Dean of Student Success: ‘students want to belong’

National award recognizes Annette Hackbarth-Onson’s commitment to students

 It’s ironic that Seward County Community College Dean of Student Success Annette Hackbarth-Onson won recognition for professional excellence just as the pandemic shut down travel and cancelled conferences. Since 2018, Hackbarth-Onson has been a steady, reassuring presence for students at SCCC. A trip to Austin, Texas, to accept her award at the annual National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development conference would have provided a pleasant reprieve. 

Hackbarth-Onson, however, is happy to be where she is. A year later, while news stories examine the mental health emergencies prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, she feels good about her community but is eager to learn more so that she can continue to assist. 

“I actually think we’ve got a fairly healthy community at Seward. Students are well-centered. The challenges our students navigate tend to be economic and cultural, and even there, the community provides stability,” she said. “Anytime there’s love, anytime there’s belonging, there is health.” 

Hackbarth-Onson brings that holistic approach to her work advising students, overseeing admissions and enrollment, and managing an array of support services. She believes education takes place when the fundamentals are in place — family, health, stable housing, adequate food — and rejects criticism and unyielding standards that crush the spirit. 

“Life is hard on people who are at the lowest level of the economy,” she said. “Yet the mission of the community college is that we reach people where they are, and the quicker we get good at that, the better off we’re going to be as an institution.”

Reaching students “where they are” takes many forms. Hackbarth-Onson has spearheaded several initiatives at SCCC, from academic advising training for faculty members to hands-on teaching and curriculum creation for First Year Seminar, the introductory class required of all incoming freshmen. She assists with partnerships with nonprofit organizations in Liberal, so that students have easier access to mental health and domestic violence services. She researched innovative approaches to serve students with disabilities and helps students and faculty navigate sometimes complex situations.

“Annette is extremely passionate about assisting our students to succeed,” said Vice President of Student Services Celeste Donovan. “She uses her advising sessions as teaching. She doesn’t just tell students what to do, she shows them, teaches them how to research careers … she takes the time to learn where the student is with their learning, to assist them onto the next level.” 

During a pandemic year that upended all the normal conventions of higher education, Hackbarth-Onson embraced the “new normal.” She set up videoconferences, counseled students from a laptop computer and helped send mass text messages to encourage students to stick with the challenges of remote learning. Back on campus, she advocated for mask compliance and publicized various types of available aid for students whose families struggled financially. 

Hackbarth-Onson, who grew up in a military family, married a military service member, and has lived in “practically every region of the United States,” has become an active civic member of the Liberal community. She served on the Focus on the Future board, Cinco de Mayo board,  Liberal Area Coalition of Families, volunteers at Crossroads therapeutic riding center, and relishes competition in long-distance fun runs. 

“I think there’s always this longing for a sense of home, but one thing I’ve learned is that, by and large, people are the same wherever you go. You can see differences when you look for them, but you can also find commonalities. People want to be loved, to belong,” she said. In her everyday interactions with students, Hackbarth-Onson aims to create that dynamic. 

 “When we’re listening to students, when we’re actively helping them, that is when they are free to learn,” she said. “Some people might think that’s looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but I think it’s what community is all about.”

Categories: Awards & Honors, Student Services

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