Dr. Devin Stephenson, president of Three Rivers College, shares the ins and outs of leading a true community college

Monday, July 16, 2012
Dr. Devin Stephenson, president of Three Rivers College. (Photo by Tim Peluso • TIM PELUSO PHOTOGRAPHY)

As president of Three Rivers College in Poplar Bluff, Mo., Dr. Devin Stephenson has been the driving force behind efforts to obtain funding and create partnerships within the community and the educational realm. He's just as driven in his personal life, where he's involved in the Boys and Girls Club, the Poplar Bluff Regional Medical Center Board of Governors, the Greater Poplar Bluff Area Chamber of Commerce, the Poplar Bluff Police Department's Community Action Council and the Tax Increment Financing Commission of the City of Poplar Bluff, to name a few. The Jasper, Ala., native has worked in higher education for more than 30 years, and he's also husband to Judy Dodd Stephenson and father to Jon and JuliAnne. Here, he discusses what it takes to truly be a community college.

Business Today: How did you get into this line of work and what do you love about it?

Dr. Devin Stephenson: Upon graduation from college, my first job was the position of financial aid officer at a small technical college in Alabama. I immediately knew that higher education was the right place for me because I saw myself in a position to help students reach their educational and career goals. That same sense of fulfillment -- making a difference -- remains with me today. I enjoy being part of a team that focuses on student success and achievement, and makes a significant, positive contribution to the economic development of a region.

BT: You've been instrumental in forming partnerships within the community and with other educational institutions. How do you identify a successful partnership?

Stephenson: A successful partnership is one that benefits the college, the partner and the community. We look for partners that share Three Rivers' commitment to affordable, accessible education and workforce training. This is extremely important in Southeast Missouri, which is the 20th poorest Congressional district in America. Our area needs the promise of higher education to develop the educated and trained workforce that is vital to grow the economy in Southeast Missouri, expand the job base and keep the best and brightest of our residents in this area. This is a huge job, and we recognize that Three Rivers cannot do it alone. It will take education institutions, businesses, individuals and communities all working together as partners to develop this area to its full potential. Three Rivers could not have made the major strides of the past three years without its many partners. College resources are being stretched like never before as costs continue to rise, state funding is shrinking and skyrocketing enrollment is putting increasing demands on services.

BT: What does it take to obtain, grow and maintain these relationships?

Stephenson: It takes becoming part of the fabric of the communities we serve. When I was hired as president, I was told to expand the college beyond its 80-acre campus, and that's what we have done. We now have partnerships from the Bootheel to Cape Girardeau, from New Madrid to West Plains, Mo. We are working with K-12 schools and four-year universities. We are partnering with businesses of all sizes and area chambers of commerce. We are working with government offices at all levels, community organizations and public safety agencies.

Maintaining these relationships also requires fulfilling promises and inspiring confidence. I have seen a renewed confidence in our college because we have been fulfilling the promises of putting students first, cultivating partnerships, aggressively pursuing external funding, welcoming donations, building enrollment, promoting workforce development, expanding programs, enhancing fiscal management and creating a strategic vision. In fulfilling these promises, we are building our college's reputation as a leader in educational, economic, cultural, athletic, community and legislative activities. Partners see that Three Rivers is not just talking about changes; we are making them happen. For these reasons, support for Three Rivers has never been stronger and continues to grow, which fosters more partnerships, more donations and more support.

BT: You've also helped the college get some generous grants this year from the Department of Education and the Department of Labor. Can you tell us some more about your plans for these grants?

Stephenson: Three Rivers was selected by the U.S. Department of Education to receive an almost $2 million Title III-Strengthening Institutions grant to develop innovative curriculum and enhance support services directed at student success, especially for the large number of underprepared and at-risk students that Three Rivers serves.

