By Michelle Cwach '09
As someone with years of experience teaching chemistry, Carmen Simone, Ph.D., knows that all it takes is the right catalyst at the right moment to spark transformational change.
It’s a concept that is especially relevant these days, as Simone focuses her efforts on what she considers the catalyst for a more prosperous South Dakota—the University of South Dakota’s new Community College for Sioux Falls. As for the timing? It couldn’t be better, she says.
Simone, who got her start in higher education as a chemistry professor before transitioning to a career in community college leadership, is at the helm of the new college as vice president and dean. The Community College for Sioux Falls is a college within USD’s academic structure and replaces USD’s efforts in what was formerly known as University Center.
Strengthening USD’s commitment to serving Sioux Falls’ underserved students is a core priority for President Sheila K. Gestring, who has emphasized her vision of increasing access to postsecondary education for all students and meeting regional workforce demands. Rebranding, streamlining admissions and student support processes and adjusting enrollment strategies are key steps in better serving the students of Sioux Falls, Gestring said.
“By simplifying its messaging, rebranding and promoting targeted programs that have historical growth, the USD Community College for Sioux Falls is well-positioned to attract new students and start them on a pathway to higher education and a more successful future,” she said.
South Dakota is one of a small number of states that does not offer a true community college option in public higher education. The new USD Community College for Sioux Falls is designed to fill the gap between the state’s four technical institutes and six public universities, reaching students who are not currently enrolled at a higher education institution but who demonstrate academic readiness. It will focus primarily on serving nontraditional or adult learners who are site-bound, English language learners or members of the workforce looking to acquire credentials to better prepare them for the local workforce.
"The Community College for Sioux Falls is exactly what South Dakota needs." - Carmen Simone, Community College for Sioux Falls vice president and dean
Gestring said she was surprised when she learned that approximately one-third of Sioux Falls-area high school graduates do not enroll in college within 16 months of graduation, while a large cohort of working adults with high school degrees have no postsecondary credentials. To her, it signified an overwhelming need that was not being met in South Dakota’s largest city.
“Every year, there are nearly 700 high school graduates in the Sioux Falls region who do not seek any sort of postsecondary education, and a significant portion of those have demonstrated the ability to succeed in college,” Gestring said. “We hope to better serve these community members, many of whom would be the first in their families to seek higher education, in collaboration with Southeast Tech and our other partner institutions.”
“The Community College for Sioux Falls is exactly what South Dakota needs,” Simone added. “Community colleges are adept at reaching out to first-generation students and students that might be unsure if they are ready for a university experience. They help students find success and gain confidence and become really great students as they continue on their educational pathways.”
While some Sioux Falls students not currently seeking a degree may be students who are unsure if they are ready for a university experience, there are other students who know they want to get on a pathway to higher education, but who are unsure how to best move forward.
“We know that we have site-bound students here in Sioux Falls—people with families and jobs that don’t allow them to pick up and move, but who don’t necessarily want an online educational experience,” Simone said. “We also know that we have new Americans in Sioux Falls that deserve to have educational opportunities but may not have the family support to pursue additional education. We want to make sure that we’re reaching out to these populations and helping them attain the same education as everyone else.”
Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken says he views the Community College for Sioux Falls as a valuable way to serve Sioux Falls students who have desire to continue their education close to home, but want to do it in a two-year setting or want to fast-track their career development in a different four-year degree setting.
“The Community College for Sioux Falls has realized that reaching kids who previously didn’t see higher education as an option is an untapped market in this region,” TenHaken said. “Seeing the number of kids who don’t pursue secondary education represents a huge opportunity for us to get them enrolled, educated and successfully integrated into our workforce. In addition to those opportunities, the Community College for Sioux Falls has an opportunity to make continued inroads with our immigrant populations to equip them with job-readiness skills.”
USD’s Community College for Sioux Falls will also serve the community with credit-bearing certificates, noncredit workforce training and lifelong learning opportunities. South Dakota State University (SDSU) and Dakota State University (DSU) will continue to offer complementary course offerings in the same facility that showcase the strengths of DSU and SDSU, including programs like cybersecurity, nursing, web development and health care coding.
“What makes this endeavor unique is that we are able to harness the power of the USD brand while still partnering with institutions like Southeast Tech, DSU and SDSU,” Simone said. “We’re positioned incredibly well to serve a variety of students and get them on a pathway to a more prosperous future.”
Civic, business and education leaders have long recognized that University Center was an important but underutilized educational asset, Gestring said. Originally established in 1992 as the Center for Public Higher Education, University Center has witnessed many changes to its vision and branding, with USD taking a larger role as the lead institution in 2016.
In 2017, University Center hired consulting firm FutureWorks to develop a new vision and mission, as well as a three-year business plan, as the institution worked to reposition itself in Sioux Falls. Among FutureWorks’ most important findings were recommendations to focus on program offerings with labor market relevance in high-demand fields, providing greater postsecondary access to diverse populations and developing associate degrees for maximum flexibility. FutureWorks also advised building innovative, collaborative relationships with other postsecondary institutions while forming a clearer and closer partnership with USD.
Simone, who was originally hired as executive director for University Center in January 2019, said she was drawn to the position primarily because of the FutureWorks strategic plan, which outlined a vision for serving students by becoming a community college-like institution in Sioux Falls. Prior to moving to South Dakota, Simone served as president of Trinidad State Junior College in Trinidad and Alamosa, Colorado. As president, Simone led both campuses, stabilized enrollment and increased retention rates.
