SCCC’s Dr. Ken Trzaska: community progress starts with personal connections
If you stop to visit Dr. Ken Trzaska, Seward County Community College president, the top of his desk is likely clean and bare — and he’s probably not sitting behind it. Trzaska is more likely to be traveling across campus, where he has made the student experience a top priority. He may be picking up fruit and coffee from the updated cafeteria, chatting with students along the way, or connecting with an instructor who has taken on a dual-level class as part of the college’s new focus on flexible course offerings.
Then again, he might be returning from another trip to Topeka, where the work of keeping SCCC on the mental map of legislators is an extension of his role.
“It’s a matter of not assuming that people understand the daily experience in Southwest Kansas. We have to help people on the eastern half of the state understand the difference between their needs and ours,” Trzaska said. “We have to stay at the forefront of committees in order to articulate rural life and our students’ circumstances.”
As the tenth president of SCCC, Trzaska is keenly aware of the foundation crafted by his predecessors.
“The issues we work on today have grown out of the work done by the nine presidents who held the position before me,” he says. “Their work informs mine, and it creates a dynamic flow, whether that means I’m riding on the bus with the basketball team, or speaking to high school students who are visiting our campus, or connecting with emerging leaders in the community.”
Whatever his focus, Trzaska is undoubtedly in motion. It’s fitting for the person who coined the college’s current theme and focus, “Moving Seward Forward,” and it’s what he does daily as he builds the team spirit at the college. He challenges his colleagues to do good work, and do a bit better every day.
“We can’t be perfect, but the vision is to advance a little more, continually, through our five key directions,” Trzaska will say, listing them from memory: create a safe and healthy campus; invest in teaching, learning and curriculum; enhance financial and organizational vitality; expect high outcomes in recruitment, retention and graduation; broaden community, educational, business and industry collaboration.
“And under those directions are specific goals for the college in each area … but beyond all that is the reality that the issues touch the lives of our students, and the challenges we face as a college are the challenges we face as a community,” he said. “If we don’t look at situations — in the city, in the county, economically, demographically, the organizations here — through the same lens, we’re always going to be trying to solve the problem in our own way, and it won’t have meaning, it doesn’t have impact, it doesn’t contribute to the community.”
That perspective drives Trzaska’s vision of SCCC as it will be in five years.
“The most important thing is the interconnectedness between the campus and the community, and the community and the campus,” he said. “A great example of that is our trail system, which began as a way to connect two sections of our campus, and has now evolved into a way to connect the community to our college as well.” Through partnerships with the Liberal Area Coalition for Families, the Sunflower Foundation, and even Blue Cross Blue Shield, what began as a simple sidewalk has grown into a network of overlapping, interlocking pathways, with more expansion planned.
Trzaska routinely walks the route between main campus and Industrial Technology to check the dozens of newly-planted trees. Solar lights and charging stations will soon be installed.
Someday, he says, “this is going to be the kind of place where a family can come out with the stroller and the dog and a picnic and just have a really nice day in a place they can enjoy.” An added benefit? Pedestrians will have even easier access to shopping locations on the north side of town.
Another important project has been alignment of the institution’s vision for the future with the community’s needs. Most college capital campaigns focus tightly on campus priorities and program needs; at SCCC, Trzaska pointed out, the “Students First Community Always” campaign is built on interlocking needs rooted in regional realities.
As plans are finalized for the Sharp Family Champions Center, a multipurpose indoor sports facility on the SCCC campus, Trzaska is keenly aware of the back stories that have fueled its conception. There are major donors Gene and Jo Ann Sharp, longtime community members who not only carry a lasting affection for baseball, but also played key roles in establishing the college, serving on local boards and in elected offices, and advocating for children’s sports leagues. The project, Trzaska hopes, will honor that longstanding tradition of community initiative, and serve Liberal’s needs as well as the Saints athletes and the local semipro baseball team, the Liberal BeeJays.
Then there’s the Colvin Family Allied Health Center, slated to begin construction this spring. The new teaching and lab facility not only bears the name of major donors and economic players in Liberal, it reflects a commitment to the region as a whole. Currently housed in Liberal’s original Epworth Hospital, the SCCC Allied Health program produces healthcare professionals who literally keep residents in a 200-mile radius alive and well.
“Our graduates are going out and working at rural hospitals and clinics and nursing homes, in these little towns where an outsider might drive through and think, ‘there’s nothing, that’s an anemic place with no possibilities,’” Trzaska said. “But what we know is that these towns are full of talent and opportunity, and people who are working very hard to make a difference.”
Trzaska, who completed his college degrees in upstate New York and spent time working in Chicago, finds the grit and community in rural Kansas inspiring.
“I was at the national college conference in Washington, D.C. recently, and it seemed that whenever I connected with people, they’d ask a few questions about me and my background, and where I am now, and then they’d ask, ‘Why in the world are you in Kansas? Isn’t that a state where things are really kind of messed up?’
Trzaska shakes his head.
“I think I had this conversation something like four times. I’d say, ‘There’s a lot of great things happening in Kansas. Let me tell you what’s happening in Liberal.’”
Trzaska loves to list the can-do spirit that characterizes the community, as well as the newest collaborative projects taking form. He tells them about the seven new schools recently constructed, the expansion on the north end of the city, and the excitement about joint board meetings between elected officials who also want to “Move Seward Forward.”
