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The secret to Northeast Community College and the state’s success – it’s people

The secret to Northeast Community College and the state’s success – it’s people

MADISON, Neb. – It’s evident that the president of Northeast Community College enjoys her job and believes in the college’s vision.

Her position often puts her front and center, like it did recently in Madison when she was the keynote speaker at the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce annual banquet. 
Each day at work, Barrett leads students, faculty and employees while making sure the institution is being responsible to taxpayers. This slew of people might not always be in agreement, each having varying interests that sometimes can be in competition, but they are always working toward the shared mission of success of Northeast’s students and the region that it serves.
A few years ago, the college developed a bold vision – empowering every person in the region to meet their academic and workforce development goals.
Listening to Barrett speak, it’s apparent she enjoys the challenge and appreciates the cooperative nature of Nebraskans.
“When I get a microphone, I can’t help but talk about my beautiful Northeast,” Barrett told the group of Madison business owners and community supporters. Throughout her speech, she reflected on the people that make both Northeast Community College and Nebraska special.
Barrett should know. She arrived at Northeast in January 2020 after growing up in Wyoming. Her husband, Doug, is from Long Island, N.Y., and they met in Boise, Idaho. They have lived in and visited  almost every state, having seen thousands of sunsets and living in parts of the country that only have two seasons. Barrett has worked at both four-year and two-year institutions.
“I love what I do,” she said, “and I love what I do because of the special people around me.”
Northeast has changed their lives – for the better, Barrett said. And while the sunsets and change of seasons are second to none in Nebraska, it’s the people who are No. 1, she said.
“In Nebraska, you talk it. You talk it over coffee at the café, in the implement store or wherever you can find a place to talk it out,” Barrett said.
Barrett’s father, who still lives in northeast Wyoming, predicted she and her husband and their two children would find happiness in Nebraska.
“My dad said you and that crazy guy from Long Island need people. You need relationships. You need to have people you laugh with. He was right. We love it here. I thank you, those of you who have been in Nebraska for a long time. You make us feel right at home,” Barrett said.
The people of Northeast Community College are their own degree of special. She introduced a table of faculty and employees who work at the college, including in agriculture and early childhood, important areas in the daily lives of northeast Nebraskans.
Madison is part of what makes the region special, Barrett said, including Yovany Carillo, a criminal justice major from Madison.
Carillo was the commencement speaker at Northeast last May. He is a member of Phi Theta Kappa, a national academic honorary. He is an incredible artist and had his artwork chosen to be on the cover of a Northeast poetry publication called “Voices Out of Nowhere.” He currently is working on a business and finance degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Carillo was the first in his family to graduate from high school and is a first-generation college student (a student who comes from a family where neither parent/guardian earned a four-year degree).
“He loves the town of Madison. He loves the schools. He loves the teachers that he had. And I tell you, I’m not going to be surprised when he returns to his community. He probably will serve in an elected position, and I (predict) that you will recognize him when he earns one of your awards,” Barrett said.
“His story is a beautiful illustration of Northeast Community College,” she said, “how we work to meet our mission and our statutory responsibility to support the learners in our region as they access their education and workforce goals.”
The reality in Nebraska is that there are currently significant challenges, led by getting enough employees to meet workforce needs. Next is finding enough childcare, Barrett said.
Nebraskans want to work. It currently has the third highest percentage of people in the workforce behind only Utah and North Dakota. Nebraska also needs more homes for the additional workers who are needed and want to live here.
“We have some tough things ahead of us,” she said. “And I believe like the farmers before us, we’re going to work together to figure it out.”
The special employees of Northeast meet the people in communities around Northeast Nebraska, working to address the issues of the state, including childcare, workforce shortages and making “the good life” continue to be that, Barrett said.
Northeast had another great year. It was recognized by the Aspen Institute as one of the best community colleges in the nation.
Northeast was chosen for the honor. It didn’t apply for it, Barrett said. It was based on data.
The college features such things as dual-enrollment, where some 2,000 high school students are currently earning college credits; workforce development, where the college produces such trained professionals as more than 925 utility line workers. And Northeast graduates workers in all 20 counties that make up the service area.
For every $1 invested in Northeast – tuition, room and board – it returns at least sixfold to the graduate.
“Our graduates and our students are the future of Nebraska,” Barrett said. “Our mission, and our statutory responsibility clearly describes our regional focus.”
A recent Nebraska Community Foundation survey found that the majority of high school students want to live in places that are safe, where they can be close to family and find work doing what they want. Most of these Nebraska towns have all these qualities and Northeast can help them earn the skills they need, Barrett said.
Some 85% of the dual-enrollment students – who can go to college for free in high school – end up going to college. And the statistics indicate that dual-enrollment students graduate at a higher rate than those who just simply go to college.
Whether on the farm, in the hospitals, banks or high-tech companies, success isn’t because of luck, unless one considers luck the residue of unyielding efforts. Northeast gives them an opportunity to go to school and earn while working to develop the skillsets they will need to be successful, Barrett said.


Photo ID
Leah Barrett (Northeast Community College)