President Dr. Joe Schaffer is approaching his sixth year serving as president of LCCC, and he has overcome some big challenges during his time here. Despite his current love for working in higher education, Schaffer is an outdoorsman at heart and originally pursued this passion.
“If you had spoken with me 15 to 20 years ago, I would have never said that I wanted a career in education,” Schaffer said.
“I grew up in Minnesota, and what drew me out west was my love for the outdoors more than anything; I wanted to go to Big Sky Country and be in the Rocky Mountains and experience the wilderness and do all of those wonderful things,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer said he started out academically by pursuing his undergraduate degree in wildland recreation management, and he has a minor in wildlife biology.
“I came out west on an antelope-hunting trip when I was just starting college and just fell in love with the west,” Schaffer said. “After that, I started college at my hometown university (Bemidji State University) and I was far from a stellar student. In fact, there was one point when I had a 1.8 GPA.”
Schaffer said he had a faculty member in a class he was failing who approached him and helped him get on track to finish an associate degree. “That’s really what opened the door for me to transfer out to the University of Montana,” Schaffer said.
Despite his rough start in college, Schaffer worked his way up to the required 2.0 GPA needed to graduate and earn an associate degree. When applying to the University of Montana, Schaffer’s credits were accepted, but his GPA wasn’t calculated. This gave him a fresh start as a transfer student, which he described as “very helpful.” He said he finally found his groove, and began to enjoy school after finding a love for the program he was involved with.
“Fresh out of school, I started working for the YMCA and my job was to work with at-risk youth and family programs and predominantly teens to start,” Schaffer said. “I quickly grew through the ranks of the YMCA and ended up running all of thwe child and family programs and did a lot of outreach programs with the community.”
Schaffer did all of this over the course of a three-year span.
Schaffer continued toward a master’s degree in technical communication, when he began to do work for a vice chancellor’s office at the university. This is where he really fell in love with higher education and led to Schaffer landing a job at a small two-year campus in Great Falls, Montana, as a director of outreach.
Over the course of the next 10 years, he took the positions of assistant dean of outreach and workforce development, as well as the associate dean/chief academic officer.
“One day, the interim president from LCCC had been calling my office and finally called me and said, ‘you should look at this job; we’re recruiting for presidents down here,’” Schaffer said. “It happened that I worked with the previous president, Dr. Hammond, when he was in Montana, so I knew of LCCC… I came down and went through the interview process and was fortunate to get the job.”
Schaffer got the opportunity to enjoy his passion for the outdoors after moving out to Wyoming for the job, and he took advantage of the Wyoming wilderness as well as the surrounding areas.
“Having that proximity to Denver and Denver International Airport was probably the bigger pull for my wife,” Schaffer said. “For me, where we’re located here is like the best jumping off point to experience so many different things. I’ve hunted and traveled into New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, spent a lot of time in Colorado, can still go to Montana, and Nebraska and the Dakotas are close. It’s just a wonderful location when you think about being able to explore and experience so many different types of outdoor things.”
To this day, Schaffer tries to put aside some time in his schedule to go out and enjoy the outdoors to help manage his stress. He also enjoys spending time with his wife, Brooke, and two daughters, Samantha and Lia.
Schaffer said that during his time serving as LCCC president, he’s greatly improved his patience as well as his understanding of the importance of relationships, specifically in Wyoming.
“I learned early on that even though I maybe think I’m talking to someone about a subject, topic or business, I have to understand who that person knows, what that relationship is, and what happened between those relationships; so you have to slow down sometimes to really understand all those dynamics,” Schaffer said. “It’s one of those things that makes Wyoming so rich and so wonderful, is those personal connections.”
According to Schaffer, serving as the president of a college comes with a lot of ups and downs. He reflected on his first graduation ceremony being one of his most memorable and favorite moments during his time here.
“My first commencement that spring (2012) was at the Civic Center,” Schaffer said. “I remember because the governor was actually the commencement speaker — there was a lot of stress because the place was full… and when the students came in and just filled it up, I just remember how powerful it was for me to be up on that stage with all these folks and seeing all the students, and I thought, ‘yeah, this feels good.’”
“Honestly, every commencement is probably one of my most favorite things that we do,” Schaffer said. “But it’s tough because, by the end of the day, my cheeks hurt so badly from smiling from being up there.”
Among these great moments, Schaffer has also experienced some challenging and stressful situations.
“Our overhaul of the Human Resource Policy Structure was tough, and I know it was tough on a lot of the employees here to,” Schaffer said. “And last fall killed me; when you’ve got to cut $2.5 million out of a budget, and you’ve got to let people go who are really good people, you go to bed at night and your mind spins… It’s been really tough when you have to do things that you know are right for students or for the campus, but you know will maybe hurt people who you respect who are here, or they disagree with you and it puts those chinks in your relationships.”
Although he said he feels his decisions were necessary for the future of the college, Schaffer said it was very hard for him to see the negative impact some of his decisions had on some people during the $2.5 million budget cut, and that he’d “do anything I could to avoid doing that again.”
At the end of the day, Schaffer’s love for working in higher education keeps him going through the tough times, and he hopes to continue serving as LCCC president until his retirement.