“The excitement after the last joint meeting I attended was profound,” he said. “Everywhere in the room, you felt this determination that we’re ready to make changes, to think differently, to go forward together, not compartmentalizing. That’s the way to solve problems.”
SCCC’s president credits that awareness to a childhood experience that transformed his life trajectory, and ultimately led him to college.
“Growing up, I moved a lot, and it was all around the world because my father worked for the government,” he said. “So, I learned a lot about getting along with people, basically by being exposed to communities where I didn’t speak the language, where kids were from different backgrounds. You have different different cultures, different attitudes, different religions. To me, it was the norm. I don’t shy away.”
In Germany, Trzaska’s family lived in Gartringen (near Stuttgart), in a home that abutted a refugee housing complex.
“I didn’t know what that was, I just walked down there,” he said. “Here were all these kids playing soccer. I remember standing on the sides, watching. Then one of the kids kind of waved me over and started speaking in his language, and I just started playing.”
Forty years later, Trzaska said, “I remember the faces of these kids I played soccer with, in between two buildings. We played soccer at all hours of the day with no shoes.”
Trzaska gained more than good childhood memories from the experience.
“I never learned to speak their language, but we learned to communicate together through our passion for soccer,” he said. “I learned to understand that others that may look, speak, think, believe differently, but there are still more things in common than there are different. At the college, and in the community, we talk about this idea of belonging. But wow, did I feel like I belonged.”
He also learned that generosity is not dictated by possessions and power.
“Those kids had very different experiences than I did,” he said. “I would be what you probably call pretty lucky. I didn’t have to worry about anything. I had shoes; I took them off because all my friends played with no shoes, but these kids lived in a world where they had to worry, ‘how do I survive?’ By allowing me into that circle, they did something for me. They made me a pretty good soccer player, I just learned everything from them. I had the opportunity to move forward and go to college and start playing, but it all started from somebody just kind of waving their hand and saying, ‘come on into this circle.’”
Trzaska gives the Boy Scouts organization equal credit for infusing him with a sense of responsibility and resourcefulness.
“I became an Eagle Scout when I was 16. I very much loved the outdoors, loved having to solve problems with whatever was at hand, loved the independence,” he said. “I still am involved with the Scouts by serving on the Santa Fe Trail council board.”
Along with duties at the college, Trzaska is an active Rotary member, serves on the Liberal Area Chamber of Commerce board, the Baker Arts Center board, and various state and national committees affiliated with the academic world.
“One of my favorite things is describing this part of the world to people who have never driven past Wichita,” Trzaska said. “I think our strength here is that we have an openness and a desire to be as much an inclusive community as we can, and that we take responsibility for our own community. I see that through the committees I sit on in the community, the voices I hear, and more and more, I see the potential and the generosity. If you make a general assumption about rural America, because you take 70 across the state, and not the real roads, you’re not going to see the real communities that are finding ways to make a difference.”
When Trzaska thinks about the connections between the college and its students, the community, and the world as a whole, he gets inspired.
“Kansas is vast. It’s huge. The Plains have a certain, hard-to-describe, numbing beauty, and to get to a place like Liberal, Kansas, you’ve got to go through a lot of the country, and that creates an awareness — in an emotional, deliberate way — that there are a lot of people who are making everything work. The leather bag over your shoulder, or the shoes you’re wearing, or sitting at Morton’s Steakhouse in Chicago waiting on your order — do you have any idea about the father who got up at 3 in the morning to work his shift at National Beef to make a difference for his family, and to do work that benefits you?”
Far from being “a place with a lot of problems,” as a conference colleague imagined, Kansas — and Liberal — Trzaska pointed out, “is one of the economic engines of the country, from an agriculture perspective, an energy and economic perspective. Moving here from another region, my awareness of this deepened as I came to know our students and people throughout the community. You live in a big city and drive through the corporate parks and it’s easy not to know who the people are who do the real work of this country. When you do, it’s pretty inspiring.”
Within the college’s parameters, the challenge is to equip a diverse and ever-shifting body of students to do that real-world work. It might happen through carefully calibrated transfer programs that offer seamless articulation from the general education classes to a competitive spot in pharmacy school at the University of Kansas, or a trade-to-industry internship that lands an 18-year-old a $28-an-hour job. It might occur when a stay-at-home mom goes back to college to earn a teaching degree that she’s able to complete through SCCC partner colleges while working at the local school district.
It might manifest through innovative course delivery like the new “Blendflex” program that offers enrolled students the option to attend traditional classes, view lectures on demand, or do both, as work and life circumstances shift. More options unfold with apprenticeship programs, cross-disciplinary projects like biofuel production, or the use of drones. From a new partnership to diversify the Intelligence community to a fledgling social-work program, SCCC continues to explore ways to meet the needs of students and the region.
“The bottom line is, we have no shortage of talent and energy in this community,” Trzaska said. “It is the college’s role to empower people to build their families and their community. It’s exciting work, and it goes beyond the boundaries of campus.”
In the long view, and the in the near future, and right now, Trzaska said, “Liberal can be a better community, a more prominent community, a place where people look at us and say, “wow, look at what they’re doing.”
Sometimes, what it takes to get to that point, he said, is a friendly nod and a wave that invites others to join in the game.