Choosing a Different Path
Dennis C. Rittle
President of NorthWest Arkansas Community College
Dennis C. Rittle compares himself to a salmon swimming upstream. As a Regent University alumnus and newly elected president of NorthWest Arkansas Community College, Rittle was the first in his family to attend college. He never saw anyone in his family go to college. His grandparents went to middle school, and his parents completed high school before joining the workforce. But Rittle wanted something different.
“You’re fighting the tide because everything around you, all you know, says: ‘You shouldn’t be doing this. Why do you think you’ll be something different?'” explains Rittle. However, he persevered.
Rittle joined the military, earned two two-year degrees, then a master’s, followed by a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from Regent University School of Business & Leadership—all while working full time and raising a family. Later, he pursued a postdoctoral program at Harvard University and will soon be adding an MBA to his accomplishments.
But the challenge of swimming against the current was a repeated theme in his life. At a young age, Rittle witnessed the agony of severe familial health issues. His mother had been very ill and passed away when he was 12. As the eldest son, Rittle had been very close to his mother. He shared how witnessing her pain and illness impacted him profoundly. “It was emotionally, mentally, physically, very difficult.”
His father worked two jobs, sometimes three, to pay for medical expenses. And his mother was in and out of hospitals and medical facilities. Rittle remembers her as a wonderful woman who encouraged the family to become involved in the local church. But the illness overwhelmed her.
“We were put up for adoption. I lived in so many homes and slept on so many floors because we didn’t have the resources,” says Rittle. “We were very poor.”
He remembers wearing the same shirt and red vest for his class photograph from the second to the eighth grade. “It started off being too big, and then it became too small.”
Rittle had to undergo significant counseling due to the impact of his mother’s illness. But his local church family rallied around him. “That’s what helped me through that journey. And coming out on the other side, I was so much stronger. My faith was stronger. My self-efficacy: I didn’t have to be a victim. I chose not to be a victim,” he says.
Rittle recognizes that his journey helped mold him into who he is today.
More Than Overcomers Through Christ
When Rittle turned 18, he learned that psychologists had given him less than a 5% chance of turning 18. “They thought I’d either be dead or in jail for the rest of my life,” he says, “Just because of what I had seen and was exposed to.” Adding, “But God had other plans.”
“I had to make a choice in life. I had to decide whether I was going to allow illness and disappointment, frustration, and confusion to be what was going to guide me, or something much greater,” says Rittle.
For Rittle, the journey was like a crucible. He points out the importance of what you learn through it: “You can allow it to define you, or you can determine through the Lord’s help and leading that you can be something much greater. And that really for me resonates the notion of being more than overcomers through Christ Jesus who strengthens us.”
“Regent was the steppingstone in my world—it was transformational…I knew I belonged in the type of work that could change the world.”
Called to Help Other First-Generation College Students
His personal experience impacted why Rittle chose to work full time in two-year colleges while also teaching graduate classes. To him, it’s a calling, and he encourages his students to recognize opportunities and appreciate higher education’s stretching. “So many are first-generation college students,” he says. He wants them to feel that “they belong, and this is just the starting point.”
Rittle will tell you that he’s also had the opportunity to speak at high schools, where he has helped students “think through their self-talk.” Life is hard for many school students, he says. He encourages them to look at ways to rise above their situation and not let it control them.
Based on his position as a college president, students assume that Rittle has had resources throughout life, so he shares some of his struggles: “I know what it’s like to go hungry. I know what it’s like to have one meal a day … for days and days on end. I know what it’s like to wear the same set of clothing day after day because you have nothing else. I know that life.”
Through his experiences comes a story of hope and redemption that many of his students can identify with and one that encourages them never to give up. “Just because you were born into one way of life doesn’t mean that that’s the only life you’re ever going to have.”
A Passion for Teaching & Learning
Rittle discovered his passion for teaching at 17 when he volunteered at a local YMCA to help people complete the equivalent of their high school diplomas. He taught them science and math and found that he had a knack for guiding them through the process. Patience and empathy were key. He saw many students succeed in earning their diplomas, which whet his appetite to become an educator.
