High Plains journey brings McCann to Seward County

Dr. Joe McCann joins college as vice president of academics

With the new academic year a week away, Dr. Joe McCann is headed to school once again — this time, as the new vice president of academic affairs at Seward County Community College.

The routine is nothing new to McCann, who has immersed himself in education since his childhood realization that “I really didn’t want to be farmer all my life.”

“The job that brought me to that conclusion was milking cows by hand in the early morning, when it was 20 degrees below zero,” he said. His intention was encouraged by parents who “really wanted their children to get an education.” 

McCann grew up on farmland in South Dakota, where his grandfathers homesteaded and raised livestock and row crops. In territory traveled by Lewis & Clark, parceled into reservations for original inhabitants, and scored by railroad lines that cross to the vanishing point of the horizon, McCann was exposed to a lively mixture of cultures despite the remote location. He also acquired a sense of regionality that reached past state boundaries.

Attending Southern State College, seven miles from his childhood home, set McCann on a path that eventually criss-crossed much of the High Plains. It was there he met his wife, Nila, who also pursued an education career. McCann’s first teaching job — high school chemistry and math — led to a job at Hibbing Community College in the Iron Range of Minnesota. Other stops included Columbus, Neb., a stint at Purdue to earn more credentials, Tomball College in Houston, Texas, and Williston, Wyo.

Along the way, McCann experienced many flavors of the educational banquet: institutions merging, faculty downsizing, new regulations, technological upheaval. He grappled with the introduction of new technology, distance learning, and the expectations of students and their families.

“My personality type is, ‘I embrace change and accept it,’” he said. That flexible approach fueled nine years consulting with the Wyoming state legislature for higher education issues.

There, McCann contributed to policies to create consistency in community college access, dual enrollment programs for high school students, and transfer to universities. As is the case in Kansas, community and state leaders in Wyoming were concerned about how to retain young people.

“The economy needed to expand beyond petroleum and ranching, and education needed to reach people who were place-bound in sparsely populated areas,” he said. The boom and bust cycle in the oil industry and shifts in rural community needs made the experience challenging but McCann enjoyed the work. Nonetheless, he is happy to return to academic life.

“I’m not a very good bureaucrat,” he said wryly. “I love teaching, the interaction with the students and faculty members.”

Over the four decades he has worked with students in various capacities, McCann said one element has not varied: the need to remain open to different life experiences.

“When I first started teaching high school, the older high school teachers would bemoan the decline of society and say, ‘The kids aren’t nearly as serious as we were when we started college,’” he recalled with a chuckle. “They are still saying that. But the students and faculty never have the same experiences. Opportunities are different. We have broadened access. I think we have to remember that it’s really true as one of my favorite quotes says, ‘We don’t have any people to waste.’”

In McCann’s own life, he has experienced the challenges of including people from many different backgrounds.

“If you look at my family, the German and Irish people were considered to be undesirable, which might explain why they settled so far out in the territories,” he said. “And when I first started teaching, the question of a Catholic person being in leadership was only becoming passé; up until the presidency of JFK, it could never be considered.”

Today, those particular questions rarely arise, but they’ve been replaced by others. Barriers that are “unspoken and still present” are experienced by many members of society, McCann said. 

“My daughter-in-law is French-Indian, a member of the Cheyenne River tribe; she is primarily Lakota, and those six grandkids share that connection,” he said. “Through her and my son-in-law, who is part Choctaw and Cherokee, and those two grandchildren, I have gotten closer to the experience of those families and the problems they have in their lives as a result of living on and off the reservation.”

In North Houston, McCann gained insight into issues that affect the urban poor, the Black community, and the lives of immigrants and refugees. Tomball was also favored by families who had homeschooled their children, he said. For that diverse student body, as in the rural, remote places that feel “almost frontier,” he saw that education fills in gaps and creates opportunity.

“We have the obligation to not only offer the right programs but making they are programs that develop individuals so they can continue to grow,” he said. “It’s about the citizenship in the community, and the students’ effect on the communities. It’s about improving the quality of life in the community.”

At SCCC, McCann will spend the next couple of weeks settling in. He’s already working from his office in the Hobble Academic Building and ready to meet faculty members who come back to work this week. His wife, too, is back in the classroom, preparing to teach fifth grade for USD 480.

Next come the students, and both McCanns will be back in their element.

“I’m excited to get to know the students, and the community,” he said. “This is the High Plains, and it has always felt like home.”

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