our students don't end the day they get their degree. We have a tradition of launching students into successful careers to be contributors to their community. It matters to us. It matters to us that our students, when they leave us, leave fully ready for the next chapters of their lives.