Community colleges transforming rural Iowa

I’ve been surprised by many things on the campaign trail, but nothing has been quite as startling as when I watched an infant manikin unexpectedly come to life at North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC). Yes, I jumped! It was so life-like.

The manikin is a part of NIACC’s cutting-edge nursing program, one that includes realistic animatronic babies, an interactive screen that allows students to do digital surgery and classroom labs that are exact replicas of the local hospital.

As a community college professor myself, visiting Iowa colleges in communities of all sizes — urban areas like Cedar Rapids, mid-size communities like Mason City or rural communities like Emmetsburg — it’s wonderful to see how schools meet students where they are and give them the unique skills that meet the needs of local businesses.

At NIACC, I also saw their Diesel Technology Center, where the head instructor told me that their students have a 100 percent job placement rate. 

At Ellsworth Community College, I learned about the newest agricultural technology and got to ride on a virtual combine simulator.

And I visited the Waterloo Career Center, a technical high school where students can learn nursing, screen printing and business management before they even graduate.

But these schools aren’t just places of learning. They bring communities together. They offer hope to places where economic progress hasn’t always been even.

At a recent visit to Jefferson, I spoke to some residents about what they wanted for their community. And many of them talked about how, for a long time, young people felt they had to choose between staying close to family and friends and getting a good job in a faraway city. 

But recently, the Forge came to town — a technology consulting company that offers great-paying tech jobs — as well as the Forge Academy, which works with community colleges to offer four months of tuition-free training. 

Faces lit up as residents talked about how excited they were to be a part of what some people are calling “Silicon Prairie.” 

Even though the needs of rural Iowa are sometimes different from those of suburban Northern Virginia where I teach, the influence of community colleges is the same.

In my classroom, I’ve seen lives changed by the education we offer, whether it’s a new career path that will help their family thrive or a second chance at education. In the smallest towns and the biggest cities, that’s the power of community colleges.

That’s why these schools are so personal to Joe and me. And that’s why we’re both dedicated to ensuring two years of community college or training programs without debt.

When I met with students at NIACC, a physical therapist student told me that he loved his school because it gives him “every opportunity to succeed.” 

I can’t think of higher praise for any school.

Community colleges make our neighborhoods, our economy and our country stronger. 

Community colleges are one of America’s best-kept secrets.

Jill Biden is an educator at Northern Virginia Community College and the wife of former vice president Joe Biden, a Democratic candidate for president.

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