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NWTC: 110 years and counting of shaping futures

By Heather Graves

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Over the past 110 years, thousands of students have looked to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) to give them a leg up in launching their skilled-trade career.

“These are the people that you need every day,” NWTC president Dr. Jeffrey Rafn said. “They’re your neighbors that are doing work in your community. If I go to the dentist, who do I spend the most time with? I spend it with the dental hygienist – the dental hygienists that went here. Or if I need a car fixed, who’s going to fix it? Well, it’s the people that we’ve educated. Or if my furnace isn’t working correctly or my air conditioning isn’t working, who’s going to do that? It’s the students that we’ve educated and trained. And frankly, almost all of the police officers and firefighters, we’ve educated them.”

It’s an institution, Rafn said, with strong area roots that has continuously adapted to meet the needs of its students – ranging in age from just out of high school to retirement.

“Our average age is 27,” he said. “I would say, probably about 40% of them are within two or three years of coming out of high school, but the rest of them are in this kind of 25 to 35. And of course, we have people up to 55, 60, and 65. So, we’re serving a wide range of folks.”

Where it all started

Starting in 1912, city vocational schools in Green Bay and Marinette offered courses in machine shop, woodworking, printing, bookkeeping, shorthand, typing, mechanical drawing, sewing and commercial work, along with standard reading, writing and math for younger students.

“We started out as a college that was really focused on meeting the needs of, I would say, 16-17-year-olds who were out of high school – maybe they graduated in eighth grade, that was pretty common,” Rafn said. “Because we’re primarily an agrarian community, dairy farming and so forth. The whole idea was to give these kids, these young people, some skills that would allow them to earn a living.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the city vocational schools offered job training for the unemployed during the Great Depression.

The initial city vocational schools in Green Bay (1912), Marinette (1912) and Sturgeon Bay (1941) combined in the late 1960s to form Northeast Wisconsin Technical Institute, serving part or all of nine counties under the name Northeast Wisconsin Technical Institute.

Green Bay’s was originally housed in the current Green Bay School District building on Broadway.

This name was changed in the late 1980s to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

Since that time, NWTC has continued to expand its programs, services, technology and buildings.

The college introduced a mascot in 2017, an eagle that was later named Newton, updated its logo and other branding in 2019 and recently entered into a transfer partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay that provides a seamless pathway for students to continue their education.

“My son, who is a doctor, got started as an emergency medical technician and he earned that degree from a technical college,” Rafn said.

Student success

Rafn said one of the things that community/technical colleges, like NWTC, continuously strive for is success for all students.

“One of the things that the community college and technical schools like ours stress is that no matter what your background, no matter how well or how poorly you did in school, no matter what mistakes you made, or good decisions you’ve made – you can come here and we will do everything in our power to make sure you’re successful. And our concern is that if you aren’t successful or you leave, we don’t ask how the student messed up, but rather, what could we have done differently so that person would have been successful?”

Rafn said everybody on campus – whether they’re a faculty member, an administrator or a maintenance person, they are always talking about student success.

“We really take that to heart,” he said. “You know, it used to be, and maybe in some places it still is, but it’s ‘We’ll give you the opportunity, but you as a student have to take advantage of it, and if you fail you fail.’ That is not the position we take here. We take the position that ‘I don’t know what was in your past, but I do know one thing, you made at least one good decision, you decided to come to NWTC. So now let’s make sure we take advantage of that one good decision.”

Rafn said technical colleges are low-cost alternatives for higher education.

“There’s no place you can go to get higher education that’s less expensive than a two-year community college,” he said.

Rafn said about 3,500 students graduate each year from NWTC with some sort of credentials.

“About 2,000 of them are graduating with a two-year degree,” he said. “The others are graduating with a one-year degree certificate.”

Rafn said for the first time since 2019, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the college was able to hold its graduation ceremonies in person this spring.

“We were really looking forward to that,” he said.

Continued advances

As time goes on, Rafn said he thinks the changes in education at NWTC will focus on how it is delivered.

“A lot of students are working, so it’s ‘How can I get my education, work and oftentimes raise a family at the same time?’” he said. “So, probably one of the most difficult things is thinking about ‘How can we deliver the education in ways that they can take it?’ I think that what you will see is that students are taking their education in smaller and smaller bites.”

Rafn said he also thinks the way in which NWTC delivers education is going to be somewhat different.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more hybrid offerings – where students are able to be online, either synchronous or asynchronous,” he said. “It saves them time, saves them money, in terms of transportation, and they still get that interaction.”

Though Rafn said it is also a balancing act since many of NWTC’s courses are part of skill-based programs, which require hands-on work.

“Our education requires you to actually do it and be hands-on,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I frankly would prefer that the electrician that is sent to my home has actually wired something, not just talked about it. Or the person who’s cleaning my teeth, I hope they had some experience cleaning teeth. So, with the hybrid mode they can do some of it at home, but then for the rest then they have to come into class to do all of the lab work that’s required and the hands-on work. It’s finding the right balance and allowing students the flexibility to do that. And then of course, we want to make sure that they’re just as successful.”

Rafn said that is one of the silver linings of the pandemic.

“Our goal was to make taking courses, classes or even parts of classes online as successful as being here, and we have managed to accomplish that,” he said. “So those are the kinds of things I think that you guys will see as we’re moving down the road.”

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