From Welder to President Dr. Dennis Bona a Model of Community & Technical College Success

As the cab driver drove him from his hotel to the Grand Forks airport, she asked Dennis Bona what he was doing in town. He told her he was going to be the next president of Northland Community and Technical College. “Oh yeah?” she said, “I graduated from Northland.” It was a moment of clarity Bona wasn’t expecting quite so early in the morning.

Nervously, he asked about her experience at Northland, eager to know why a college grad ended up driving a cab. She said her time at Northland was all positive. She enjoyed her classes, earned her associate degree and quickly found a job she loved. But while she was in school her family at home was growing, as were her expenses. So, seeking greater financial independence for herself and her family—and armed with real-world experience and two years of transferable college credits from Northland—she’s enrolled at a university, finishing a business degree that will give her the additional training she needs to open her own shop. She’ll be done in two short years … the cab driving gig is just to help pay the bills in the interim.

Bona had heard this story a hundred times. It’s his story. No one ever rolls out of bed in the morning, looks in the mirror and says to themselves, I think I should be a college president one day. Bona never did. But the one-time welder with a two-year degree found himself trading in his acetylene torch and face shield to follow a path of lifelong learning. Now, for the second time in his career, he sits in an office with “President” on the door.

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“NORTHLAND’S GOT A GREAT REPUTATION, AND I’M EXCITED TO BE HERE.”

Officially, Bona’s tenure as Northland Community and Technical College’s new president wouldn’t start for another few weeks, but that didn’t keep him from moving in early. Despite the boxes yet to be unpacked and the pictures yet to be hung, he was there and ready to get to work long before his name would show up on the payroll.

Bona joked about the free hours he was putting in, but if anything, this “free” time seemed liberating for him. He came to the office in jeans, tennis shoes, and a casual short-sleeved shirt looking like a college buddy ready to help you move. And it turned out, he didn’t just look like a guy you could be friends with, he sounded like it too. From day one, it was obvious that Bona came to Northland for all the right reasons… and brought with him a sincere passion for student success.

This community is growing, industry is coming this way—retail, healthcare, hospitality, aerospace, technology—these businesses are already here and starved for employees.
Dr. Dennis Bona, NCTC President

“Northland’s got a great reputation, and I’m excited to be here,” he said with a wide smile that softened the intensity in his eyes. “This community is growing, industry is coming this way—retail, healthcare, hospitality, aerospace, technology—these businesses are already here and starved for employees. I will take advantage of every opportunity to learn more about and to engage with our community and industry leaders.”

His knack for building community relationships was what set Bona apart and ultimately won him the job… and he’s not shy about telling you why it’s such an important part of the leadership style he’s bringing to Northland.

“These communities can’t continue to grow without a workforce, and you have to grow your own,” Bona said. “Our goal is to meet the needs of the community. It’s right there in our name as a community college. I have a reputation of never saying no, because I believe if it makes good business sense for the institution and provides value to the community, then we need to find a way to do it.”

Our goal is to meet the needs of the community. It’s right there in our name as a community college.
Dr. Dennis Bona, NCTC President

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“REGARDLESS OF WHAT PATH YOU’RE HEADED, THIS IS A GREAT PLACE TO START.”

That sensibility of “if it makes sense, do it” is on full display at Northland Community and Technical College. Walking through the two newly renovated campuses, it doesn’t take long to notice the unmistakable signs of progress.

The libraries, bright and inviting with floor-to-ceiling windows, dare you to sneak a peek at what modern higher ed looks like. The remodeled bookstores, with racks of new Northland apparel on full display, radiate school spirit. As you walk the halls, see the technology in the classrooms and talk with the faculty, that feeling of school spirit solidifies into a genuine sense of community that drives student success at Northland. But what’s most striking is the campus-wide support system that encourages students to pursue success in whichever form and at whatever speed suits them best.

