Rural Relevance

This article first appeared in the April 30, 2015 Fennimore Times as part of its “Buzz About Town” series. It is reprinted here with permission from Fennimore Times Editor Rob Callahan.

It was a sunny day in 1985. I was eating lunch in my University of Illinois at Chicago office. I wasn’t happy. I hated big city living. My post-doctoral research on light activation of chloroplast enzymes was progressively proving the hypothesis long-championed by my mentor and employer to be false. I did not like laboratory work. However, the plant science community was enthralled with the emerging field of molecular biology, and prospects for a job as a whole plant physiologist were dim. I had received interviews, but no offers.

But most depressing was the sudden realization that my plan to be a professor and research scientist  was not, and never would be, of any direct benefit to the people and communities I most love. My rural family, rural people, and the Midwest places they live. I realized my work was completely, totally, utterly, and disappointingly irrelevant to me and to the people in my life who mattered.

My professional salvation started a year later with a full-time teaching job at a regional university in Missouri. Goodness knows why they hired me. I possessed no teaching experience. But they took a chance and I will be forever grateful. It changed my life.

I loved teaching. It’s a challenging, all-consuming occupation, but one with great reward and obvious relevance. Teachers and staff members help students learn knowledge, skills, and dispositions which, if applied, will support those students’ pursuit of professional success and personal satisfaction. Later I became engaged in university administration and loved that work too. It’s also rewarding and relevant.

But my search for relevance to rural people and communities was not complete. You see, teaching and learning is always relevant for students, but the work of a college or university is not always relevant to the communities which surround it.

If the student body is drawn from outside an institution’s region, or, if the graduates generally leave that region, is the college or university as relevant to its local communities as it could be? No.

If the research, scholarship, and outreach of the faculty predominantly focus on addressing academic, state, national, or global concerns rather than local concerns—as was the case for my work in Chicago in 1985, is the college or university as directly relevant to its local communities as it could be? No.

If the student body is drawn from local communities and graduates generally return to work in those same communities, and, if the research, scholarship, and outreach of the faculty predominantly focus on addressing the concerns of local organizations and people, is the college or university as relevant to its local communities as it could be? Yes!

It took me twenty-six years, counting from that 1985 lunchtime epiphany, but at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College I found a college relevant not only to students, but also to the rural people and communities which surround it.

Please do not understand this as a condemnation of the five fine universities where I previously worked or of my outstanding former colleagues. Based on unique location, history, mission, and circumstances, each college and university chooses the communities to which it wishes to be relevant. And, everyone who works in higher education has plenty of choice with regard to the type of college or university that best reflects personal preferences and notions about relevance.

Humankind needs diversity in higher education. Our global workforce needs people with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions gained in all sorts of different programs, including graduate, professional, baccalaureate, associate, diploma, certificate, continuing education, and training programs. We also need people and institutions capable of conducting the scholarship, research, and outreach needed to address the myriad of concerns within academic, scholarly, global, national, state, and local communities.

But Southwest Tech is my kind of place. Paul Gabriel, Executive Director for the District Boards Association, said, “Think about it. It does not matter who you are, how old you are, where you come from, how well- or how under-prepared you are, what your economic status is, or whether or not you have made a few mistakes in your life. The doors to your local technical college are open to you.” Inside are education and training programs leading to good or better jobs. Inside are dedicated faculty and staff members to guide, teach, and support you. Thanks to taxpayers, it’s affordable. Most students come from Southwest Wisconsin. Most return to work or run businesses in Southwest Wisconsin.

But the relevance does not end with students. At Southwest Tech, employers, communities, and other organizations find skilled workers, training for current workers and volunteers, and technical assistance to address matters of concern.

Southwest Wisconsin Technical College serves and is relevant to the students, employers, people, and communities of its District. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to end my career in exactly the sort of college in which I should have been working all along. Thank you.

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Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee supports tech colleges in state budget

By: Conor Smyth, Director for Strategic Advancement, Wisconsin Technical College System. 

MADISON – The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance took action on Friday that demonstrated its ongoing commitment to Wisconsin’ 16 technical colleges.

The Committee’s budget limits to 30 percent the proportion of state aid distributed to the colleges under an outcomes-based funding formula, reinforcing the Legislature’s support for funding that incorporates accountability, is sustainable and maintains the colleges’ flexibility and responsiveness.

The Committee also adopted the Governor’s proposal to add a criterion to the existing outcomes-based funding formula. The new criterion will allocate funding based on a college’s success in awarding credit for education or training not obtained through an institution of higher education, including military service and training.

“This is another big step toward establishing WTCS as the nation’s foremost provider of career pathways-based education,” said Morna Foy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System. “Recognizing what a student knows and can do and helping them translate that into a credential and a career delivers for the individual, for employers seeking talent, and for Wisconsin.”

