One of the great joys of higher education is seeing how the experience and relationships made can change the course of a student’s life, says Dr. Dean Van Galen.
It’s something that he has experienced firsthand from both sides of the equation. As a first generation college student attending the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1980, Van Galen says it was a professor who helped shape the path his life has taken.
“Dr. Ed Drexler was an outstanding faculty member who taught my quantitative analysis class,” he says. “He enjoyed interacting with his students and, while I didn’t realize it at the time, he became a role model for me and shaped my academic trajectory and my career.
“He really inspired me to not only pursue chemistry as a major but to teach it at the college level. I understand the difference he made in my life, and I was able to return about 15 years ago and thank him.”
Van Galen went on to earn his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and began his career in higher education as a chemistry professor at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. From the classroom, he transitioned into positions of leadership within that university and later at the University of West Florida. From 2009 to earlier this year, he served as chancellor at University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Today, he begins a new chapter in his career as the sixth president of Missouri Southern State University.
He and his wife, Mary, were on hand for a special welcome breakfast in Connor Ballroom, greeting faculty and staff members with an appropriately social-distanced elbow bump.
“These are very unusual times, but for us it’s special,” he said in his remarks to those attending the breakfast. “What we’ve taken away so far is the sense of community and family at this university. We want to become part of it and continue to build upon it.
“We have challenges ahead, but this university has an extraordinarily bright future.”
The few times they have been able to visit campus and the Joplin community in the last few months have given Van Galen and his wife, Mary, a feel for their new home.
“I feel like the Missouri Southern community has been extremely welcoming,” he says. “There’s a strong sense of community and purpose that we’ve enjoyed.”
“We’ve spent some time in Joplin making arrangements for this transition and we’ve found people to be very friendly and welcoming. The idea of Joplin as a regional hub for culture and healthcare has been very clear to us. It’s a very dynamic community and we’re looking forward to learning more about it.”
A passion for education is one of the ties that bind the Van Galens.
Mary, who holds master’s degree in nursing and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, has taught adult English-language learners from 19 different countries in rural Wisconsin.
Van Galen says he and his wife of 36 years actually met in the classroom.
“We were in a computer science course together in 1982. The story goes that she received a higher grade than I did on our first test,” he says with a laugh. “But that’s not the full story.”
The Van Galens have an adult daughter who teaches science in a public school.
Outside the classroom, Van Galen says running and international travel are both passions.
“I’ve been a runner for almost 40 years,” he says. “These days, I’ll run 5 and 10ks, and I enjoy it as a way to relieve stress.
“Mary and I both enjoy travelling and experiencing different people and cultures. That’s one of the reasons I was initially attracted to Missouri Southern … the international aspect of the university’s mission.”
Now a member of the Lion family, Van Galen says what truly inspires him about his job all comes back to the power higher education has to shape students’ lives for the better.
“For me, it’s seeing that life-changing impact,” says Van Galen. “It could be the inspirational role that faculty members play as mentors, or the ways the experience can be impactful outside the classroom.
“In my role, being able to interact with students and see this happen is what give me inspiration.”