In the past more than 30 years that Jan Stephenson has been employed with Winona State University – more than 25 of those years with the Rochester campus – she has seen many changes in how higher education is delivered. Stephenson retired on September 4, 2012, as Associate Director and Student Advisor in Rochester. She can’t think of having been in a more rewarding career than education.
“You really need to enjoy what you do and be challenged, otherwise it is just a job,” Stephenson said. “The fact that the students come back and tell you how much they have appreciated your help in completing their degree, that’s the most rewarding.”
It’s been this constant attention to the needs of students and the details that have surrounded her duties and responsibilities that has set Stephenson apart in her profession and has helped the WSU-Rochester campus grow throughout the years. Craig Johnson, director of WSU-Rochester for the past five years, worked closely with Stephenson.
“Jan’s work on the WSU-Rochester campus is a model of commitment to student success,” Johnson said. “She is a very dedicated and caring advisor who always tries to do what is best for the student.”
Johnson was sad to see Stephenson leave, but is happy to see her enjoy her retirement years.
“Jan’s retirement leaves a big void on our campus,” he said. “She is a valued, respected and loved colleague. We wish her the best in her next stage of life, and we will miss her knowledge and her presence on our campus.”
From much lower enrollments in the 1970s and 1980s to record enrollments in the past few years, to having worked with nine different directors of the Rochester campus, Stephenson appreciates more today than ever when people talk about the willingness to adapt to an ever-changing world.
“In Rochester we work hard to maintain the quality of the programs we offer and continue our excellent student services outreach,” Stephenson said. “You always need support from your administrators to do those things, and our present Director (Craig Johnson) is very supportive. It’s hard to develop innovation if you don’t have support from the top-down. The best team is one that is flexible and appreciates other’s differences because it’s those differences that help you grow.”
It all started for Stephenson near Toeterville, Iowa, where she was raised on a farm with an older brother and sister. Early on, she attended a K-8 one-room country school house. There were only two people in her class, her and another boy. Ironically, they both ended up graduating in the same year from the University of Northern Iowa several years down the road, both becoming teachers. In sixth grade, she started attending the elementary school in St. Ansgar, Iowa, because the K-8 country school only had an enrollment of nine students and they needed a total of 10 to remain open.
"Country school was a great experience. I believe my respect for teachers, and education itself, originated here. Those teachers were amazing - not only did they prepare lesson plans for and teach all nine grades, they played softball at recess, wrote and put on community plays, ran Mothers' Clubs to name a few things; they were true role models,” Stephenson said.
She was very much influenced by her father in earning her bachelor’s degree. “He always said that they can’t take your education away from you. He is the reason I knew I wanted to go to college – he and my high school English teacher,” she said.
Following graduation from high school, Stephenson attended Mason City Junior College, now called North Iowa Area Community College. She spent two years there and also met her husband-to-be, Tom Stephenson, in January of 1966 when he and a roommate moved in across the hall from her and her two roommates--living above a downtown business.
“He was going with people and I was going with people and everyone knew there was something special between us,” she said. “The other thing was that our oven worked, but not our stove top, and his stove top worked, but not his oven. So, we shared kitchens and just sort of started hanging out. Our first official date was a movie at an outdoor drive-in theatre. That summer I went home and he stayed in Mason City and we both knew something was missing by not being together.”
In the fall of 1966, Tom went into the Navy, and Jan was elected homecoming queen at NIACC. Their lives were so different, but they stayed in touch during times on leave through many letters and phone calls. In February of 1968, he was informed that he was getting assigned overseas. He called Jan to ask her to marry him, so she could go with him. “I was so nervous, my response was, ‘I think so.’ I later called back with an emphatic, 'Yes!’,” she said.
Because the two had made a promise to her Dad that she would finish school, even though they married on September 21, 1968, Jan did not join him until the summer of 1969 after she completed her degree. Morocco was their new home, where they spent an entire year. “It was sort of like a year-long honeymoon,” she said, smiling.
In the fall of 1970, she and Tom came back to Minnesota. She had an English major and could not find a teaching job at the time. He worked for a distributing company in Austin, Minnesota, and she substitute taught. In the Fall of 1972, they became parents of daughter, Alyssa, and Tom began college at Austin Community College, now called Riverland Community College. After completing his two year degree, he then transferred to Winona State University and received his Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Psychology, then his Master’s degree in Counselor Education. Jan took a clerical job at the Watkins Home, then at the Department of Employment Services with the State of Minnesota. In 1974 she started her career at Winona State University in the Registrar's Office
“I worked at the Winona campus until 1979 when we were expecting our son, Benjamin,” she said. “In 1984, when ‘Benj’ was old enough to go to school, I started with Winona State’s Rochester campus, and as they say, the rest is history.”
While Jan was employed with the Rochester campus, Tom worked for Kroger Foods as the Human Resources Director at Pace Dairy in Rochester. Tom passed away in February of 2007,
leaving a huge void in their family. Their daughter, Dr. Alyssa Stephenson, is a Surgical Podiatrist and owner of her own practice in Wisconsin where she and husband, John, live with their three children, John Thomas, Tommy and Vivian. Their son, Ben, is a paramedic, working for a private ambulance company in Wisconsin as Director of Training and Education; he and wife, Lia, have two daughters, Mackenzie and Madison.
Jan did a little of everything when she started with the Rochester campus which was housed at Golden Hills Elementary School where they served approximately 200 students in many of the same programs that the university has now, such as accounting, business administration, counselor education, nursing, and psychology, among others.
WSU-R Associate Director Jan Stephenson Retires
In 1986, Winona State University-Rochester moved to what is now the University Center Rochester campus where Rochester Community and Technical College is and the University of Minnesota Rochester was once located also. She saw the move from Golden Hills to the present campus as a good one for Winona State University.
“We sort of lost our independence and branding, but we gained a lot of support services,” Stephenson said. “Financially, I think it was inevitable. The building we were in was not compatible for a university setting.”
Jan continued her work in the student services area, with her role to include such responsibilities as room scheduling, supervising staff and student workers, academic programming and marketing and became the Associate Director of the WSU-Rochester campus. Upon receiving her Master's Degree in Counselor Education in 2000, responsibilities were shifted to allow student advising as part of her role. Upon her retirement, the academic programming and student advising were the main focus of her position. Jan said it was the relationships that formed as part of those duties that she enjoyed most about her job.
“In Rochester, you had to know a little of everything which gave me many opportunities to interact with a lot of people and make lasting relationships which I value,” she said. "From the many faculty I've worked so closely with over the years, our great staff at WSU-Rochester, friends at RCTC, UMR and WSU's Winona campus--to include a best friend on both campuses--who have shared ups and downs, both personally and professionally over many years. When you enjoy the people you work with, it makes work enjoyable.”
Given another chance, Stephenson said she would do it all over again.
“Winona State University has always been a quality institution. The professionalism and the willingness to accept change and adapt has allowed it to become nationally renowned,” she said. “Just being a part of a quality institution, makes you feel proud. If you truly helped just that one student, you feel a real sense of accomplishment. That’s the rewarding part.”