Also under the Committee’s plan, Wisconsin veterans would benefit from a $500,000, one-time allocation for competitive grants to technical colleges. The grants would directly support programs and services that promote veterans’ access to, and success in, technical education.

“Once again, the Legislature has put Wisconsin’s gratitude for our veterans’ service into action,” said Drew Petersen, WTCS Board President. “Today’s action by Joint Finance will mean more Wisconsin veterans have an opportunity to gain valuable skills, smoothly transition from the military to civilian careers and continue in or re-establish their roles as community leaders.”

The state budget ultimately advanced by the Joint Committee on Finance must still be approved by the full Legislature and signed by the Governor before becoming law.

The Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) offers more than 300 programs awarding two-year associate degrees, one- and two-year technical diplomas and short-term technical diplomas and certificates. In addition, the System is the major provider of customized business solutions and technical assistance to Wisconsin employers. Nearly 330,000 individuals access the technical colleges for education and training each year.

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Tech College Board highlights partnership with Great Lakes Higher Education

Southwest Wisconsin Technical College has benefited from several grants and other forms of support from Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation. Their support enabled us to expand the capacity of our electromechanical technician program, offer Gold Collar Certification to help area citizens gain the skills needed for entry-level manufacturing jobs, and provide much needed emergency assistance to students through the College’s Dreamkeepers Program. Southwest Tech is pleased to join the WTCS in recognizing and thanking, Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation!”

A web version of this release is available here

For Immediate Release:  March 25, 2015

Contact: Conor Smyth, (608) 266-2991,

Tech College Board highlights partnership with Great Lakes Higher ducation

Great Lakes PictureMADISON – The Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) Board awarded its Futuremakers Partner” award to Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation Tuesday morning. The award recognizes the unique and dynamic partnerships between Wisconsin’s technical colleges and their partners.

Great Lakes, a Madison-based firm and one of the country’s leading guarantors and servicers of student loans, has a long-standing partnership with WTCS. Great Lakes President and CEO Richard D. George said that has been critical to his organization’s  philanthropy strategy.

“Our strategy focuses on populations that are too-frequently forgotten, including students of color, those with low incomes and those who are first generation college students,” George told those gathered for the presentation.

Great Lakes has provided more than $9.4 million in grants and scholarships over the past several years to benefit technical college students throughout Wisconsin.

“Technical college students face a unique set of challenges,” said WTCS President Morna Foy. “Great Lakes has taken the time to understand those challenges and design a series of grant and scholarship opportunities that directly address them and promote student success.”

“I believe the future of Wisconsin’s economy depends on our ability to ensure that people have the chance to finish their education,” George concluded. “We’ve been happy to work with Wisconsin’s technical colleges to advance that goal.”

The Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) offers more than 300 programs awarding two-year associate degrees, one- and two-year technical diplomas and short-term technical diplomas and certificates. In addition, the System is the major provider of customized business solutions and technical assistance to Wisconsin employers. Nearly 330,000 individuals access the technical colleges for education and training each year.

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Southwest Partners. Dreaming and Doing Together.

The following article first appeared in the February 5, 2015 Fennimore Times as part of its “Buzz About Town” series. It is reprinted here with Editor Rob Callahan’s permission.

Something exciting is happening in and around Richland County!  People are organizing, talking, meeting, and planning. They are making commitments to one another and challenging others to participate. Their purpose is simple. They seek to address their communities’ most pressing problems by “dreaming and doing together.”

“Southwest Partners” is developing a model of what needs to happen in other rural regions. Our rural populations are declining and aging. Our rural counties, towns, and communities find it increasingly difficult to maintain, let alone modernize, rural infrastructure. Our rural schools struggle to offer the array of opportunities children deserve. Our rural businesses are challenged by a lack of high-character, skilled talent.

My life has been spent in rural Midwestern communities. I know to the very root of my soul that there is only one solution to the challenges of the places I so deeply love and call “home.” We need regional leadership, engagement, collaboration, and collective action.  The folks in and around Richland County seem to have found their version of this very thing.

What I see gaining momentum is this. A group of dedicated, talented, and persistent religious, community, business, and education leaders are bringing people together from across the area. Those people are talking and engaging a growing group of citizens in discussion aimed at action. That action will be to find ways that they as individuals, communities, churches, schools, and companies can put aside their differences and competitions so as to pool and mobilize their resources and talent for the purpose of creating a better “now” as well as a better future. Southwest Partner’s stated desire is “to create a healthy forward thinking culture for attracting, retaining, and nurturing people and their dreams.”

