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GCCC’s Dr. Ryan J. Ruda on Community College Leadership, Enrollment Challenges, and Workforce Development

Dr. Ryan J. Ruda

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Key points:

  • Dr. Ryan J. Ruda, President and CEO of Garden City Community College (GCCC), envisions creating pathways for students and stakeholders in pursuit of education and training.
  • Under Dr. Ruda’s leadership, GCCC addresses challenges in higher education, implementing a Strategic Enrollment Management plan and collaborating with industry partners for upskilling and workforce development.
  • In an ideal scenario with limitless resources, Dr. Ruda would aim for a more seamless transition and transfer of credits in higher education, as well as increased access to federal funds to make education a right for all.

“Creating pathways for students and stakeholders.”

That’s the vision Dr. Ryan J. Ruda has for Garden City Community College (GCCC), where he serves as the President and CEO. GCCC is the longest consecutive serving community college in Kansas, with a history of providing quality education and training since 1919.

Dr. Ryan Ruda never planned to be a community college president. He had a different career path in mind when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He wanted to be a Highway Patrol officer.

But life had other plans for him. He found his passion in helping students achieve their academic and personal goals, and he never looked back.

Under Dr. Ruda’s leadership, GCCC has been adapting to the changing landscape of higher education, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the significant trends is the decrease in college-going rate and the projected decline in the number of high school graduates over the next 3-5 years.

To address this challenge, Dr. Ruda has implemented a Strategic Enrollment Management plan at GCCC that focuses on intentional recruitment and strategies for retention, student success, and graduation. The college has also been building short-term completion opportunities and working with industry partners to create upskilling and workforce development opportunities for students and the community.

The Education Magazine recently spoke with Dr. Ruda, who shared his insights on the opportunities and challenges facing community colleges today. He emphasized the importance of innovation, collaboration, and communication in leading a successful institution. He also highlighted the achievements and initiatives of GCCC, such as the expansion of online and hybrid courses, the development of new programs and certificates, and the enhancement of student support services.

TEM: You have been leading Garden City Community College as the President and CEO since 2019. What inspired you to pursue a career in higher education and community college leadership?

Dr. Ruda: Well, it was not something I planned from the beginning. My undergraduate degree is in criminal justice, and I wanted to be a Highway Patrol officer. However, life had other plans for me. When I finished my bachelor’s degree, my wife was working on her master’s degree at Fort Hays State University. So, I decided to join her and enroll in a graduate program as well. I chose Counseling with an emphasis on Higher Education, and that’s how I became interested in the field of education.

After completing my master’s degree, I applied for a position as a Professional Mental Health Counselor and Academic Advisor at Garden City Community College. I was fortunate to get the job and start my career there. I enjoyed working with students and helping them achieve their academic and personal goals.

I worked as a Counselor and Advisor for ten years, and then I became the Director of Counseling. After that, I was appointed as the Vice President of Student Services and also took on the roles of Athletic Director and Vice President for Instruction for seven years.

During this time, I decided to pursue my Doctorate in Community College Leadership. I enrolled in the program offered by the National American University with Dr. John Roueche, who is a renowned expert and leader in the field. The program was great and provided me with mentoring, connections, and background that led me to the role of President. In 2018, I was named interim President before being named President and CEO in 2019.

TEM: Brief us about the establishment of the Garden City Community College. What are the academic programs/courses offered by the institute?

Dr. Ruda: Garden City Community College has a long and rich history. It was founded in April 1919 as a branch of the public school system. In 1965, the state legislature passed the Community College Act, which gave county voters the power to elect their own board of trustees and establish a separate community college district. That same year, construction began on the current campus, which spans sixty-three acres and has fourteen buildings.

Our mission is to produce positive contributors to the economic and social well-being of society. We do this by offering quality education and training to our students and community.

We have a wide range of programs and courses to suit the diverse needs and interests of our students. We offer over forty associate degree programs, both academic and technical, and twelve certificate programs. Some of our popular programs include:

  • Agriculture & Animal Science
  • Business, Management & Marketing
  • Fine Arts & Humanities
  • Nursing & Allied Health Professions
  • Public Safety (Criminal Justice, EMS, Fire Science)
  • Science & Mathematics
  • Trades (Automotive, Carpentry, Industrial Maintenance, Robotics, Welding)

TEM: As the leader of Garden City Community College, you must be aware of the various challenges that students face in pursuing higher education. How does GCCC help them overcome these challenges and achieve their goals?

Dr. Ruda: At GCCC, we are committed to providing quality education and support to our students and community. We understand that there are many obstacles that students face, such as access, affordability, distance, and personal and mental health issues. We have taken several steps to address these challenges and make education more accessible, affordable, and relevant for our students while maintaining a student-first customer service approach.

One of the ways we have enhanced access is by securing federal funding to implement Zoom-enabled classrooms throughout our region for each high school in our service area. These classrooms allow us to expand our dual credit and program offerings to outreach locations and link them to real-time class instruction on campus. This way, students can access a variety of courses and programs without having to travel long distances or compromise on quality.

Affordability is another key factor that we consider. We have not increased our tuition for the past three years, and we have made it an institutional priority to grow our endowed scholarships for students. We have embarked on a scholarship initiative with a goal of increasing fifty new endowed scholarships. We have also identified and worked with individuals and donors who share our vision and mission and are willing to support our students financially.

TEM: How do you help your students pursue their four-year degree opportunities, especially when the closest bachelor’s degree-granting institution is over two hours away from Garden City?

Dr. Ruda: We know that many of our students want to continue their education after completing their associate degree, but they may face barriers such as distance, cost, or family obligations. That’s why we have developed partnerships with universities to offer bachelor’s degree programs in-person in Garden City.

