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January 22, 2013 9:04 am

Stefani Hicswa, candidate for NWC president

Written by Ilene Olson

The first of three finalists for Northwest College president visited the NWC campus last week.

Stefani Hicswa, president of Miles Community (Mont.) College, said Northwest College and Powell always have been high on her list of possible places to work and live.

“I grew up in Dillon, Mont., and Northwest College was the first community college that I was aware of,” she said during a telephone interview with the Tribune on Thursday.

“I am blown away by the level of excellence here, the quality of everything that is done in the academic arena and the student development arena. The facilities are just amazing. The co-curricular ... and extracurricular activities are university-level kinds of things. To have those sorts of things at a campus in a rural part of the world is just exceptional.”

Hicswa spent most of Wednesday and Thursday on campus. She visited with members of the college community and the public during a reception Wednesday and made a presentation on campus on Thursday. Her official schedule concluded with a formal interview with the Northwest College Board of Trustees Thursday afternoon.

During her presentation on campus, some of the questions she fielded concerned her views of shared governance — a frequent topic of discussion on the NWC campus.

“My definition (of shared governance) is that it is an outcome of working together through communication, cooperation and collaboration ... collaborating to find out what the best way to solve something is,” she told the Tribune. “If we’re working for the same goal of serving students, in that unity, then shared governance is the result.”

Hicswa, who has been president of Miles City College for six and a half years, explained further: “I try to get a lot of collaboration. ... As a president, though, I realize that I have to make tough decisions; easy decisions don’t come to the president. I try to be respectful of people and their opinions and get various feedback, but I realize it’s my job to make the decision.

“I try to communicate my decision and why, my rationale. Hopefully, I have built enough trust that my decision is trusted and respected. It’s served me well as president of Miles Community College.”

Hicswa said shared governance was a recommendation made during Miles Community College’s accreditation process prior to her assuming the helm there.

“I was able to address that in 18 months,” she said.

Hicswa said she decided about 15 years ago to get her doctorate degree and the accreditation necessary to become a community college president. Even then, Northwest College came to mind, she said.

Then, while getting her doctorate, she chose to do a community analysis of Powell for her research project for a rural community development class.

“I talked to Dave Reetz,” she said. “He helped me pull all the data together.”

Reetz said Sunday he remembers talking to Hicswa.

“What I remember about it was, she was most sincere, and she had really learned what was going on,” Reetz said. “She was very focused, very organized and right on task. She had her questions well organized and well put together. She was clearly articulated, and she was a consummate learner.”

Reetz attended Hicswa’s campus presentation on Thursday.

“She said in her statement that Powell had always interested her,” he said. “I asked her, ‘Why this position? You’re already a college president.’

“She answered, ‘I’ve always been interested in Powell.’

“She doesn’t view it as a lateral move; she views it as a step up.”

Harriet Bloom-Wilson, former NWC director of international academic programs, asked Hicswa about her philosophy on recruiting international students to attend community colleges.

Hicswa replied that Miles Community College was limited to only nine international students, but she took a personal interest in each of those students.

“She said she strongly supported bringing in international students because of the diversity and cultural experience, the cultural influence, that those students can bring to campuses like ours,” Reetz said. “She was highly admiring of what we had done.”

Reetz summed up his impression:

“She’s here for the right reasons. She really wants to be a part of that institution, and she wants to lead it. ... She showed a great deal of respect for the institution, its history and its students.”

Hicswa said she and her family — consisting of her husband, Scott and their two sons, Kalin, 8, and Keegan, 6 — have enjoyed living in Miles City.

“We love Miles City, and it has been our home for almost seven years,” she said. “It’s a difficult decision. (But) the president of Northwest College was something I needed to explore further.”

Hicswa said she sees many similarities between Powell and Miles City, with the added bonus of many outdoor recreational opportunities available in northwest Wyoming.

“It’s a good fit with my family as far as making Powell our home,” she said.

During her visits on the NWC campus, “What I saw was a desire for the president to be really engaged and involved with faculty and staff,” Hicswa said. “I didn’t see any issues per se that aren’t on every campus. They want the college to be recognized and well funded. They want resources for student development, to make sure that the campus grounds are where they need to be, that it is at the level of their plans.

“I saw that the strategic plan was well put together. My job is to steer the ship and then get out of the way and let them do their job and what they do so well.”

Hicswa said she has good communication skills and connections with business and industry leaders in this area.

“I feel like that my background, experience and education make me very well qualified for the position, but also a good fit for what the college needs at this point in its history.”

She said her agricultural roots also prepared her well for the president’s job at Northwest College.

“I grew up on a farm,” she said. “It gives me an understanding of the culture. I’m as comfortable sitting in a tractor seat as I am sitting with the board of trustees.”

(Three finalists for the position were chosen last month by the NWC Presidential Search Committee. The other finalists are Debra Thatcher, who will visit the campus Wednesday and Thursday this week, and Jon Connolly, who will visit on Jan. 30 and 31. A reception for each candidate takes place at 4 p.m. on the Wednesday of their visit in the Orendorff Lounge. The candidates give their presentations and answer questions from 2-3:30 p.m. on the Thursday of their visit in the Nelson Performing Arts Center auditorium. The college is seeking a replacement for President Paul Prestwich, who is resigning effective June 30.)

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