“That strategic plan really spoke to me,” Simone said. “Later, when I interviewed for the position, I was sold after five minutes with President Gestring. I could see in her the passion for students that I share with her. I could tell that she was someone who was going to get it done in South Dakota.”
It's especially timely that the Community College for Sioux Falls refines its focus to workforce development as South Dakota projects a critical shortage of qualified workers by 2025, Gestring said. According to the South Dakota Department of Labor, South Dakota’s labor force is getting older, and businesses soon will experience a lack of workers as older employees start to retire.
TenHaken agreed, adding that Sioux Falls is currently experiencing workforce challenges in nearly every sector, from manufacturing to health care to construction.
“That broad need is why it was so important for the Community College for Sioux Falls to recognize the gap it could fill not only for Sioux Falls, but for our entire region,” TenHaken said. “We don’t have a true community college system in our state, so I am appreciative that this need was recognized by the Board of Regents and the governance, programming and brand of the Community College for Sioux Falls pivoted to fill this gap.”
While there are a number of degree options at the Community College for Sioux Falls, Simone says there are three key programs that she views as essential to the college’s success: The Associate of Arts in general studies, the Bachelor of Science in technical leadership and the Associate of Science in integrated science.
Simone describes the Associate of Arts in general studies as her “crown jewel” program, as it allows students to easily get on a pathway, earn credits and work toward a bachelor’s degree in nearly any field at any institution in the United States.
“This is a great starting point for students and a way for us to gather our students together and give them a common experience,” Simone said.
Jessica Boutch is a Community College for Sioux Falls student who has received her Associate of Arts in general studies degree and plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in medical biology, followed by a Medical Doctor degree. “The Associate of Arts has been a major building block for my education and career and has given me opportunities to expand my knowledge and gain an understanding of topics that I’ll be learning about in the near future,” she explained. “Countless options await and I am looking forward with much anticipation to continuing the pursuit of my desired career. My desire is to provide exceptional care to the thriving community of Sioux Falls.”
Another signature program is the Bachelor of Science in technical leadership degree, which allows graduates of Southeast Tech to build upon their two-year degree and transform those credits into a bachelor’s degree as they grow in their career.
“The connection we have with the technical institutes is so unique and important,” Simone said. “The technical institutes that are present in South Dakota are fantastic institutions. They’re very focused on career training, and they’re good at what they do. We recognize that workforce development is a critical need here in Sioux Falls, so we want to help fill that role here. When a graduate of a technical program wants to become a manager and needs a baccalaureate degree, they shouldn’t have to start over. We want to serve these students in partnership with the technical institutes so that we are working together to better the Sioux Falls community.”
Max Kruse, a Sioux Falls resident and software developer for Midcontinent Communications, was the technical leadership program’s first graduate in 2018 when it was offered at UC-Sioux Falls. Kruse completed the management emphasis of the leadership program and said it helped broaden his perspective and grow as a leader in his organization.
“By completing the technical leadership program, I am now more equipped to move up in my position,” he said. “My degree helped me learn at a higher level and more global scale and will allow for new challenges and increased income potential in the future.”
In addition to the Associate of Arts in general studies and the Bachelor of Science in technical leadership degrees, the USD Community College for Sioux Falls will provide access to degrees including the Associate of Science in integrated science and the Bachelor of General Studies.
"Seeing the number of kids who don't pursue secondary education represents a huge oppportunity for us to get them enrolled, educated and successfully integrated into our workforce." - Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken
Simone foresees the Associate of Science in integrated science degree as a future pipeline builder for South Dakota’s burgeoning biotechnology industry. At the forefront of this industry is the USD Discovery District, located adjacent to the college in northwest Sioux Falls.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is train a workforce that is ready to enter into some of the companies that are going to be growing here in Sioux Falls,” Simone said.
“As the USD Discovery District continues to expand, the anchor tenants are going to desperately need workers, just like any business or industry member in Sioux Falls. We want to make sure we’re training students to fill those jobs. For students who want to go beyond a two-year degree, the curriculum allows them to seamlessly move into a bachelor’s degree, such as biomedical engineering or medical laboratory science.”
TenHaken said that while degrees are a key focus for the Community College for Sioux Falls, ensuring Sioux Falls’ workforce adapts to the changing landscape of technology, leadership and finance is also critical.
“Not everyone can hit pause on their current career to pursue a new degree, so the ability to have learning and educational opportunities targeted toward ongoing personal development will be very well received by both employees and employers,” he said.
Though many things have changed at the new Community College for Sioux Falls, one thing has remained the same, Simone says—USD’s mission to develop lifelong learners in South Dakota.
Just as a catalyst sparks a reaction but remains unconsumed by the reaction, so too will the Community College for Sioux Falls transform yet remain true to USD’s foundation as a liberal arts institution.
“The Community College for Sioux Falls is in the beginning stages of creation, and we will continue to spark change for years to come,” Simone said. “Our mission is to serve the evolving needs of the community and continue educating South Dakotans at all stages of life. We’re serving the community college mission here in Sioux Falls and doing it in a powerful way, because we have the strength of a university behind us. Community colleges that have that are so unique. There aren’t many, and I’m proud to be able to be a part of that and have a clear vision of who we are and how we will help students.”