September 20, 2021

The past is prologue

Marjorie McGuire-Welch returns to SWCC as new president

From her beginnings as a chemistry teacher, Dr. Marjorie McGuire-Welch has always understood patterns. Welch never intended come out of college as a teacher, yet ended up embracing it. After years in the high school lab, she never intended to teach at Southwestern Community College, yet she embraced it. She didn’t see herself going into administration at SWCC, and found new opportunities for her career. Now, 15 years after she left SWCC, she has become president of the college.

“I actually started teaching high school originally and so I started doing that right out of college. When I went to college I was focused on studying biology and I really enjoyed working with animals, so I was focused on doing something along the line of animal behavior and I was pursuing working right after college starting on my master’s degree in the area of animal behavior.”

Doug Zaher, her advisor at William Penn University in Oskalooska, told her she should become a teacher, which she didn’t initially think she could do.

“My advisor suggested that why don’t I pick up an education major as well so I could do some substitute teaching while I worked on my master's, just as a way of making some additional money. I thought that sounded like sound advice and as a first-generation college student my parents didn’t have the income in order to really help me and so I was on my own to figure this out.”

This initial hesitation led to a welcome surprise.

“So I did that, again, clearly on the path of going straight on to my master's program and when I did my student teaching I just fell in love with the students and trying to figure out how to make science exciting to the students. And so, to watch their eyes light up when they actually understood what I was trying to explain to them and make the connections to them about how exciting science can be and how the patterns are all there, how logical it is and how easy it is once you understand the basic patterns in science.”

Welch ended up replacing her high school chemistry teacher at East Union High School

“I ended up turning down a fellowship for my master's program, which was probably a little crazy, and took a teaching job. I taught high school science for eight years and had no intention of really going beyond that, I was going to keep teaching high school science, I actually replaced my high school chemistry teacher in Afton at East Union.”

Welch decided to stay in her hometown of Afton since she was already forming a family there. She completed her master's in science education in the aim of sharpening her skills as a teacher, but had no intention of going beyond that. However, in 1995, SWCC biology instructor instructor Tom Brotherton reached out to her.

“I got contacted by a colleague that I had met doing some different science workshops with the University of Iowa and so he taught here...and so he suggested that I apply for the chemistry position that was open here and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, oh my goodness! I don’t think I can teach at that level!’”

Welch said the transition from high school to college education was not that difficult as she understood that both are built on the foundation of good teaching.

“I just had to bone up on some of the higher levels of science and bone up on my math as it relates to the level I was teaching,” she said. “But it was fascinating to me how much more fun it was because I had students in a class that they selected to take and so I had a lab room to myself that we could do experiments that at the high school we couldn’t do, we had them for a longer period of time, you had a budget where you could decide essentially what you could purchase within that budget in order to complete the experiments and projects you wanted to do, so it was heaven to me quite honestly.”

As it turned out, heaven had an excellent platform for Welch’s creative teaching style.

“One of the things that I was most excited about that we did was started doing science experiments for elementary students,” she said. “So my chemistry students and I, we didn’t do it on a regular basis, but we would work with some of the area elementary teachers who typically, at that time, did not have much of a science background, and typically that was not their strength, so they had a tendency to shy away from doing a lot from doing science experiments and so we would bring science experiments to the kids.”

Welch and her students provided the lab and safety equipment the kids needed, aside from at least one instance where the elementary students were invited to the college.

“My college students loved it, they had the greatest time with the kids,” she said. “One time I remember we did kind of a mock scene of a forensic investigation so we had students coming on campus where we set it up that there was blood splatter in a spot and what do we do to check that out and what tests do we run and we had a student who pretended he was dead and slumped over a lab table.”

Welch incorporated a creative approach to what is commonly understood as a dry and rigorous subject, which resulted in the students receiving a greater understanding of chemistry.

“I feel like my college students got so much more out of it because it is not standalone, I felt like it should never be standalone, the best way to learn is when it was all integrated together and you apply everything you learn in all of your classes together.”

The theme of creativity continued when Welch was an advisor for Phi Theta Kappa. Around campus, there would be annual workshops for elementary students to learn the continuity of education. Welch described how experiments with water dovetailed reading a book and grasping the theme of water, continuing into a lesson in watercolor with the art instructor interpreting the book during these workshops.

“My personal opinion is, you hook them young, they think highly of Southwestern, so hopefully they would then think about us often when they’re looking at making their choice for college,” she said.

This well-rounded approach to education could be what got her the invitation to become Southwestern’s director of arts and sciences.

“I was actually asked by the vice president of instruction here if I would consider moving into administration because we had the director of arts and sciences take a position with another community college and was leaving and so he approached me and asked if I would consider applying for the position and I was flabbergasted,” she said.

Once again, Welch was not sure if she was up to the task.

“At first I was like, ‘I just don’t think I can do that, that’s just not who I am,’ and he kind of persisted, so I talked to some colleagues and they said, ‘we think you’d be great at it,’ and so I threw my hat in the ring not expecting to get it, quite honestly, and I got it and I think for me, what I realized quickly was how much more you can accomplish for the greater good of all of the students rather than just the students in your classes,” she said.

Welch embraced the opportunity to focus on education policy to build bridges for students toward success and opportunity.

“Providing opportunity for our students is the number one priority for higher ed, so they have to have good instructors in front of them, and being faculty, I realized I had a role to play in taking part to make sure our students are focused on first,” she said.

Welch moved to Buena Vista University in 2006 in Storm Lake, where she was director of professional and online studies. This position required her to travel extensively since Buena Vista partners with other community colleges to help students achieve credits after their two years. She then took the head position at the college for working adults at William Penn University, where she was an undergraduate. Following that, she was the vice president of academic affairs at Iowa Western in Council Bluffs. She was not the biggest fan of extensive travel, which is why saw SWCC President Barbara Chrittenden’s retirement as a golden opportunity.

“It would allow me the opportunity to come back home and sleep in my own bed every night of the week, so when I was at Iowa Western, I kept an apartment there and only came home on weekends, when I could,” she said. “So, getting home was important to me, but probably most important to me was, of all the places I’ve worked, where I felt the people cared the most about each other and worked together for the good of all the most was here.”

Welch missed what made Southwestern a great place to work.

“Everyone here realizes that if you don’t work as a unit, if you don’t work as a team, you’re not going to accomplish the greater good.”

Welch is excited to reintegrate with the community and is looking forward to creating new initiatives and try to grow enrollment. Welch also said she was grateful to inherit a cabinet built by Crittenden, and the fact she is available for counsel. However, Welch doesn’t quite see herself trying to outlast Crittenden as president of SWCC.

“I don’t see myself being here 24 years because that would put me pretty old and nobody here wants me pretty old,” Welch said. “But I see myself being here certainly over 10 years.”