Military resources helped to pay for Rittle’s education. He also met his wife in the military, and they have been married for more than 30 years. “Our faith and trust in the Lord are paramount in our life—the cornerstone of our life,” he says.
Rittle earned an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Meteorology at Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) and began teaching the subject at Air University. The following year, he earned an AAS in Instructional Technology from CCAF and graduated summa cum laude three years later with a bachelor’s in Theology from Evangel University. This was followed by a master’s in Leadership Studies from Lancaster Bible College.
Dr. Elaine Huber, the writing coach at Lancaster Bible College, and Dr. Miles “Skip” Lewis, the director of the master’s program, encouraged Rittle to apply for a doctoral program. After researching universities, Rittle zeroed in on Regent for its exceptional Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership program. “For me, it was Regent or bust,” says Rittle. “One of my happiest moments was getting that Regent acceptance letter. When I was a child, I never—in my wildest dreams—ever thought I’d be attending a doctoral program. Not a chance.”
Equipped to Influence
Rittle was challenged by the rigor of the Ph.D. program at Regent. His cohort included diverse cultural and industry perspectives, but everyone had the same core values in terms of spirituality. In less than three years, he completed the doctoral program in 2009, sharing that he still stays connected with his classmates. “I have a colleague on every continent on the planet—except Antarctica—through Regent.”
“Regent was the steppingstone in my world—it was transformational,” says Rittle. “I knew I belonged in the type of work that could change the world.”
Rittle remembers Regent’s founder, Chancellor & CEO Dr. M.G. “Pat” Robertson’s commencement message that the whole point of Regent was to equip students to be Christian leaders that could change the world. “Starting the Ph.D. program, I liked to believe that I could be one of those people, but I didn’t believe it. By the end, I did,” says Rittle.
The “stretching, molding, pushing, shaping” Rittle experienced at Regent was key in developing the “self-discipline and mental fortitude to push through.” The program helped to refine the leader in him, equipping him to push through challenges.
Leading through Faith
“My faith drives how I lead,” says Rittle. “And I’m very proud that I can work with the public sector,” he says. “To show the love of Jesus Christ in all of our work,” he adds.
Rittle recalls being challenged by a professor in a counseling class in graduate school to read a chapter of Proverbs a day for five years. Doing this would prepare him to begin to work with people in counseling.
Rittle did as he was advised. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Proverbs,” he says. “Leadership is about working with people. If you are a healthy leader, you have a chance to help other people. But leadership will wring you out if you’re not healthy, not full, and don’t take care of yourself spiritually.”
Always keep three things in mind, advises Rittle. “Remember why you’re here, where you’re going and whose you are. You’ll have the right kind of perspective.”
Rittle also invests in quiet time every day. “When you’re making very expensive, very high stakes decisions that affect people’s lives, careers, and futures, it helps you keep perspective.”
Vision for the Future
As the recently announced new president of NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC)—Arkansas’ largest community college—Rittle understands that he’ll be part of an “incredibly globalized community,” sharing that all he learned at Regent still resonates with him.
To help build on NWACC’s past successes, Rittle shares that he will begin by analyzing the NWACC’s core competencies and strengths. “I don’t think I have a clue how much opportunity I’m going to have to shape some of the most influential leaders coming forward in the years to come. I’m very excited,” he says. His main passion is ensuring “education is always about the student.”
Rittle aims to make the college a student and community-focused institute of higher education “in an era in which higher education is being greatly redefined and shaped.” The vision, he says, is to “create an enriched campus community and college experience.”
Cowley College, of which Rittle is currently president, is “cooking with grease,” he says with a smile. His focus with students is to instill in them the thirst to be lifelong learners. And he practices what he preaches.
After a Ph.D. from Regent and a postdoctoral program in Education Management from Harvard University, Rittle is now pursuing an MBA from the University of Kansas. And at the cusp of starting the next chapter of his career as president of NWACC, Rittle is excited about what lies ahead.