New president at home at RCC
Published 12:00 pm Saturday, July 8, 2023
Dr. Kathleen “Kat” Linaker understands the life-changing power of two-year colleges and technical colleges.
She also understands the potential these universities have to transform education for the future.
“The two year colleges … we are the institutions that not only can change the economic reality for students, but we’re a huge economic driver for the communities,” she said on Wednesday, just days into her job as Riverland Community College’s new president.
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Linaker follows Dr. Adenuga Atewologun, who retired on June 30 after 10 years at the school.
“We provide the skilled workers our employers need,” she continued. “You can come one, two years, graduate with no debt and go out and make a solid living. It’s life changing.”
Prior to coming to Riverland, Linaker served as vice president of academics at Western Technical College in Wisconsin from 2018 to 2022. Before that she served at a number of different locations in various capacities.
Predating all of that, however, Linaker’s path included a road that wound through the world of chiropractics. It was during her time in a radiology residency at the National Chiropractic College in Chicago that Linaker found her love for teaching.
“It’s seeing that light bulb go off for the students,” she said. “Helping them gain the skills they need to do whatever profession they want to do.”
“I went into chiropractic and healthcare because I wanted to help people and when you’re teaching people to be a healthcare provider, you’re helping an even larger number of people,” she continued.
At the same time Linaker wasn’t familiar with two-year schools. Growing up in her part of Canada, these types of institutions weren’t commonplace.
While starting her PhD in higher education at Loyola University in Chicago, Linaker began to understand what these types of schools could offer.
“The comprehensive exam was a case study of a two-year college on the East Coast,” she said. “It was an ah-ha moment formed as a student because I could see the power of having a two-year technical and community college in the local area, and the difference it would have made for my family and my friends growing up.”
Part of something special
Linaker said that she knew Riverland was her next step early on in the interview process. It was an aligning of priorities and passions that culminated in this being the place for her.
“When I interviewed on campus … this institution treated me so well,” she remembered. “They made a point of making sure I got to spend time in all the three communities. I got a really good flavor for the area as well as the individual campus. That spoke volumes to me about this institution, the people at the institution, how much they care about the community and how much they value the community as partners. That was huge for me.”
Not only did Linaker get a look at the RCC campuses in Austin, Albert Lea and Owatonna, those in each community also made sure she was getting to know the communities themselves.
In each community, something different stood out, ranging from Albert Lea’s Fountain Lake and the variety of trades offered at the RCC facilities there to the manufacturing industries in Owatonna.
In Austin, it was Hormel, the Hormel Foundation and those attributes that contributed to the whole of educational experiences.
“Again, the facilities on this campus are beautiful … I missed being on a campus that had a theater,” she said.
Knowing these communities is important to Linaker because one of her goals is making sure she is present at each campus every week, even though she will be based in Austin.
“I need to be present and involved in all three communities,” she said.
With just a couple days on the job, Linaker said that it was hard to talk about specific goals for each branch of RCC going forward, but she has plenty of long term goals.
At the heart of that is continuing to extol the economic benefits to prospective students of attending a two-year school.
To be able to get out of school with either no student debt or limited student debt can be life-altering.
“The impact of that debt is huge,” she said. “It’s astronomical. I graduated with student debt, my husband had student debt. It’s a life sentence of debt and yes, you graduate and you can have better jobs, but you often owe the price of a mortgage on that education.”
Not only that, but RCC is prepared to support students in ways outside of education, something else that impressed Linaker about Riverland. That and ability to reach niches of the population that haven’t been reached before.
“In particular, we serve things that maybe others cannot,” she said. “They need more than a tutor. They need that social support, scholarships, childcare. Community and technical colleges have really taken on that role and are partnering with our community partners to help those students get those things they need to get through.”
Linaker is taking over as president during a time in which Riverland is being seen as a leader on the state stage.
Spread over the three sites, it has been meeting the needs of the community and its students as well as becoming a good partner to the state itself, including on the proposed Future of Advanced Agriculture Research in Minnesota (FAARM) project. The $250 million project by the University of Minnesota, would be in conjunction with state and local entities and plans currently call for it to be placed somewhere in Mower County.
It’s that kind of status Linaker hopes RCC can continue to leverage.
“It’s really exciting,” Linaker said. “The power of being able to leverage that visibility will translate to being able to support our students and our community and our employers and staff and faculty at our college in a way that you don’t get if you’re not visible.”
Another goal of Linaker’s is to concentrate on strengthening fundraising efforts so that RCC can continue to offer students what they are looking for at the college.
“Looking for ways, for niches in the community that we can easily fill that will generate revenue,” Linaker said. “Every dollar I can bring in in alternative revenue allows me to offer programs that are high cost programs. There are always programs we don’t make money on. They are expensive programs to run, but they are vital programs.”
With everything in play, it’s easy to see why Linaker is excited to be at Riverland.
“The people that I have gotten to know, even in my brief little time here, are committed and passionate and they are truly the heart of this institution and they want to serve the students. They want to serve the community,” Linaker said. “That right there gives you the power to expand and grow in ways that you can’t if you don’t have people who are 100% committed to the mission.”