We are directing the funding at two primary areas. The first is enhancing student support, including the creation of a central location for academic support programs such as tutoring. The second focuses on redesigning curriculum to more effectively and quickly bring students up to college readiness standards. The goal is to improve our students' academic achievement and persistence. This in turn will result in a better-educated workforce, which is a key to economic development in the region. This means all of Southeast Missouri will benefit from this grant.

Three Rivers received $1.1 million of a U.S. Department of Labor grant for training unemployed Missourians to enter in-demand health care fields. This is part of a $20 million grant awarded to MOHealthWINS, a consortium of Missouri colleges that worked together to secure this funding to benefit the entire state. It will provide training at no cost to participants. Three Rivers is using these funds to help an estimated 200 to 400 people earn health care-related certifications in such areas as insulin administration, certified nurses' assistant and certified medical technician.

BT: The Missouri Department of Education has reported that Three Rivers is the fastest-growing community college in the state, with a 13.5 percent gain from 2010 to 2011. You've said yourself that enrollment has increased about 41 percent in the past three years. To what do you attribute this growth? Is this growth unique to Three Rivers, or are community colleges growing in general?

Stephenson: A number of factors are attracting students to Three Rivers and to community colleges in general. Two-year systems are no longer perceived as a second choice or substandard. The recession has many people seeking training for new jobs or upgrading their skills. The economy has made community colleges -- and our high-quality courses at affordable costs -- more attractive. Last year, 2011, was the first year in which more Missouri undergraduates were enrolled in community colleges than at the state's four-year institutions.

Three Rivers' enrollment growth is impressive, but it does present challenges. With enrollment up more than 41 percent since 2008, Three Rivers is experiencing intense growing pains. In fact, we are on track for another double-digit increase this fall semester over last year. Our facilities are at capacity, and state funding is shrinking at a time when there is an increasing need to expand programs and enhance student learning.

BT: We hear you've produced a couple CDs of piano music to help fund scholarships. Will you tell us about your musical background and how this project came about?

Stephenson: I have recorded two CDs that we have sold to raise money for a scholarship fund for Three Rivers students. One way for me to give back is to use talents that were given to me to create opportunities for fundraising for our students. The projects have allowed me to combine my background as a classically trained pianist with my dedication to providing better lives for our students. All proceeds from CD sales go toward a scholarship fund for students who have a special financial need. We find that it is often a small barrier that keeps students from continuing their education. I wanted to establish a fund that could help those students, whether the need is an academic book, an unpaid fee or a portion of tuition that they fall short on.

The first CD, "The Gift," was a solo project on which I performed my favorite holiday music on piano and keyboards. For the second CD, "The Promise," some outstanding musician friends joined me on hymns and gospel music.

BT: Do you have any other musical endeavors in the works?

Stephenson: We are exploring the production of a second Christmas CD. We will be deciding in the next few weeks on the production schedule and hopefully will release "The Gift 2" in November.

BT: Why is community involvement so important to you and your college?

Stephenson: A college can be the lifeblood of a community. It can foster a greater standard of living by making education available to residents, and when your community can offer a qualified workforce, more businesses and industries will be attracted to the area. That benefits the local economy. College events -- concerts, shows and Raider games -- also bring people together and foster a sense of community pride and culture. I want the college to be a part of the culture of the region. That means it is important that I be active in community events. My wife, Judy, and I really do enjoy getting to be a part of the life of our service area and meeting new friends and potential college partners.

BT: Which causes are you personally most passionate about?

Stephenson: Judy and I are passionate about projects that help educationally and economically disadvantaged young people to achieve success. Our interests span a wide range of projects and activities, but they are all focused on improving the quality of life for young people. We are also committed to investing in scholarship programs/funds that help students who otherwise wouldn't receive assistance to continue their education. We were both taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive and we get great joy out of giving to others.

BT: What do you do in your spare time?

Stephenson: Although I don't have much spare time, when I do I enjoy working around our home. Judy and I are into landscaping and developing our property and we do much of the work ourselves. I also enjoy music, both playing it and listening to it. We are also big Cardinals fans.

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