In January, Waukesha County Technical College in Pewaukee began a year-long celebration of its 100th anniversary.
The blue and gold festivities – including the reintroduction of “Ollie” the owl mascot – marked a milestone in the college’s history, said Rich Barnhouse, who joined WCTC as president in 2020. But it also means he’s just getting started.
“I have to make decisions that are going to be impactful years from now,” Barnhouse said. “That means we can’t take shortcuts today. Let’s look to the horizon – where are we going, and how are we going to get there?”
Tasked with fortifying the school’s foundation to succeed well into its second century, Barnhouse is leading new programs and partnerships aimed at workforce development in Wisconsin.
[caption id="attachment_566805" align="alignright" width="300"]
And he isn’t alone. Ritu Raju, new president of Kenosha-based Gateway Technical College, has embarked on a similar journey.
“All of us together are stronger than each of us alone,” Raju said. “It’s wonderful to talk to your colleagues and realize that, at the end of the day, we all have the same mission.”
Lacing up the steel-toed boots
Two years into his term as president of WCTC, Barnhouse is still pinching himself.
“It’s really been a dream come true to be here,” he said.
But ironically, Barnhouse never envisioned pursuing a career in education, he said. Rather, with an undergraduate degree in exercise physiology, he initially aspired to work with Olympic athletes.
“My goal in college was to get out of school and never, ever return,” Barnhouse said with a laugh.
In a twist of fate, a passion for sports led him to an assistant director of operations position at Rice University, an elite private school in Houston, where he handled student athletics and recreation. There, where Barnhouse says he was “probably in over his head” with a team of 30 to 40 under him, he had a realization.
“There’s this whole ecosystem inside a college that’s kind of like running a large company or a city,” he said. “When I was at Rice, I just wanted to get deeper into the institution, out of athletics and into the center.”
While sorting out his administrative chops in student affairs and enrollment management at various two- and four-year college settings, Barnhouse kept a watchful eye on Waukesha County Technical College.
“Everybody always talked about WCTC, because everything they did was robust, first-rate and with outstanding quality. I remember being really impressed,” Barnhouse said. “All the colleges in the Wisconsin Technical College System are outstanding, but I thought that if I ever had the chance to come to WCTC, I would take that opportunity.”
That opportunity came in 2020, when Barnhouse was selected from a pool of 60 candidates to be the next president of WCTC, a moment that vindicated his passion for technical schools, he said.
“This is about giving people the opportunity to go anywhere, to get into any field, whether they want to be a diesel mechanic or study literature. That’s pretty awesome, because that’s how you give people choices, and that’s how you change lives,” Barnhouse said. “I really felt, quite honestly, that this is where taxpayer dollars have a direct impact in the local community, the region and the state.”
‘Get on the shop floor’
Throughout his first 18 months as president of WCTC, Barnhouse spent time in and out of manufacturing plants, back offices and foundries, he said.
“I was visiting two places a week,” he said. “I kept a pair of steel-toed shoes in the trunk of my Jeep, so I could get on any plant floor at any time.”
The reason for those visits was twofold, he explained. First and foremost is to provide the best overall education to the future workforce of Wisconsin. In addition to that is making sure that taxpayers get the best possible value for every dollar they put into the public community college.
“The only way to accomplish this is to reach out to area employers and see what their needs are for the future – to get on the shop floor,” Barnhouse said. “We need to build programs specifically for employers.”
That’s what Barnhouse discovered when he walked into Eaton Corp.’s facility in Waukesha. After that meeting, Barnhouse and his team created a niche bootcamp to train students for specialized manufacturing roles in coil winding, which he said are in high demand.
Also accomplished under Barnhouse’s leadership was the launch of the Excelerate program in 2022, which grants high school students the ability to attend WCTC full time during their junior and senior years. Students in the Excelerate program can then graduate high school with an associate degree and, from there, can directly enter the workforce or enroll in a four-year college as a junior.
“It cuts off two years of college debt and is little to no cost for the student because the district is largely paying for the students to come here,” Barnhouse said.
But beyond new partnerships and programs, to Barnhouse, the heart of the job isn’t even listed on its description.
“My most important role is to inspire people, every day, in every conversation,” Barnhouse said, adding that he learned that lesson early on in his higher education career. “There was a student that came into my office 15 years ago, and he was really struggling. He said, ‘I have no support. Everybody’s working against me, and I don’t belong anywhere.’ Well, we had a really good conversation, and my parting words to him were, ‘No matter what situation you find yourself in, you can do this.’ Those are the four most powerful words on the planet.”
‘I have never forgotten my roots’
Also acclimating to the Wisconsin Technical College System is Ritu Raju, who bested hundreds of candidates in a nationwide search to be named president of Gateway Technical College in October, assuming the role in early January.
“I’m still only nine weeks into the job, so I’m still learning, but I’m so touched by the generosity of people and their willingness to help,” said Raju, who has 18 years of experience in higher education with a focus on workforce development.
That generosity and willingness to help has not only come from within Gateway, which began in 1911 as America’s first publicly funded technical college, but also from neighboring institutions such as WCTC, Raju said.
“The Wisconsin technical college system is a space where we can work jointly and also be able to differentiate ourselves,” Raju said. “That’s a wonderful formula, because it allows us to think on the largest state level.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston-Downtown, Raju went on to receive a master’s in English from Sam Houston State University and a Ph.D. in technical communication and rhetoric from Texas Tech.
In her first few months at Gateway, Raju has resumed the role of a student, receiving lessons from each department chair to better understand their academic niches.
“I’ve always been a servant leader,” Raju said, describing her style as “ethical, agile and strategic.” “I come from very humble beginnings. I have never forgotten my roots, and I’m never hesitant to say that.”
What that looks like in practice is working to dismantle barriers that students experience throughout their education journeys, such as food insecurity and financial pressures, Raju said.
“Our technical college students often have families, jobs and civic obligations while trying to complete their education,” Raju said. “We had our scholarship lunch last month, and I made sure that I visited with every single scholarship recipient that came to the luncheon. Their stories are so inspiring.”
“Every time I post on LinkedIn, I use the hashtag #GatewayProud,” Raju continued. “I’m so happy to say that I’ve used that hashtag so many times.”
As she settles in full-time to her role, Raju said what she is most looking forward to is attending her first Gateway graduation.
“I always cry at graduation,” Raju said. “I think that moment makes me understand the transformative power of education. Higher education, and particularly the community college and technical space, is a ministry. There’s always something you’re going to be thinking of. What do we need to do? Who else do we need to serve? And I find that to be extremely satisfying, and extremely humbling.”