After one month on the job as Dean of Students at Seward County Community College, Annette Hackbarth-Onson is relishing her return to a student affairs role. The weather, she adds with a chuckle, is just a bonus.
“I’m from northern Wisconsin, where the winters are … much colder,” she said. “So far, Kansas has been a pleasant change.”
Hackbarth-Onson learned early to adjust to new surroundings.
“My dad was in the Navy, and my husband was in the Air Force, so I have moved a lot during my life,” she said. “I’ve always envied people who have the depth of time in one location. I’m looking forward to getting to know Liberal.”
The community and SCCC appealed to her during the interview process, she said.
“I was most impressed with how people got along, and worked together,” said Hackbarth-Onson. “The people on the interview committee seemed to have a real warmth, and the campus environment was healthy. I saw people who respect each other.”
In Hackbarth-Onson’s area of work, healthy relationships are the gold standard. As SCCC’s dean of students, she will focus on a wide spectrum of services for Saints, from disability accommodation to academic and career advising. That includes functioning in both an academic and personal counseling role.
After 30 years working in higher ed, Hackbarth-Onson still remembers how it felt to be not-so-familiar with college.
“I was a first generation student, the first person in my family to attend college,” she said, “and I remember that feeling of not being sure about how it all worked. Even now, the people that have the highest need are the ones I feel most drawn to.”
That aligns well with the mission of community colleges.
“Community colleges are great equalizers,” she said, “and as such, they are of critical importance. I’ve worked in larger public universities, and places where students come in with high GPAs, high test scores … but I love community colleges. They’re less expensive. They do good work. People come here and find out they have these talents they never knew about. It’s where the real work happens.”
Hackbarth-Onson started college thinking she would be become a teacher.
“Back then, it was either be a teacher or a nurse — that’s what I thought, anyhow,” she said. ”I didn’t know there were so many choices. When I got to college, I loved it. I wanted to be at college, stay at college. I didn’t know you could work at a college!”
Once she made that discovery, Hackbarth-Onson was hooked. After graduation from the University of Wisconsin – Superior, she started working in student housing in Minnesota, and moved on to student activities in Utah. Later, she worked as counselor at a community college in North Carolina and found her calling. She and her husband eventually returned to Wisconsin where Annette worked within the University of Wisconsin Colleges where Annette spent over 18 years. Following her time with the UW Colleges she moved to Michigan where she worked in College Admissions and is now happily in Liberal working in Student Services.
“I got a lot of experience, and learned a lot of skills,” she said. “I also learned that people and places are usually more alike than they are different. It just takes time to learn how things work in a new place.”
In one of her Wisconsin university jobs, Hackbarth-Onson observed students struggling to balance work, school, and family. In Liberal, she said, “I am excited to work with so many different students who come from small towns and other countries.”
Hackbarth-Onson looks for areas of common interest rather than differences.
“I was raised to have friends from all groups and races. My parents always believed we were all equals,” she said.
These days, Hackbarth-Onson applies that philosophy to her work, whether that means advocating for a student with disabilities to receive accommodations, or helping someone with borderline grades figure out how to juggle a full-time job and college classes. She also believes in the importance of holistic learning. People are coming to our classes as people with hopes, dreams and goals but also personal difficulties. I want to help students achieve what they set out to achieve and perhaps even more than what they thought they could achieve.
“I loved my psychology classes, and in subsequent years I had the opportunity to work with students who had experienced various kinds of difficulties trauma,” she said. “There are people who come to college with some astronomical hurdles to overcome, and they need all the support and all the resources we know to offer them.” I have seen student achieve great things though and most rewarding is when they get more out of their experiences than they thought they could.
For now, the new SCCC Dean of Students does not have a pet project or personal agenda. She’s more focused on listening.
“It takes time to get to know a community, and a community college,” she said. “I’m very happy to be here, getting back into a student affairs role, and excited to learn about the work to be done at SCCC.”