Dr. Joseph Odenwald, Southwestern Michigan College’s new vice president of student services, wants to provide students the same transformative experience higher education gave him.
Odenwald, who started Nov. 27, comes to SMC from Louisiana State University, where he was assistant dean of the College of Engineering.
LSU’s staff in Baton Rouge is comparable in size to the number of residents of Dowagiac, where he and his wife, Laura, are buying a house.
“I really want to live in town in the worst way,” he said. “I want to live close to campus and be a part of town. I’m excited about (Beckwith Theatre). My dad’s in love with Dowagiac.
Most small towns of this size in the South have died. We attended church at St. Paul’s on Sunday. That’s where Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth spoke.
“That’s one of the things that drew me,” Odenwald said. “Yes, it’s a small town, but you’ve got theatre and a thriving downtown with local merchants. We’re ecstatic!”
As vice president for student services, Odenwald oversees eight areas of the college, including housing, institutional research, student records, the Student Activity Center (SAC), the Career Planning Center (CPC), (EXCEL) Student Support Services, the Student Service Center and Educational Talent Search (ETS).
His office is located in the CPC on the first floor of the David C. Briegel Building.
Odenwald had never been to Michigan before interviewing for his position, but he’s finding cooler weather refreshing.
“I was tired of hot weather,” said the native of Ferriday, La. (pop. 3,300). I was also in Clinton, Miss., a suburb of Jackson (the state capital) for six years (2008-2014) at Mississippi College.”
The Christian university, founded in 1826, is the second-oldest Baptist-affiliated college in the United States and Mississippi’s oldest college.
Odenwald, 35, gained experience in student affairs as associate dean of students and director of student life.
“At MC we had about 1,700 on campus,” he said. “I wanted to be at a public college. I was very drawn to the egalitarian spirit of ‘Knowledge for All’ (on SMC’s seal). I was drawn to the fact so much has been invested in campus life over the past 10 years — residence halls, the SAC is a jewel. I went to an RA (residence assistants) meeting last night and they had the fireplace going. I took a picture of it all lit up and sent it to people I used to work with.
“There has been a commitment by the leadership here to invest in the student experience. I looked at the way the school is rated among peers for outcomes and quality academics. They’re doing it right here! This is a two-year college that does not compromise on anything. It’s quality, top to bottom. That drew me.”
Odenwald’s parents did not attend college, which he found “transformational.”
“I went to a tiny liberal arts college of about a thousand (Louisiana College in Pineville),” earning a bachelor’s degree in history in 2005.
“I lived in the freshman hall all four years” as an RA. “I was an only child and felt like I had 160 brothers. It was the best experience after going to a tiny high school and graduating with 33 people.”
“My grandparents wanted me to be a minister,” said Odenwald, who studied religion in addition to history.
Odenwald holds a master’s degree in higher education administration from Mississippi College and his 2015 Ed.D. degree in higher education administration from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
“I was the only non-engineer in the administration” at LSU, where he met Laura, who was born in Baton Rouge, but grew up in Maryland.
“The future of higher education, those institutions that survive, will be high-quality, but affordable,” Odenwald said. “I’m a smaller college guy. When I saw SMC, I saw its value. You can really do a lot of good for a lot of people in college work, which I view as my life calling. I grew up farming, so I can be around agriculture. It’s in a small town, it’s got housing and corn fields all around. This is where I want to be!”