Removing boundaries to education was the goal of the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Foundation (NWTC) when it was formed in 1970, and that worthy mission has only grown in the intervening years.
“If we want more people to be able to graduate and work, financial barriers are the No. 1 reason why we lose them. Our foundation is about student support and making college possible for students,” said Foundation Director Crystal Harrison, who has been in the position for 12 years.
The worker shortage in Wisconsin has been well documented. Recent reports have stated that 45,000 workers will be needed to fill positions in the next seven years. With that greater need, the NWTC Foundation plays an even greater role in students’ success, and Harrison has overseen changes that are meant to help.
“We’ve changed so much, but our roots remain,” she said. “We talk about innovation and change. We have changed and diversified, but really, when we started in 1970, it was about removing barriers for students. It’s changed, but our mission has stayed true.”
As the NWTC Foundation has grown, so has the demand for a skilled workforce.
“In Wisconsin, you need a technical or university degree in order to have a wage that’s family-sustaining,” Harrison said. “So we’re growing and growing. We’re trying to provide more access and let students be successful.”
When the foundation was established almost 50 years ago, it was for the purpose of providing student scholarships.
“Many scholarships are meant to be competitive, and not everyone can do that,” Harrison said. “Our college model is, everyone is welcome here. We’re still challenging and rigorous, but our students come with life.”
Foundation board member Peggy Reineck highlights what Harrison means about students “coming with life” by mentioning that the average age of an NWTC student is 28.
“It’s really a re-entry for many folks,” Reineck said, who added that she got involved with the board because of Harrison.
“I believe in her leadership,” Reineck said.
Harrison said it works both ways, with the board being very receptive to new ideas. For example, 10 years ago, she approached the board with an idea after faculty said they were losing students because of short-term financial hardships that caused them to drop out of school.
“When I started 12 years ago, we did our traditional scholarship program, which is great. They do serve the purpose for a lot of students, but there were needs and gaps,” she said. “Faculty came to me and said they were losing students due to financial hardships. It might be the cost of a car repair. Our faculty are very proactive. We gathered information, learning from faculty and staff, and then we worked hard to create a program to best meet the needs of our students.”
The idea was to raise money to help students in financial need. Harrison took the idea to the board, which approved the concept of a Student Emergency Fund.
“We have a great foundation board and went to work fundraising,” Harrison said. “It started with $500. We give out $100,000 now. Our goal is to grow it by $50,000 more.”
“The innovation of taking away every obstacle possible — that’s what really attracted me,” Reineck said. “It’s not just tuition and books — it’s everything. That’s how you fight poverty.”
And it really is everything. In addition to the emergency fund, NWTC offers a food pantry for students, which Harrison said is used by about 30 students each week. There is a clothes closet so students have access to professional clothes for job interviews. They can take advantage of financial coaching for money management. They can get mental-health counseling from staff counselors. And anyone in the community can take advantage of NWTC’s career-services assessment to help determine a course of study.
“If you don’t know, come in and talk to career services. Do some assessments. We’ll help you figure out what programs might be best for you,” Harrison said. “Save time; save money; come to us. It’s free for anyone in the community to come in.”
Reineck said the foundation board is happy to support the programs that address the whole student.
“It’s about closing the gap. It’s really great work,” she said. “In the end, it’s so much more than a degree. It’s transformational. This is an inspirational incubator: being able to move obstacles and be involved. Then seeing what graduates are earning coming out of this program. It’s a great value, and as a donor, it’s a huge return on their investment.”
And who are the donors? Organizations often use events to help raise funds, but not NWTC.
“We are not really event-fundraising-focused. We are more about relationships and one-on-one conversations. That’s how we’ve been successful,” Harrison said.
She mentioned that the Door County Community Foundation and the Women’s Fund have been great partners in raising funds.
“Personal and family philanthropy is a big piece as well,” Harrison said. “We also have a lot of alumni who just feel so grateful for their experience at NWTC. Perhaps they got help, and they want to give back and help. Donations, mentoring — our alumni are great resources, and they feel very grateful. A significant number of our alumni teach, and that’s another way of giving back.
“I have heard so many students and alumni say, ‘NWTC is my family.’ They say that NWTC is so welcoming,” Harrison concludes. “They feel safe.”