Dr. Marlene Sprouse, left, with Corydon attorney Alan M. Wilson, an Indian Hills Foundation Board Member. Photo by Jason Selby
Last Tuesday, Dr. Marlene Sprouse, the new president of Indian Hills Community College, got reminded often of her connections to Wayne County.
“When I was in Corydon, I kept running into people that either reminded me that I knew them or their spouse, or that they knew my parents.”
Sprouse’s father, Jim Stanton, worked for Randolph Funeral Home in Seymour, Corydon and Allerton for many years. Before they passed, he and her mother, Marie Stanton, lived in Wayne County all of their lives.
Sprouse graduated from Seymour Community High School in 1977.
Last week, she was in Corydon giving a presentation to the local campus in the Wayne County Hospital building—it was her coming-out party, her introduction to the 10-county area she now serves. And all of this—becoming leader of a renowned technical school—from a college English major.
Right out of high school, she attended Indian Hills for two years, and within three years she had earned her bachelor’s degree from Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. She taught high school English for 10 years, including at her alma mater, Seymour, before going back to college to get her master’s, specialist and doctorate from Drake University.
“My husband believes I’ve gone to college all my life,” Sprouse says. “My background is English, but I think more than anything my background is education. When I taught high school English, I loved the writing and the literature. But when I started going for advanced degrees, it was in education. I went about learning how to educate students the best that I could.”
Though she started as a teacher, she worked her way into administration, and spent her last three years of high school as a principal at Albia. In 2000, she became dean of IHCC’s Centerville campus. In 2002, she was named vice president of academic affairs. Then, in the spring of 2013, Indian Hills named Sprouse president, a title that became official Nov. 1st.
“I didn’t have any idea that’s what I would do,” Sprouse says. “When I was 20 years old, I had no idea I’d be president of a college. I got into things I really liked, thinking I’d do the best job that I could. Then other doors opened up, and I went through those doors into administration and faculty development.
“Having worked at the college for 14 years before I became the president, I learned about all the different areas that I might not have originally known.
“A joke that I used to say—when I had a designated parking spot, it said ‘vice president,’ and I’d think to myself, ‘Marlene, how in the world did you get here?’ I feel the same way about the president’s job.
“I just kept educating myself more. I took advantage of my experiences. It certainly is wonderful to have this opportunity.”
And Sprouse plans to take full advantage. One of the issues she feels strongly about is economic vitalization and development in the region in which she grew up, and which helped shape her. She still lives only 70 miles from her
hometown of Seymour, just outside of Ottumwa.
“Growing up in a small school, you just get to do everything,” Sprouse says. “That was so much fun, because I could play basketball, I could play softball and I could be in the choir and in plays. And because Seymour wasn’t that far from Corydon or Humeston, we all played ball against each other.
“In southern Iowa, we have beautiful land and beautiful small towns and we live spread out,” Sprouse says. “We’re not going to grow our towns into cities, even of 20,000 people. That’s just not going to happen. We need to find ways for those living in the area to have access to high quality parts of life—in terms of education, retail and government, etc. Finding ways to make that continue—I think that’s the important thing.”
Sprouse understands economic decline, but has realistic expectations.
“What we know about economic development, is that helping businesses already here is an important part. It’s not just finding new businesses, it’s helping support those that already exist.
“It’s also true that with technology and with the way people live now, not only are we not going to grow our towns to 20,000 people, we’re not going to attract manufacturing plants that employ 500 or 1,000 people either. That’s not necessarily because of our size, that’s because there aren’t that many of those companies anymore.
“So the growth of small business is important to our area.”
During her presentation, Sprouse pointed out that many community colleges serve a larger population than Indian Hills, which works with around 136,000 people across a 10-county area, yet students that attend IHCC are awarded more credentials—meaning certificates, diplomas and degrees—than all other community colleges in Iowa except two, DMACC and Kirkwood Community College.
“That tells us that we can serve our communities, and draw people to the education that they need and to the economic development opportunities that they need,” Sprouse says. “We like the size we are, right in the middle. That leads me to believe that we are serving people in the way that we need to. Of course we would always like our enrollment to be higher, but when you only have a certain number of people to work with in your 10-county area, being in the middle is okay with us.”
In IHCC’s area, school-age population has decreased since 1998.
“We were in hopes that it would level off, and it did a bit, but last fall we decreased again. We keep that in mind, because the school-age population is one of the pools from which we try to attract students. When school-age population is low, we don’t have as many students to pull from.
“The other reason we pay attention to that has to do with the economic development and vitalization of our communities in the 10-county area.
“The fewer people in general we have, it’s harder to keep our retail entities thriving, it’s harder to keep our governmental entities thriving.”
Also important to Sprouse and Indian Hills is Job Corps, a federally funded program with 125 job centers across the nation. Ottumwa’s center is only three years old.
“It is very much integrated with Indian Hills,” Sprouse says. “It is a residential program that supports young people from 16 to 24 years old. Most of them are either economically or socially disadvantaged. There sometimes is the belief that Job Corps students have been in trouble—that’s not true. Any Job Corps student must be drug-tested and cleared of any court obligation before they can come in. Many of these students dropped out of high school. They have fallen through the cracks. We help them to get a high school diploma or equivalency, and they can get college credit. They are also helped in life skills areas. We will continue to support that. A Job Corps student can come into about 30 different programs at Indian Hills. They are given an allowance, food and a place to live.
“Four years ago, Indian Hills dedicated more resources to regional economic advancement. We took several of our offices that were trying to help small businesses and economic development and we pulled them all together under one umbrella and one leader. Their job is to support the work force in our area. In fact, we are building a business incubator.”
Sprouse stays connected to her home—though she does not get back to Seymour and Wayne County as often as she would like—by serving its young people. She was once one of them. She knows what it is like to not know her destination. Her most important job as president of Indian Hills is to give young people, and the entire population that she serves, direction.
“Since I’ve taken over as president, we’re trying to visit each of our county centers, so that the community people can know who I am. I give my speech so that people will know my commitments and the things we are doing at the college.
“Education and economic development go together. It’s all about improving things around us and improving our own lives.
“I think that’s the connection that I have, and the fact that I’ve been really lucky—I’m only 70 miles from my hometown, and I’ve always lived within Indian Hills’ 10-county area. Yet I’ve been able to move into these great jobs. So there are opportunities out there if we just look for them."