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Minnesota West: President Gaalswyk talks college expansion, emphasizes long-term local opportunities

Tim Middagh/Daily Globe1 / 2
Tim Middagh/Daily Globe2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — It was one year ago that Terry Gaalswyk, president of Minnesota West Community and Technical College, began interviewing and seriously considering coming to Minnesota West. 

The weather didn’t deter him; he grew up in Sibley, Iowa. The housing market didn’t deter him; it just gave him more empathy for students looking for affordable housing. Not even the prospect of a five-campus radius deterred him; he makes it a priority to spend three days a week traveling to the various campuses.

In other words, he was raring to go.

Gaalswyck Gaalswyk brought with him some familiarity with the community and the college, given his upbringing. Even more importantly, he brought with him dedication to and appreciation for community colleges as a whole and Minnesota West in particular. Gaalswyk is a believer in the community college concept, and is passionate about his mission and even more passionate about his school.

“We have been commissioned to be our community’s college, to be integrated into the fabric of the community we’re meant to serve,” Gaalswyk said. “I have a great appreciation for rural community colleges.”

As Gaalswyk visited the five Minnesota West campuses — in Jackson, Granite Falls, Pipestone, Canby and Worthington — he became acutely aware of one overarching theme he saw play out over and over on all five campuses.

“I was blown away by the spirit of service that exists with the faculty and staff,” Gaalswyk said. “I’ve said this many times and I truly mean it. It’s very evident that students, front and foremost, are dear to the faculty and staff of the college.

“Whether it is in traditional face to face classes or hybrid delivery models,” Gaalswyk continued, “it was the same. I’ve not experienced that at the other colleges I’ve served in. I felt like it was embedded in the culture of the organization — an original part of the fabric of who we are.”

Gaalswyk isn’t without support for his theory that Minnesota West has a caring, supportive environment. Minnesota West has been nominated once again to apply for the Aspen Prize, a prestigious award given to a two-year college, based upon metrics that measure how well students do when they choose to attend the college.

“First and foremost, it’s an honor to be nominated to apply,” said Gaalswyk. “There are 150 schools nominated, out of roughly 1,200 peer institutions that exist. Some of the data elements that contribute to this look at how well students interact with the college as a whole, and how that interaction is manifested in retention rates and graduation rates.”

Minnesota West’s full time retention rate is 12 percentage points higher than similar institutions. Its part-time rate is 24 percent higher, and its graduation rate is 17 percent higher.

Other outstanding aspects of the school are receiving recognition, too, as the online programs at Minnesota West were recently rated the second highest in the state of Minnesota.

“This speaks to part of what I witnessed when I was interviewing here,” Gaalswyk added. “It speaks volumes to who we are.”

As Gaalswyk now approaches the one-year mark of his presidency, his initial impressions have not been tarnished. He is looking forward to the future of the school.

“The college is extremely well situated with five regional campuses and two learning centers in Luverne and Marshall,” he stated. “We want to help assure that students have the academic and career skills necessary to stay and work here in southwest Minnesota.”

Gaalswyk and other school leaders are hoping to build on partnerships with regional high schools so that Minnesota West can be a provider of first choice for local high school students.

“We have a group of local industry leaders that meets quarterly that is working to retain youth in Southwest Minnesota,” Gaalswyk explained. “We’ve come to understand that sometimes our potential students are not aware of local opportunities.”

One recent step the school has taken to assure it is not only desirable but also cutting edge and even world-class is a state-of-the-art welding lab at the Jackson campus, underwritten in large part by AGCO.

Additionally, Minnesota West applied for and received $170,000 in grant money from the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council, enabling it to hire two new agriculture staff members, thereby expanding its Farm Business Management offerings.

The school is also looking to expand its health-related programs. One recent advancement is The Learning Center in Luverne, which works in collaboration with local health care providers, enabling students to receive medical training. The Learning Center in Marshall, which is owned by the city of Marshall but run by Minnesota West, also provides state-of-the-art fire and rescue training as well as other customized training programs.

Gaalswyk sees these collaborations with the community as vital for both the college and the region. Even K-12 schools can benefit from the college’s proximity.

“There is an emerging interest in K-12 school districts to leverage resources to share training,” Gaalswyk said. “We provide a number of these tools to share programming, and we stand ready and willing to be partners in that.”

Though there are some challenges for students, namely affordable housing and transportation, Gaalswyk has seen a willingness within the region to address these issues. He has been impressed with the support of all of the communities that Minnesota West serves.

Gaalswyk has also been pleased with the involvement of Minnesota West students in the communities where they attend school — involvement, he notes, that has been noticed by community leaders. Considering the number of communities that Minnesota West includes and the widespread nature of the campus, having an impact on the community can be a challenge, but it is one which is being tackled by Gaalswyk and by students alike.

“I have been impressed with our athletic teams and student-athletes and the caliber of the students on those teams,” Gaalswyk said. “They are reaching out to the community in service projects and are involved in their communities. They came to study and play ball, and they contribute greatly to the life of the organization.”

Gaalswyk himself makes a point of being physically present on each campus as often as possible.

“Having five regional campuses creates some challenges to be visible,” Gaalswyk admitted. “I make a very concerted effort to be on the road regularly, getting to know the system. I’m in Worthington less than two days a week.”

Gaalswyk is pleased, however, to be making Worthington his family’s home.

“Worthington is what my wife and daughter will call home. I’ve been impressed by the richness of diversity here. That adds multiple dimensions to the community.”

Gaalswyk added one last piece of praise for Minnesota West.

“I am impressed by our very, very well qualified faculty. We have PhDs, Fulbright Scholars, people on state and national leadership boards. Our students study under people who have very strong academic qualifications but who are content to teach. They could go on to other institutions or jobs, but they stay here because they want to teach. They are one of our hidden jewels.”