After 29 years of service and 10 different administrative positions at Kellogg Community College, KCC President Mark O’Connell announced his retirement in May. His last day is Dec. 31.
O’Connell oversaw numerous construction, expansion and renovation projects at all of the college’s campuses in Battle Creek, Albion, Coldwater and Hastings. He received a business counselor certification from Wayne State University School of Business and earned a master’s degree in education administration from Western Michigan University.
In a recent interview with The Bruin News, O’Connell said his time at KCC has been “a wonderful journey” he never thought would end in the president’s office.
“I just focused on doing my best,” O’Connell said. “Having those 10 jobs really helped me learn a lot about the college and how it works. Getting hired at KCC is like wining the lottery. It’s been a huge blessing.”
We asked O’Connell some questions about his years at KCC. His answers are below.
The Bruin News: What have you learned from your time at KCC?
O’Connell: It’s about helping students. The focus today is really all of us, faculty, staff, decisions of the Board, all focusing on trying to improve their successful outcomes, whether through a degree attainment or a credential attainment. There are so many challenges to students today. We have to try to understand where they’re at and what they need, and then to provide the ancillary support to help them. We are here to help them be successful so that they can obtain an associate degree, a credential, and successfully integrate back into our community into our workforce.
The Bruin News: What is the biggest difference at KCC from when you started to now?
O’Connell: Our population in Michigan is reducing, and the size of community colleges have lost 38 to 40% of their students because they have less students coming into their system. You have to operate a different way. With this Board of Trustees, we have really tried to focus on maintaining the affordability for all those who want to learn for transfer or a working credential. Students also have a lot more barriers today than I did when I was in college, and they are trying to succeed still and overcome those challenges. The dual enrollment program has been a really successful implementation since my time here and has helped many students accelerate their higher education path.
The Bruin News: What are your plans after retirement?
O’Connell: I’m going to help raise my grandchildren with my wife and we are going to be up north at our cottage.
The Bruin News: What was your favorite memory at KCC?
O’Connell: Being able to redo every building and build every new building in my 29 years. I would’ve never thought I would have that opportunity. It’s been a true blessing to work with the faculty and staff in those buildings and programming with the main focus of providing the best classroom experience for our students. I loved working on improving our campuses.
The Bruin News: What is something you wanted to do but never did at KCC?
O’Connell: I wish I could’ve been out in the community more. Community is our middle name here at KCC. Although I was out in the community, I would’ve liked to be out even more. There is need in the community for the college to provide leadership, especially as it focuses on the level of higher education, because that is our niche.
The Bruin News: What is a funny story from your time at KCC?
O’Connell: When Dr. Ohm was president, someone called and told us he was very mad and was probably going to fire someone. He was walking to our office building where his office was, the last office in the hallway, and he had to pass all of our doors to get to his. We looked up the hurricane warning flags and printed them out and put them on every door. When he came up the stairs, he asked what the flags were. I told him those were the hurricane flags because we understood he was mad and was going to fire somebody. He wrote the memo to fire someone and I went in and suggested that he put it in his drawer and don’t do anything until tomorrow. He came in the next day and had obviously talked with his wife that night and he ended up not firing anyone.
The Bruin News: Are there any moments that really impacted you during your time here?
O’Connell: This story is what it’s all about and really touched me. My mother’s health was failing and I had been going back and forth to Jackson to take care of her at the hospital, and my sisters came in to relieve me so I could come back to work at KCC. My mom had to have tests that morning and get X-rays and the nurse came and said my mom’s name and asked if she was any relation to Mark O’Connell. My mom said she was my mother. The nurse looked right at my mom and said, “I wouldn’t be here today without the help of your son. He interceded two times in the two years I was in the Nursing Program so I did not quit the program.” That just gives you an idea of why we are here. We are here to touch those lives and we never really think when those situations would come back to us, but it’s really interesting. The best moment is when the students walk across that stage at commencement and the pinning ceremonies. I wish I could film the emotion of each of the students and what they’ve accomplished. Its so gratifying to all the work we do here throughout the year.