Associate dean’s trip around the world leads to NPCC
From New York to California, Japan to Italy - Debrah Baxter has been around the world.
Her beginnings, however, weren’t much different from many of the students she works with at North Platte Community College.
“I’m a first-generation college student and the first in my family to graduate from college,” Baxter said. “Leaving high school, I had no idea what college was all about. No one informed me or guided me. I was so lucky to be able to go to a community college first because I learned so much about the college experience and system.”
Baxter is the new associate dean of Student Life at NPCC. She takes over for Dr. Pat Beu, who retired earlier this month. About a month in, Baxter is adjusting well to her new role.
“I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do,” Baxter said. “I love student life. The students here are so amazing, and the campuses are lovely. I feel like I won the lotto.”
That’s saying a lot considering the places she’s been.
The early years
Baxter was born and raised in New York, in both the Bronx and on Long Island, until her teen years, at which time her family moved to Orange County, Calif. She graduated from Garden Grove High School in Garden Grove, Calif., in 1986.
“I knew nothing about life beyond that,” Baxter said. “I didn’t even know to apply for college prior to graduating from high school. I thought I had to graduate first then show proof of graduation to get into college.”
With the clock ticking, Baxter turned to Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif. – just a few minutes away from her home.
“It was close, it was affordable, and I was so happy to be in that environment,” Baxter said. “As soon as I started classes, I was hooked. I couldn’t believe I had so many choices of things to study. It was a breath of fresh air.”
Baxter received an associate degree in business in 1988 then transferred to The California State University where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and education in 1990.
“I have a cousin who was a missionary in Japan, and at that point, she encouraged me to take a look at some positions there,” said Baxter. “I did and ended up teaching English as a Second Language in Japan for two years.”
The experience prompted her to continue teaching ESL courses at the college level upon her return to the states, and in January of 1994, Baxter enrolled in a graduate program through Seattle University. She graduated with a Master of Education degree in Adult Education and Training/Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages as well as a TESOL certification.
“There was just something about teaching,” Baxter said. “I loved the fact that I learned just as much in my classes as my students did. I also love reading, so I was thrilled to get the class books at the start of every semester. It was like Christmas. I got to read them first.”
The master’s degree set Baxter up for a job teaching ESL, English 100 and behavioral science classes full-time at Green River College in Auburn, Wash. It was there that she had the opportunity to delve into curriculum development.
“I was asked to create a course called Behavioral Science 101: Intro to the College Experience,” Baxter said. “They wanted a first-generation college student to do that. I designed the course to help students through their whole college experience and to be the resource I wish I would have had when I was in school.”
More experiences abroad
Baxter was employed at Green River for a total of seven of years, but one of those years she spent in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil as part of a teacher exchange.
“It was a great experience,” Baxter said. “I literally traded places with another instructor for a year. I was sent to Brazil to teach English, but the role shifted to more of a teacher trainer position. I taught one class per semester then worked to unify the 40-some teachers in the department and serve as a resource and an outlet for them to ask language questions.”
Baxter returned to the U.S. in early 2000 and stayed at Green River until 2001 when her husband at the time took a job at New York University’s campus at Villa La Pietra – just up the hill from Florence, Italy.
“When we got to Florence, my husband’s boss gave me a job, too,” said Baxter.
Debrah Baxter and her son, Pen, stand at the top of Giotto’s bell tower in Florence, Italy in October.
She went to work at the Basilica di Santa Croce – the burial place of many notable Italians including Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. Baxter spearheaded a 14-week program for NYU students, the first half of which was spent in a classroom setting learning about the church. The last seven weeks, the students led tours of the attraction for English-speaking tourists.
Baxter’s family returned to the U.S. in 2003. She spent the next two decades working various jobs in education throughout the country.
Those included leading and improving a language program at Brescia University, in Owensboro, Ky., starting her own non-profit educational program for special needs students in Williamsport, Pa., teaching and developing curriculum at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Va., and teaching and serving as accreditation chair at Wave Leadership College in Virginia Beach, Va.
She also spent a couple years at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa. prior to accepting her current position at NPCC.
Debrah Baxter stands next to some of her international students from Old Dominion University during a Norfolk Tides baseball game in 2016.
“I’m excited to use my experience to bring more of a cultural awareness to NPCC students and to increase global opportunities for them,” Baxter said. “I’m also eager to share my story with others. I started out like every other student at Mid-Plains. I thought my life had been planned out for me, and my fate was not looking good. Through education, I was able to shape my destiny. The control education gave me over my life was amazing. It showed me that I can go anywhere and do anything.”