by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Marsha Danielson grew up in a big family with 10 siblings in Southwest Minnesota. She was the first in her family to go to college, and she began her post-secondary journey at a community college. “We were a pretty low-income family, and so I lived with my sister and took care of her kids when she needed me to in exchange for a place to stay,” Danielson said. Today, Danielson has not only earned a number of degrees and served at several collegiate institutions; she is the new president of Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC Southeast).
“I really appreciate that the first question she asks when we talk about things is often, ‘Why not?’ or ‘Why couldn’t we do that?’” Vice President of Academic Affairs Chad Dull said. “It’s a very positive approach of not letting barriers get in the way, but trying to think, ‘How can we do the things we want to do?’”
“She really brings a steady and positive leadership to the college,” Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Josiah Litant said. He added, “I appreciate her openness to people. She’s inquisitive, she’s thoughtful, she’s engaging and she’s engaged with the work we’re doing.”
To eventually reach the leading role at MSC Southeast, Danielson transferred to a state university from her community college, then completed seven years of night school to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Then, Danielson applied those degrees while working in fields outside of education, and later, in education. Danielson served for 25 years at Mankato State University and South Central College before arriving at MSC Southeast.
Though Danielson had decades of experience, her interest in serving as a community college president arose a few years ago when she learned about an online accelerated doctorate program in community college leadership. She completed the program in 2019.
A job opportunity that was a good fit for Danielson professionally and personally came along when MSC Southeast’s top position became open. Her predecessor, Larry Lundblad, has been her professional mentor as part of a training program, so she knew about MSC Southeast. She has long loved the area, as well, since she worked with many communities along the river during her time with the state tourism office.
Now two months into the presidency, Danielson is enjoying the people she works with at MSC Southeast. “These individuals are just so dedicated,” she said. “They’re so entrepreneurial.” She continued, “And then I really respect how they say, ‘We know our students by name.’ And really, we do know our students by name.” Staff members are a strength of the college, she said. “They’re agile, able, they want to keep on track with the pace of change, and that’s a wonderful mindset.”
Partnerships with K-12 schools and local industries are also a strength of MSC Southeast’s, Danielson said.
Finances are a challenge MSC Southeast faces, Danielson said. Though enrollment is flat, for which Danielson is grateful in light of the pandemic, she would like to analyze the college’s funding streams and determine where to improve.
Danielson would like to continue the college’s efforts to support student success, such as the establishment of an emergency fund. That fund could help a student pay to fix a flat tire, for example, that otherwise would have resulted in them having to leave the college. MSC Southeast recently announced it would dedicate $400,000 in federal COVID relief funds to paying off student debt. “We just really thought that that debt was a huge barrier to students being able to reach their goals,” Danielson said.
Danielson would like to further MSC Southeast’s partnerships with K-12 schools and local industries, as well. One initiative is guided learning pathways that assist students, such as high school students taking classes for college credit, with reaching their academic goals as quickly as possible.
Continuing diversity, equity and inclusion work is also important, Danielson said. The college recently hired a diversity, equity and inclusion director. “That’s a personal passion of mine … I just want to continue that work for the benefit of everyone who might be a new American or might be underrepresented here in our community so they know education is a place for them to be able to meet their dreams,” she said.
Retaining students, serving working learners and making the college’s data more accessible to help with decision making are some of Danielson’s other goals.
“I’m just feeling like the faculty and staff … they’ve adopted that growth mindset, and hopefully we can have a greater impact on the community and greater impact on all our students’ lives,” she said.