“There are students who graduate high school who aren’t yet ready for college level coursework,” Bona said,  “and that’s OK. They need the opportunity to level up and we provide that path to get back on track… an opportunity you would not get at a university.”

The challenge is to work together with businesses to find a way to get these students back to the classroom to finish their degree.
Dr. Dennis Bona, NCTC President

For some students, however, success can almost come too quickly—they’re being hired on after their first year in school. “The challenge is to work together with businesses to find a way to get these students back to the classroom to finish their degree,” Bona said, who is quick to point out that getting a job is still the end goal, so calling this a challenge can be a bit misleading. “Regardless of what path you’re headed,” he said,  “Northland is a great place to start.”

“SO WHAT?”

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There is no typical community and technical college student. In fact, Bona sees a trend that he feels should be celebrated rather than stigmatized. Ignoring what some in higher education and federal government have come to call the completion agenda—the irrational pressure to finish college on time—many community and technical college students choose to pace their education to fit their real life schedules and responsibilities… again, if it makes sense, do it.

“As a college president, I hear ‘You’re not graduating enough students’… well, on whose time frame?” Bona said with an emphatic shrug of his shoulders. “Because the government says everyone should be done in two years doesn’t mean that works in everybody’s lives.”

As long as they complete their education, they’re going to have opportunities.
Dr. Dennis Bona, NCTC President

Bona knows that students come to Northland at various stages in their lives. They are married, single parents, have jobs, etc. In other words, they have lives, and they’re often trying to pay for college and support a family at the same time. Many of these students are just not going to get done in two years.

“And so what?” Bona said like a proud parent coming to the defense of his own family. “As long as they complete their education, they’re going to have opportunities. We should be applauding these students for taking their time, paying their way and not graduating with a $100,000 debt.”

“LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK…”

At the end of the day, Northland is a community college. A two-year tech school. It’s not where tomorrow’s leaders go, right? Well, it’s not that simple, because leaders rarely follow the same path to the top.

“If you buy into the premise, which you ought to, that education is good,” Bona asserted, “that it’s your path to advancement, personally, professionally… why would you look anywhere else other than community and technical college as a place to start?”

“I got an associates degree in welding technology,” he said with a knowing grin as he began to recount his own path to the president’s post. “I could’ve used it as a means to an end, to continue working and make some money… or to continue my education, which is the path I took. I went and got my bachelor’s degree in trade and technical education, and as I got into my teaching career, I decided I wanted to keep going. So I got my master’s degree in leadership and eventually a doctorate, and that allowed me to work in different areas of administration and ultimately land as a college president.”

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Bona didn’t follow a straight-line path to leadership. The cab driver, who will soon own her own business, didn’t expect to find herself at the university working towards a bachelor’s degree. Both simply capitalized on their technical education and real world experience. They used their two-year degrees as a launching point to further their careers each time opportunity presented itself.

They’re getting high wages in high demand fields, and it all started with an affordable, two-year community and technical college degree.
Dr. Dennis Bona, NCTC President

If you ask Bona what students might miss out on by choosing Northland over a four-year university, he’ll smile and, as if revealing a secret, whisper “they don’t really have to choose.”  But it’s no secret. Thanks to close partnerships with surrounding universities—partnerships Bona is already working to strengthen—students can continue on quite seamlessly towards a four-year degree, taking their Northland credits with them. Still, Bona is quick to point out the virtues of vocation.

“The folks who go into a technical field or attend community college are sort of laughing all the way to the bank,” Bona said. “I’ve heard welders in the area are making upwards of $100,000 a year. Nurses that are earning in the $50-80,000 range. They’re getting high wages in high demand fields, and it all started with an affordable, two-year community and technical college degree.”


Make Education Happen.

Whether you’re just beginning your education, continuing a degree, or hoping to further your career – we invite you to explore all our academic program offerings at Northland. Career and technical education designed to prepare you for real-world experiences. Together we make education happen.