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New SMC president looks to future of community college

One year ago, a soon-to-be dad was a bundle of nerves as his wife prepared to give birth to their first son 1,000 miles from where he grew up.

“Far more anxious than [his wife,] Laura,” the man eased his anxiety by striking up conversations with the hospital staff. Where were they from? How long had they been a nurse? Where did they go to school?

“I became calm when two or three or four of the folks that I met were our graduates,” said Dr. Joseph Odenwald, better known to most on Southwestern Michigan College’s campus as “Dr. Joe.” “I felt better.”

Since moving to Dowagiac from Louisiana in 2017, Odenwald has repeatedly found comfort in meeting fellow SMC Roadrunners in the community: when he took out a mortgage on his new home, when he has worked with law enforcement, or when he has met residents at municipal meetings throughout Cass County. This comfort comes from the Michigan newcomer’s confidence in the work accomplished at SMC, which Odenwald said continues to make southwest Michigan prosper.

“Think about it. So many people who get their start at SMC remain in the community, and it regenerates future leadership,” he said, excitement emphasizing the twang of his southern accent. “The critical people that it takes to operate a community — you gotta have nurses. You have to have teachers. You have to have law enforcement. … And they start here.”

After serving two years as vice president of student affairs, Odenwald was selected as the eighth president of the community college in late 2019, succeeding Dr. David Mathews, who retired after 18 years as the college’s president.

As Odenwald shifts into his new role, he said he sees a bright future built on a solid foundation.

“Our story is a beautiful story. We’re born out of the Era of Access in the mid-‘60s, when you had the Baby Boom sort of generation,” he said. “You think about it, for 55 years, we’ve been supplying the community with teachers, nurses, law enforcement.”

A new storyteller

On a winter day in January, Odenwald walked through the snow, offering a tour of the remote college campus. Still adjusting to the colder climate, his teeth chattered as he indicated points of pride for the community college.

Residence halls filled almost to capacity offer an on-campus atmosphere not far from home. Students and community members alike enter the college’s student activity center, duffel bags slung over shoulders on the way to a workout. The college’s nursing building brims with students in teal scrubs gaining hands-on experience.

Every so often, the college president was interrupted by a “hey, Dr. Joe!” from a passing student, or a handshake from a faculty member.

Odenwald said this sense of community is what makes him so passionate about SMC. He loves to share the work happening through the college.

“I said two things in my interview that I believe are the two roles of the president,” he said. “Number one is to be the chief storyteller of the college. It’s not to be out telling all the good I’m doing. No, I’m not doing the good here. I’m the one that’s out telling the community within our college district and beyond even that, the good things that are being done here by our students, by our faculty, by our staff.”

Odenwald said the second role of the president is to facilitate an environment in which everyone can be successful.

Odenwald, 38, previously served as assistant dean for academic and student services at Louisiana State University College of Engineering, and associate dean of students and director of student life at Mississippi College, among other teaching and adjunct faculty positions.

With experience at both the private college and state school level, Odenwald said SMC’s mission — “knowledge for all” — is what led him to the rural community college.

“I can feel that from the top of my head to the end of my toes. I believe that,” he said. “I believe that education should not be about how much you have or who your parents are or where you’re from. If you’re a human, you ought to have access to education.”

Challenges to conquer

In fall 2019, 2,154 students were enrolled at SMC. Of those, 567 were high school students taking college classes via dual-enrollment programs at public schools in Berrien and Cass counties. The remaining 1,230 students were traditional students, defined as high school graduates under the age of 24. Another 357 students were non-traditional students — adult learners 25 and older.

“I want to see us get back to 2,500 students by fiscal year 2025,” Odenwald said. “That’s a nice sharp goal, isn’t it?”

In a good economy, fewer students attend community college nationwide, opting instead for four-year universities and private colleges.

“If you go back and look where we were in the 2000s — 2009 to 2010 — when the economy was just so tough, and we had double digit unemployment in the state of Michigan, we had 3,200 students and we were crowded,” Odenwald said. “It was tough. We don’t want any kind of thing like that to happen. We want to be able to serve students well.”

Nonetheless, the president said he would never wish for a bad economy.

“That’s immoral. What I’d like to do is try to find ways we can support a good economy,” he said. “What you want to do is find ways to support a workforce that’s changing and frankly, being disruptive in lots of ways.”

From these “disruptions” come opportunities: changes in healthcare records means new training is necessary. Changes in industry require new certifications and different kinds of learners.

“To survive, we’ve got to be pretty creative,” Odenwald said.

Regardless of where the economy stands, however, Odenwald predicts challenges due to the region’s changing demography.

“We’re going to have a declining graduation rate of high school students in the Midwest, and particularly in Michigan, until about 2034,” he said.

High schools have handed out fewer and fewer diplomas for the last decade, and experts expect the trend to continue.

In the state of Michigan, SMC competes with 15 state universities and 28 community colleges, including nearby Lake Michigan College. Odenwald describes this as “a lot of competition for a shrinking pie,” but expects the college to fare well with a strong plan for recruitment and programming.

A roadmap for the future

Odenwald and other college leadership work with the community to identify these needs and develop programs to match, enticing learners of all ages to study at SMC. The college is currently working on a strategic plan to address challenges and opportunities and develop a roadmap for the next chapter. 

“It’ll be a blueprint for us moving forward,” he said. “We’re going to know exactly what we’re going to do as a community college, and we’re going to pursue that with all our hearts the next three years.”

Keys to the college’s success, Odenwald said, will be a responsive approach to educational partnerships for transfer students, a continued focus on early college, keeping a watchful eye on disruptions in industry, and continued marketing and networking throughout the region.

“Next year, we will have our reaffirmation visit from the Higher Learning Commission, which is just essential for us,” he said. “That will, I believe, validate all the work that has been done the last 10 years.”

A few years down the road, SMC has its sights set on renovating the Lyons Building.

“It’s been there a little over 40 years, but that’s another critical program here — the arts,” he said. “We have such a dynamic music and theater and band and choir groups, and we’re going to be looking at ways to fund a renovation of that in the next five years.”

Despite the obstacles and hard work ahead, Odenwald said he feels fortunate to be surrounded by a talented staff and promising students.

“We’ve talked about our challenges,” he said. “We’ve got them, but one thing I really want to point out is, in addition to being set up really well with facilities, the more important advantage that we’ve got is we’ve just got such good people here. We’ve got such good faculty. We’ve got such caring staff that I think we can get there.”

As Odenwald and his family continue to settle into their new home in Dowagiac, Odenwald is on a quest to meet as many current, former and prospective Roadrunners as possible. In early 2020, he began a tour of the college district’s municipal governments and continues to feel at ease by the innumerable amount of people who share their connections to the community college, underlining the college’s mission: Knowledge for All.

“I’ve worked at a four-year flagship with a big football team. I worked at a private college that charged a lot. It was a great place. I loved the people,” he said. “But I’ve never felt a greater connection to a place I’ve worked than this. This is the last place I want to work. This is it. I hope this is the one they put on my tombstone.”

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