The first problem Southwest Partners is tackling is the problem of how to retain youth. As community leaders talked to regional citizens, they heard concern about the number of young people who leave for an education, a job, and a career in distant communities. A common complaint was, “There are no jobs for young people here.”

Those same community leaders then went to area companies and asked why there were no jobs. To their amazement, they learned that the area’s major employers are currently offering numerous good, well-paying jobs; jobs that can lead to long-term, rewarding careers. A common complaint was, “There are not enough conscientious, skilled people here to hire.”

What explains the mismatch? I cannot speak to all the specific reasons for Richland County and its neighboring communities, but I know of at least three that plague all rural communities.

First, there is a lack of knowledge in our communities about the businesses, jobs, and careers that exist just down the road. Second, we rural folks tend to hold and transmit to young people, particularly the “best and brightest” among them, a prejudicial suggestion that their best possible future exists somewhere else.

Third, the incentive and reward system that drives rural Wisconsin schools is misaligned. It rewards school-to-school competition over collaboration. It incentivizes investment in the core curriculum aimed at university study and distant professions rather than in career and technical education aimed at local jobs and careers.

These three phenomena, and perhaps others, have resulted in rural communities investing in education and career pathways that tend to lead young people out of our communities and under-investing in those career and technical education pathways that are tied to local workforce needs and career options. These latter pathways are the best preparation for 50-60% of the jobs and careers that actually exist in our communities and across Wisconsin.

What is truly exciting about the conversation in and around Richland County is that people are engaging with one another across communities, organizations, school districts, and businesses. They soon will be implementing solutions designed to overcome barriers as well as to expand, strengthen, and support more robust career and technical education opportunities for youth in and around Richland County.

Success will reward multiple stakeholders. Local employers will see more local talent. Communities will retain more young people. But most importantly, better opportunities will be created for those youth who simply do not want to follow the “prepare for university, get a bachelor’s degree, and work elsewhere” model. Southwest Partners seeks to create better options and hope for those young people, whatever their ability and talent level, who want a hometown future.

Southwest Wisconsin Technical College colleagues and I have been privileged to be part of the conversation. I have pledged Southwest Tech’s help and am prepared to invest College resources in support of whatever plans emerge.

The future of rural communities hinges upon the ability of regional citizens to therein create vibrant pathways and opportunities that help to increase the percentage of our sons and daughters to stay and prosper. In and around Richland County folks are choosing not to stand by, but to stand up and take action.

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Governor’s State of the State maintains focus on Wisconsin’s technical colleges

By: Conor Smyth, Wisconsin Technical College System

MADISON – In his State of the State address Tuesday night, Governor Scott Walker highlighted the role of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) in providing economic opportunity for individuals and a talent pipeline for Wisconsin’s employers.

Governor Walker introduced Amber Mies, who recently enrolled in the welding program at Waukesha County Technical College, and her five year-old daughter, Cheyenne. The Governor highlighted the fact that graduates of this and other technical college programs in key sectors can look forward to high-paying, family-supporting careers.

“We appreciate the Governor’s investments in the technical colleges, and support his goal of sustained economic competitiveness and growth,” said WTCS President Morna Foy. “As I travel the state, employers in every sector and geographic region tell me that they recognize the importance of their local technical college in achieving that goal.”

“The Governor once again made it clear that he recognizes the critical nature of the talent pipeline delivered by our colleges,” said Drew Petersen, chair of the WTCS Board.

Governor Walker is scheduled to deliver his 2015-17 biennial budget proposal, which includes state funding for WTCS, on February 3.

The Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) offers more than 300 programs awarding two-year associate degrees, one- and two-year technical diplomas and short-term technical diplomas and certificates. In addition, the System is the major provider of customized business solutions and technical assistance to Wisconsin employers. Nearly 330,000 individuals access the technical colleges for education and training each year.

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The Graduations I’ve Seen

The following article first appeared in the December 24, 2014, Fennimore Times as part of its “Buzz About Town” series. It is reprinted here with permission from Fennimore Times Editor Rob Callahan.

I love graduation ceremonies! For graduating students and their families, they are a celebration of achievement and a beginning of what comes next. For faculty and staff members, they mark the end of another semester and the beginning of a well-earned, though brief respite. Graduations drip with pride of accomplishment, camaraderie, and joy!

I have participated in more graduations than I care to count. The most recent was Southwest Wisconsin Technical College’s Winter 2014 Graduation Ceremony. Mr. Jim Kohlenberg, Vice Chairperson of the Board of Directors, conferred sixty-eight degrees and diplomas.

