When Alaina Rice first visited the campus of Seward County Community College, she was an Arkansas transplant to Southwest Kansas, a young woman who’d moved to Liberal to be with her husband-to-be. Fifteen years later, Rice occupies an office in the Hobble Academic Building where she is the SCCC Registrar.
She is also one of two SCCC recipients of the 2022 excellence award from the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD). The Austin, Texas-based organization honors two-year college faculty and staff for dedication and excellence in higher education.
The journey from job applicant to honoree aligned with Rice’s own growth, she said.
“When I applied here, honestly, I was more excited about the ability to have holiday time and the chance to go back to college myself,” she recalled. “I started here before I got married. I had had a few jobs, but nothing ever felt like a place where I belonged.”
At Seward, the connection finally clicked.
“I have grown up with the institution … and I’ve come to see that this is where I belong, where I’m meant to be. At this college. In this position,” Rice said.
In 2007, Rice signed on as the Wellness Center front-desk coordinator and worked for Kelly Cook before moving to the academic side of campus as the administrative assistant for then-head of academic affairs Cynthia Rapp. In time, she moved to the registrar’s office as assistant, taking the role of registrar in 2013. Asked to describe her current role, Rice laughed.
“People are always asking, and it’s a struggle to explain. If I just tell you, ‘we help students add and drop classes and handle enrollment issues,’ that would be too simple. The registrar’s office double-checks the entire academic schedule and takes care of a thousand little details.” For example, Rice makes sure classes are linked properly semester by semester and checks the schedule to prevent irreconcilable conflicts — say, two necessary courses being offered at the same time in the same room.
“But we also help students with cost-related issues like making sure course fees are waived in certain situations, establishing whether students are Kansas or Seward County residents, or eligible for border county tuition,” she said. The SCCC Registrar’s office also handles veterans affairs tuition benefits, international student registration and requirements, and training in U.S. academic norms.
“A lot of it is helping students with paperwork,” she said. “That, and filing.”
Rice oversees three employees in an office environment that often feels more familial than formal — a welcoming contrast to the many forms, government and oversight agencies, and bureaucratic tangles that are common as students arrive, enroll, graduate or transfer, and then request documentation of their diplomas.
“I’m so fortunate to work with Wendy Sanchez, Sharon Nickelson and Alma Avalos,” Rice said. “The relationships in this office are so special. I think there’s no comparison to it on campus — we love each other.”
That sentiment is shared by Sanchez, who nominated Rice for the award for her loyalty, the amount of time she spends with students, and her concern not just for their academics but also their overall well-being. Sanchez praised Rice’s empowerment mentality as applied to coworkers as well:
“As opposed to others who are still surviving on the original idea that inspired their office startup, Alaina approaches innovation within her position by giving us freedom of thought to finding better ways to do things,” she wrote.
Vice President of Student Services Celeste Donovan offered the example of COVID-year operations when Rice headed up a graduation ceremony for the virtual environment.
“She understands how important this milestone is to students and went the extra mile to make sure that students were able to celebrate their newest accomplishment,” Donovan said. While in-person graduation ceremonies returned to SCCC the following year, Rice continued to explore ways to celebrate students with the introduction of a “First Generation Graduate” pin for those who are first in their family to earn a college degree or certificate. She also introduced the use of red, white, and blue cords to recognize graduates and faculty who are military veterans.
Rice credits coworkers past and present for providing on-the-job learning.
“Cynthia (Rapp)’s and Celeste Donovan’s influence are a lot of why I am where I am right now,” she said. She listed Cook, former coworkers Gayla Meyers and Alexandria Widener, Dr. Todd Carter, and Travis Combs as influential, particularly Combs and his insistence that Rice “learn to see my own worth,” she recalled. Current Vice President of Academic Affairs Luke Dowell “is just an excellent sounding board, and I’m so thankful, and Data and Research Analyst Teresa Wehmeier is my critical thinking buddy, my truth-teller, and someone who is always willing to teach when I am ready to learn,” she said. “I know there are others .. I’ve been surrounded by so many good people here.”
At the NISOD conference in Austin over Memorial Day weekend, Rice and her direct supervisor Donovan attended inspirational speaker sessions, conference workshops, and an awards banquet where Rice received the NISOD medallion of excellence. While most recipients add the medallion to the cords, hoods and other academic regalia at commencement each year, Rice said hers will remain on display in her office.
It’s not that she isn’t proud of the honor — it’s just that commencement is simultaneously her favorite day of the year, and her most hectic.
“I’ll be helping the graduates that day,” she said. Between lining them up, adjusting caps and cords, and working with Sanchez to read each graduate’s name correctly, Rice will be doing what she loves best. The award, she said, has done its job.
“It made me feel so honored,” she said, “honored that they felt I was worthy of the award.”