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 by Marsha Danielson, president, 

Minnesota State College Southeast


Today’s community college students face an array of demands that affect their success. Personal issues — balancing college and work, meeting the demands of family and friends, and dealing with mental health issues and disabilities — present obstacles for many students. As I complete my first year as the president of Minnesota State College Southeast, I feel connected to their struggles, because as a first-generation, working-class college student myself I faced many of the same challenges our students do today.

When I attended North Hennepin Community College in the mid-1980s, I came from a low-income household and was definitely in a minority. At that time most of my fellow students came from more affluent families. My father had died at the age of 39, leaving my mother to raise 11 children on her own. I wasn’t encouraged to participate in higher education; there was no implicit expectation that I would attend college. With our limited financial resources, investing in college might have seemed frivolous to my family. They were focused on the here and now and the family’s immediate needs. 

I was not only a low-income student, but I was also a first-generation college student. My mother had finished high school, but my father only completed the eighth grade. Through discipline and hard work, they were successful entrepreneurs who started and sold two profitable businesses in Southwest Minnesota. My parents instilled the value of hard work to accomplish one’s goals. I would describe my childhood experience as stable, safe, loving, protective, strict, and supportive.  

Our family dynamic that supported the value of “family first” still guides me as president when considering employee and student needs. I believe my working-class background has helped motivate me to be an inclusive, honest, transparent, positive, conversational, and genuine leader.

As a working-class student, I remember many times when I didn’t feel like I fit in. I struggled to remain loyal to my family’s heritage and at the same time wanted to embrace a new social identity. My first year of college I lived with my sister and her family. Working-class students have to learn the academic culture, as many rules and guidelines are unwritten. Like me, they feel the need to work harder simply because they fee l like they don’t belong.

Mentors played a big role in my life. They helped me learn the academic culture, soft-skills language, networking, and etiquette. I attribute these supportive relationships for much of my individual success. Without those individuals who took a personal interest in me, provided inspiration and motivation, it’s not likely I would be a college president today. A few of these people believed in me more than I believed in myself! 

Because of my background and the opportunity that education provided me, I am strongly focused on students, student learning, and student success. I believe in everything we do, every decision we make, we must keep in mind the impact that it has on students and the community. At the end of the day, the reason we exist is to provide a quality education for our students. 

Being able to impact the lives of working-class college students is what drives me. At Minnesota State College Southeast we are helping people who can most benefit from education. We can see the impact we are making. We open our arms to people of all backgrounds. That’s why I’m here. It’s who I am. It’s the very essence of what I believe in action. It’s an opportunity to serve at an institution that aligns with so much of my passion. Thank you for giving me this opportunity!