We have forged two new partnerships with Newman University to offer business and nursing degree completion in Garden City, as well as with Fort Hays State University to offer Social Work degrees in Garden City.

These partnerships allow our students to complete their bachelor’s degree in their own community while benefiting from the resources and expertise of both GCCC and the university. This also allows the talent pipeline to remain in our community while completing education rather than having to recruit them back from universities upon degree completion.

TEM: Finally, how do you address the personal and mental health needs of your students, which are often overlooked or neglected in higher education?

Dr. Ruda: We recognize that personal and mental health are essential for student success and well-being. We have created partnerships and made services available in different aspects to meet the needs of our students. We have partnered with local mental health providers to provide in-person counseling on campus, which is free of charge to students.

We have also worked with our Student Government Association to implement online, personal, and mental health counseling services available to students.

This telehealth service is free of charge to students, and available 24/7, 365. This service helps create unique and personalized services for students, which separates GCCC from other institutions while also providing the services that help drive student success.

TEM: You have been the President and CEO of GCCC since 2019. What are the primary roles and responsibilities that come with this position?

Dr. Ruda: Being the President and CEO of Garden City Community College is a dynamic and rewarding role. My main responsibilities are to advocate for the institution, to ensure transparency and accountability, and to lead the college in fulfilling its mission. Our mission is to be student-centered, community-minded and focused on producing positive contributors to the economic and social well-being of society.

To achieve this mission, we are in the people business. We constantly strive to create partnerships, build relationships, and take care of people. I believe success is accomplished due to the people within your organization. At GCCC, we follow the mindset of being Hungry, Humble, and Smart in how we approach our work. This mindset is at the core of best-serving students and the community while meeting our mission.

TEM: That sounds very impressive. Can you tell us about some of the accomplishments that you and your team have achieved during your tenure as President and CEO?

Dr. Ruda: Sure. There are many accomplishments that I am proud of, but I will mention a few. First, we have secured a federal STEM grant to expand and enhance our degree offerings for students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

We have also built a new STEM Success Center on campus, which provides state-of-the-art facilities and resources for our students and faculty. Second, we have increased our program offerings on the technical side, such as welding, automotive, industrial machine mechanic, and carpentry, to be responsive to the industry’s needs and demands.

Third, we have been recognized as one of the “Most Promising Places to Work” in 2019, 2021, and 2023 by NISOD and Diverse Magazine, which reflects our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Fourth, we have been ranked as the #1 transfer institution in Kansas for community colleges, which shows our success in preparing our students for their four-year degree opportunities.

TEM: Community colleges play a crucial role in providing accessible education. How do you ensure that the GCCC remains accessible and inclusive for diverse learners from different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels?

Dr. Ruda: Access and affordability are the core values of community colleges. GCCC is a Hispanic-serving institution, with over 50% of our student demographics identifying as Hispanic.

Additionally, nearly 80% of our student body is first-generation. With our demographics in mind, much of our Strategic Enrollment Management plan focuses on how we understand, identify, and implement solutions towards various equity gaps while also keeping open lines of communication with all student populations to ensure that we are responsive to student needs.

We continually seek ways to engage and receive feedback from students and stakeholders to address access and inclusivity. GCCC holds a variety of public forums and listening sessions to provide avenues and opportunities for the public to give feedback and inquiries.

TEM: Many parents face challenges like limited resources or competing priorities. What are your top three pieces of advice for parents to support their children’s educational journey, from early years through higher education?

Dr. Ruda: Higher education creates opportunity. Degrees, certificates, and workforce training can open doors for employability and upward mobility in the workforce. For example, based on a recent economic impact study at GCCC, our college graduates earn an additional $17,500 annually compared to students with a high school diploma. This increase in earning potential only compounds over time. Therefore, I would advise parents to encourage their children to pursue higher education and lifelong learning.

Another piece of advice is to utilize and take advantage of the resources and services available through your local community college. Community colleges offer a variety of programs and support for students of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you need assistance with scholarship application or FAFSA, help with career guidance/counseling, or opportunities to advance in your current career, community colleges have a vast array of services and stand ready to be a resource to the community.

TEM: Imagine you have limitless resources. What are the things that you would like to change about the education system?

Dr. Ruda: One of the things I would like to change is the ease of access to higher education. Higher education can be daunting and challenging to navigate for many students, especially those who come from underprivileged backgrounds or face other barriers.

Having a more seamless transition and transfer of credits between different institutions is critical for ensuring that students can pursue their educational goals without losing time or money. Creating more seamless pathways and navigation into higher education as well as ease of secured data sharing, would be advantageous for both students and educators.

Another thing I would like to change is the ease of access to federal funds, such as grants, loans, and scholarships, which would help offset the cost of higher education and make it more accessible and inclusive for everyone. I believe that higher education should not be a privilege, but a right for all who seek it.

TEM: How do you ensure your work-life balance? What are your hobbies/interests beyond the cabin?

Dr. Ruda: Maintaining a balance is extremely important to me. Family is everything. Throughout my career, my family has been a strong supporter and encourager. As my daughters grew up, we embraced college activities and events as a means of spending time together.

Everything from parades to fine arts events to athletic events and student activities has been a way to spend quality time while maintaining a connection to college and family. From this, our family enjoys outdoor activities. We spend time together camping as well as traveling.

Words of Wisdom

Leadership is a choice, not a position. Use leadership to influence positive change.

ALSO READ: The 10 Inspiring Education Leaders, 2024

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The Educational landscape is changing dynamically. The new generation of students thus faces the daunting task to choose an institution that would guide them towards a lucrative career.

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