By Claire Barnes
SHERIDAN — Dr. Paul Young will retire this July after nine years as the Northern Wyoming Community College District president. With a national search for a new leader underway, Sheridan College sat down with Young and the two previous NWCCD presidents, Dr. Steve Maier and Dr. Kevin Drumm, to discuss the institution’s past and future.
Together, the three men represent 30 years of NWCCD leadership, and their candid and often touching conversation revealed important insights about the district and the role of president.
All three leaders were drawn to the community college arena for different reasons.
Drumm, who served as president from 2004 to 2010, graduated from his local community college in New York, so when he became a community college president, it was like coming home.
“Community college opened my eyes to the world,” Drumm said. “I spent a lot of my career working at four-year colleges, but when I was ready for a president’s role, I decided to dedicate the rest of my career to giving back.”
While Maier and Young did not graduate from community colleges, they grew to appreciate everything they offer students.
“Working with students from a wide variety of skills and backgrounds and ages is so much more rewarding,” Maier said.
Young saw the diverse mission of community colleges as a challenge.
“Once I learned the mission, I came to love it. Especially in Wyoming, where there isn’t a college on every block, people need everything from end to end. You have to figure out how to serve everyone from remedial to high achieving students — what an exciting challenge,” he said.
They also shared some of the most difficult aspects of the role. Maier reflected on two tragedies during his tenure he remembered vividly, including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and when a faculty member was killed in a bus accident during a field trip to Yellowstone National Park.
Young said his hardest days are when students have to deal with tragedies.
“Students have crises, and some of them are rather serious. As the president, you are ultimately responsible, and there is sometimes not much you can say or do to comfort them or their family,” Young said.
Aside from reflecting on their personal experiences, they discussed how the priorities of the institution have shifted over the past 30 years, mostly driven by state and local economies.
Maier, who served as president from 1988 to 2004, said during the beginning of his tenure there were not as many quality jobs in the local area. As a result, students were less likely to pursue applied degrees like diesel and welding and more likely to transfer to pursue their bachelor’s degree.
“Partnerships with industry are critical, and that is what makes it so much different now, because you can show students high-quality jobs that are here right now,” Maier said.
“The ratio of applied to transfer students is definitely different now,” Young agreed. “Today some of the college’s largest and most successful programs are degrees like welding, culinary and nursing that prepare students for a good job with just a two-year degree.”
All three leaders agreed that respect for community college education at the state and national level has grown significantly over the past 30 years.
According to Maier, the attitude toward community college education was dismal in 1988 and into the ‘90s.
“When I started, Wyoming wanted to close community colleges around the state,” he said. “During the ‘90s there were a couple of studies done to see if we should eliminate some of them, but luckily they proved our value.”
According to Young, this shift in public opinion has translated into significantly more money appropriated to community colleges in the Wyoming Legislature today.
“The Legislature now appropriates almost $180 million for community college operations, which is not including capital funds for improvement projects,” said Young. “That’s made a huge difference in how well we are able to serve students.”
This change was due in large part to legislators realizing the value of community college education in the state.
“Kevin really set a standard for working with legislators and staying in front of them, which I continued, and now it is something that is engrained in our culture,” said Young.
In terms of how the district should stay relevant moving forward, they mentioned continuing to cultivate strong relationships with businesses, industry and communities to make sure students have strong prospects when they graduate.
Young and Drumm also stressed the importance of better serving adult learners.
“We need to offer more flexible options in the summer and in the evenings,” Drumm said.
“As an institution, we have to figure out how to better serve adult learners,” Young added. “I think the next generation of college leadership is going to have to address that.”
Young said he was most proud of the leadership team he and his predecessors were able to build.
“I’m excited that the leaders we have in the organization right now are ready to ask tough questions and find solutions moving forward,” Young said. “I have no doubt the institution is in great hands.”