Nancy Edmonds Hanson
M State has just been named the best community college in Minnesota, but that’s not what Dr. Carrie Brimhall brings up first when asked what makes the four-campus community and technical college special.
“We don’t give up on our students,” she says, “not even when they give up on themselves.”
Dr. Brimhall, now 46, has spent all of her years since graduating from the two-year college in Fergus Falls – one of those she now heads – steeped in that principle. “I came to become a police officer,” the native of Big Stone City, South Dakota, remembers. “But halfway through my sophomore year, I decided I couldn’t be a cop.”
Instead, she switched her major to marketing and communications. After earning her associate’s degree, she moved to Concordia College to complete a bachelor’s in her new major.
“The program required an internship. I wanted one in Fergus Falls, where my boyfriend Matt lived. Only about three employers there are large enough to have a marketing department. One was the college. That’s where I went, and, as it turns out, I never left.”
She started out as an unpaid full-time intern, using her free time to plan their wedding. “I coached the dance team … with zero experience in dance. I advised the Student Government Association. The only reason that matters to this story is that know students. When it was time to leave and get a job in advertising and public relations, I realized I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to stay in education. And here we are today.”
She joined the college as director of housing and student life, then took on a series of different roles. “I love the college and I love what we do,” she emphasizes. “We believe in people. With the right amount of encouragement, every one of them can do great things.”
While on the job and raising her family – she and husband Matt have two daughters and a son – she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in organizational management and leadership. She chose Capella University, at the time the only fully accredited online institution.
The Fergus Falls college merged with three others exactly 20 years ago as Minnesota State Community and Technical College, which operates Moorhead’s M State campus as well as its counterparts in Detroit Lakes and Wadena. The Brimhalls’ rural Otter Tail County home turned out to be perfectly situated, a little more than a quarter hour from her first campus and roughly 45 minutes from each of the other three.
When President Peggy Kennedy resigned in 2018, and after 20 years rising through the administration, Carrie faced a dilemma. She was serving as the vice president of academic affairs at the time, the number-two position. “Even then, I didn’t know where it would lead. Under those circumstances, if you don’t apply for the presidency, you generally don’t stay. I loved what I was doing and where I was doing it.”
She did apply. In July 2019 – six days before her 40th birthday – she became the fourth president of M State, possibly the youngest now serving higher ed in Minnesota. As she’d been doing before taking the top job, Brimhall continued dividing her time between the four campuses. She estimates she spends a solid 40 hours a month on the road, quipping that she’s gotten to know where to find all the best coffee shops along the way.
Each of the four M State campuses, she says, has its own distinct personality. “Wadena is our ‘get to work’ campus. It’s very in touch with technology and the trades,” she describes. “It’s like a family. It’s simple, in the very most beautiful version of the word. Everybody comes together to do what they need to do to support each other.” About 500 students attend classes there.
She describes M State Detroit Lakes, the smallest with about 300 students, as more of a commuter campus, with students coming and going more often. “It’s not as cohorted or scheduled. Students are balancing a lot, between families and jobs and school.” A number of its students come from the White Earth Reservation. Its specialty, the radiology technician program, attracts students from as far away as Moorhead.
“M State Fergus Falls is our traditional liberal arts campus,” she says of her alma mater, estimating the 70 to 80% of its students plan on going on for the four-year university experience. It’s the only one with its own student housing. She cites music, theater and the arts as its best-known sports, along with the Spartans sports teams. Enrollment is approximately 500.
Brimhall calls Moorhead, by far the largest of the four, as M State’s most diverse campus in every way, from ethnicity and age to professional interests. “Fifty percent of our students are in the trade and technical programs. The others plan to transfer after two years,” she says. “We have longer days here. Some of our students live in housing on the MSUM campus. Some ride five buses to get here. Some are living at home with their families. As a group, they are truly unique.”
Not all M State students spend time on any of M State’s campuses. Roughly 2,000 students are enrolled in its pioneering online programs – as many as attend classes here in Moorhead. “We’ve been accredited to offer online courses and full degrees since 2003,” she points out. “That’s a lot earlier than the other universities in our region.”
The college reaches another 2,000 or so younger students through the PSEO – Post-Secondary Enrollment Options – program, where they earn transferable college credits while attending high school. “PSEO goes back all the way to the ’90s,” the president points out. “We offer classes in 46 high schools in northwestern Minnesota, all taught by credentialed, qualified teachers.” The classes and the resulting credits, ready to transfer to any college, are free. The results can be remarkable. Brimhall’s older daughter graduated from Fergus Falls High School with 42 credits, enabling her to get her degree from Bemidji State University in just two years. Her son brought more than 30 when he enrolled at MSUM. Her younger girl, 14, is still a student at Fergus Falls High.
M State’s recent honors as the state’s best community college, awarded by three top college-planning website, is a point of pride for the president – but not the main point.
“With at least 30 community colleges in Minnesota, it’s nice to know that someone is recognizing the impact we have on students in the communities we serve,” she concedes. “Educating students is not easy work. We have 400 employees, and they often put students before themselves.”
What’s most important, she says, is their mission to help every student succeed. “Our vision is to be the success story for our students. We want to get to know every one of them.
“We don’t give up on them, not even when they may be on the verge of giving up on themselves. That’s what makes M State unique … and when it comes to the cost of an education, we win every time.”