Ms. Megan Hamilton, 2008 barber/cosmetology alumna and owner of Tres Chic Salon in Lancaster, offered the invited speech. Another entrepreneur, Ms. Katy Cleary presented the graduating student speech. Ms. Cleary is a licensed auctioneer and owner of Katy’s Corral, a horse and tack business in Volga, Iowa. She received an associate’s degree in business management. Both women spoke of the importance of their instructors and Southwest Tech in their lives and toward their business success.

Graduations everywhere have similarities and differences. All are formal ceremonies and joyous celebrations. All recognize the achievements of students and confer the credentials those students have earned. All include speeches and music. Most involve the wearing of academic regalia, including gowns, funny hats, and—depending on the unique achievements of the individual—stoles, cords, or hoods. The differences among graduations are always interesting and based in the unique culture, practices, and traditions of different institutions.

My baccalaureate graduation at the University of Illinois was a mass, impersonal affair. Individual graduates were not recognized; the student body simply stood as a whole to hear the president confer all the degrees at once. When I learned I would have worse Assembly Hall seats for graduation than I had for the preceding basketball season, I decided to skip the ceremony. A few years later at Iowa State University, Dr. Richard Shibles, my faculty advisor and mentor, walked onto the stage with me and placed the doctoral hood I had earned over my head.

My son Simon’s graduation from kindergarten was a hoot. He and his fellow graduates wore white capes and mortar boards. The ceremony involved more than a few teachers seeking to keep some semblance of order. His graduation from Hickman High School, Columbia, Missouri included a quirky surprise. Hickman’s giant, nearly naked Kewpie mascot made an appearance to high-five the graduates as they marched out.

At several places I have been, including Southwest Tech, graduation includes stories about the lives and journeys of individual students and alums. Often inspirational and moving, these stories personalize and add meaning to any ceremony.

At Southeast Missouri State University, President Dale F. Nitzchke always told a few such stories. I remember him telling about a mother and daughter, each of whom had to overcome significant life barriers to graduate on the same day, and of a student who survived a car wreck and received his degree from Dr. Nitzchke with his family gathered around his hospital bed. At the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, graduation day includes a luncheon where leading alumni and graduating students are recognized. As dean, I had the honor of telling the stories of some of those people. At Southwest Tech, invited and student speeches usually include personal stories.

Over the years, I have participated in graduation ceremonies that not everyone gets to enjoy. I have been the invited speaker at Stanley Correctional Institution and at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution. Wisconsin prison graduations are much like any graduation. Families gather; everyone is happy. Inmate musicians—including individual performers, rock bands, gospel groups, and Native American drummers—provide the best music.

On the other end of the criminal justice spectrum, I routinely participate in Southwest Tech’s police and jail academy graduations. These include delightful traditions, such as the graduates reciting the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Code of Ethics and Mr. George Dulzo, Criminal Justice Instructor, delivering his advice for young police officers.

The largest and most elaborate graduation I ever participated in was at South Central University for Nationalities, Wuhan, China. It involved tens of thousands of students and guests and several different ceremonies, including a magnificent outdoor dance and musical performance that was literally a miniature version of the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games.

One of the best graduations I ever experienced was here in Fennimore. A couple of years ago, District Administrator Jamie Nutter and Principal Dan Bredeson gave me the honor of being their invited speaker. It was the first and only graduation, outside of a Wisconsin prison, to which I have been invited to speak.

Graduations have always been special to me. I love the pride, joy, ceremonies, traditions, speeches, music, and occasional quirks. May 2015, I will participate in the last such ceremony in my career. I suspect it will be a bittersweet, yet wholly enjoyable experience.

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Southwest Wisconsin Leads the State in Percentage of 2013 High School Graduates Attending a Wisconsin Technical College

Students who graduated from the 30 public high schools within Southwest Wisconsin Technical College’s District in 2013 enrolled the following fall in a Wisconsin technical college at a higher frequency than high school graduates from the high schools within any other technical college district in Wisconsin. The percentage of “direct enrollment” by Southwest Wisconsin high school graduates was 28.6 percent. This meant 380 new technical college students among Southwest Wisconsin’s 1,330 high school graduates. Of those 380 new students, 298 enrolled at Southwest Tech with most of the remainder enrolling at Madison College or Western Technical College.

The statewide average in 2013 was 17.2 percent; 10,125 new technical college students out of 58,816 high school graduates. To put Southwest Wisconsin’s percentage into context, if its direct enrollment percentage was achieved statewide, Wisconsin technical colleges would have enrolled 6,679 more students, an increase of 66 percent over the actual direct enrollment.

Thank you to Southwest Wisconsin high school students, parents, teachers, counselors, school administrators, employers, and everyone at Southwest Tech for ensuring that Southwest Wisconsin students know, understand, value, and take advantage of the fantastic, affordable education and career opportunities available through Wisconsin’s technical colleges.

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