This summer, Mark Vest became the eighth president of Northland Pioneer College, succeeding Dr. Jeanne Swarthout, who retired June 30. A few weeks later, in August at NPC’s summer convocation, Vest received a standing ovation from faculty and staff who have worked alongside him for the last 17 years making quality, affordable college education available to the citizens of Northeastern Arizona. It is a strong show of support that they believe in his leadership.
Mark is from a small town, not unlike NPC communities in some regards. He and his family have planted deep roots here; his wife is a doctor and his children are active in school events. He’s a man of academic achievement who brings enthusiasm and vision to communities that know him well and trust him. He is an academic with a personal touch, a former Rhodes Scholar candidate who also happens to enjoy playing video games and being visible throughout the cities and towns making up NPC’s sprawling service area.
“I spent seven to eight months thinking through the NPC presidency,” he says of the time following Dr. Swarthout’s 2016 retirement announcement. “I decided I wanted to be the president because it’s important for this college to have people in leadership positions who really want to live in the community and be here; people who are committed to developing the types of programs and services that are vital to this area. My family and I love Northeastern Arizona and want to stay here.”
As the search for a successor to Dr. Swarthout narrowed down to four finalists, the former chair of the Navajo County Community College District Governing Board (which oversees NPC), Ginny Handorf wrote a letter to the editor of the White Mountain Independent strongly endorsing Vest for the college presidency. She said, “His contributions are everywhere! He brings amazing energy and strength of character to the position.”
President Vest hasn’t wasted any time bringing that energy to the needs of the area’s communities, college students and taxpayers. He is determined to make NPC’s cam-puses and centers viewed as integral parts of their respective communities. He vows “to work with the board to develop a vision for the future, translate that vision in a way that makes sense and then let employees go carry out their part of that vision.” NPC must also invest in its respective communities “because the taxpayers deserve it. We must invest the time and energy to be an integral part of the community, to be a leader in the community and understand the unique service needs of each of our communities.”
NPC’s mission, as well as the president’s office, were natural destinations for some-one with Vest’s personal and educational backgrounds. The middle child of Buck and Marian Vest, Mark was a very active youth growing up in Cynthiana, Kentucky, a com-munity of 6,356 residents. His parents taught him the value of industriousness and education. He and his family were seen and heard throughout the community. Mark’s
father was a high school teacher, coach, store owner and sports writer, and his mother taught French and Latin and also served as a librarian.
Mark spent his youth playing and later umpiring Little League baseball games, keeping scorebooks for church softball leagues, working in his father’s gun and archery shop, photographing sports for the local newspaper and working as a DJ at WCYN FM/AM Radio. Vest says, “By the time I was 11, I knew that I wanted to be a historian and focus on modern American history.”
Mark finished third in his high school graduating class of 180 students, was a National Merit finalist and earned a full tuition scholarship to the University of Kentucky (UK). He was in the honors program for all four years of college and was UK’s nominee for the Rhodes and Truman scholarships. He graduated in 1988 and then worked at the university as an admissions counselor.
In 1992, Mark married Susan Conger and completed his first master’s degree in Modern American History at UK with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Susan was already attend-ing medical school at the University of Louisville when they married, so Mark moved there and worked in the university’s admissions office. Two years later, they were off to Columbus, Ohio.
While Susan did her residency at the Ohio State University, Mark began a doctoral program there in history. He later switched to a master’s program in Higher Education Leadership and Student Affairs because his passion for teaching outweighs his interest in a career in research. “That’s when I first started thinking about a career in a community college or a small liberal arts college and doing something that involves working directly with students, maybe in the student services or on the administrative side as well as some teaching,” he says.
After Mark earned his second master’s degree (with another 4.0 GPA) and Susan completed her residency, the Vests left Ohio and moved to North Carolina. There, Susan worked for an HMO and Mark served as the director of orientation and student leadership and taught at Lenoir Rhyne College, a small liberal arts school. In 2000, the sale of the HMO led the Vests to move westward. Susan’s mother, who lived in Albuquerque, suggested her daughter consider working for Indian Health Services. The Vests liked the idea, and they began looking for a place where she could serve in that capacity, where Mark could work in higher education and they could raise their family.
Susan interviewed at several locations, including Pinetop. Mark says, “We thought we’d be here two years, and 18 years later, we’re still here. We fell in love with the beauty of this area, the openness and warmth of the communities and the amazing people we are lucky to call coworkers and friends.” In 2001, Mark started working at NPC as academic advising coordinator and director of student services.
Later, while serving as VP for Learning and Student Services from 2008 to 2018, Vest was responsible for instructional and student service programs for more than 8,000 students annually. He managed a large portion of the college’s annual operating budget, directed 55 staff members and more than 200 faculty and was a member of the president’s executive staff. In the spring of 2007, Vest even served as acting president until Dr. Swarthout was hired for the role. Vest worked with her for more than a decade, and when she announced that she would retire in 2018, many people saw Vest as the logical choice to succeed her.
President Vest is a huge advocate of community colleges generally and NPC in particular. He recommends that citizens of all ages in Northeastern Arizona take advan-tage of the great opportunities available at NPC. He encourages area high school stu-dents and adults alike to expand their minds and transform their lives through career preparation and enhancement at NPC.
To area high school students, Vest says: “What you need to do during and after high school is prepare yourself for the career pathway that you want. We can help you do that. NPC is a local institution that offers an excellent education. If you come here, you’re going to have the opportunity to learn from highly qualified people, both inside and outside the classroom, in a small classroom learning environment that you’re really not going to have access to at a much larger, more impersonal college or university. And you’re going to be able to do that in a way that lets you complete your goal without tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Education is the doorway to opportunity. That education is available to you right here. Seize that opportunity and put yourself on the path to the life you want.”
For adults, Vest says you’re never too old to learn and that NPC opportunities await you. “Every week, I talk to students and community members who want something better for themselves and their families. Many people in our communities face challenges that seem overwhelming. You may be stuck in a job with no hope of advancement or better pay. You may feel like you missed your chance at college right after high school and now it’s too late. You may think it’s time for you to look at a different career that requires new skills and training. NPC exists to help you transform your life into the one you want. It’s never too late. We can start you on your way to an advanced degree and open doors to new careers with better pay and better work environments. We can help you find support, inside and outside the classroom, while we work together toward your goal. You can pursue that dream in small classes that feel comfortable, surrounded by your friends and neighbors. You can start your journey when the time is right for you, at a pace that fits your lifestyle. When you’re ready, we’ll be here, ready to help you.”
Mark’s vision for the future is a college that puts students’ needs first and partners with local communities to improve the lives of everyone.