A Home in Education

After an unexpected surgery, Eli Ahlquist GS’19 almost abandoned his plans to pursue his Ed.D. at Bethel. But the strong support and care he received through the program helped him continue and reach his goals. Now, he’s now striving to provide that same student-centric care as president and CEO of a college in his native Canada.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

May 20, 2022 | 1:30 p.m.

Eli Ahlquist GS’19

Eli Ahlquist GS’19

Just before his first residency at Bethel GS’19 as part of the Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership program, Eli Ahlquist suffered a traumatic chest injury playing hockey. He required multiple surgeries, putting his plans in serious doubt. But Ahlquist was astounded by the support he received from Bethel. Program leaders stepped in to adjust his course schedule and keep him on track with his cohort. And he learned his professors and classmates were praying for him at Bethel. “It really meant a lot to me that I wasn’t just a number,” he says. “There was an actual caring human being on the other side of it.” That care helped Ahlquist continue to pursue his degree, and it affirmed his choice of graduate school.

The experience inspired Ahlquist to support his students, faculty, and staff in a similar way. At Bethel, the people he encountered modeled traits that drew him to an education career—caring for others and being a good person. “That was the kind of leader I wanted to be,” he says. Today, Ahlquist is exhibiting that type of leadership in his first year as the president and CEO of North West College in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Ahlquist’s desire to serve others led him to medicine for the first decade of his career in his native Canada. He started as an emergency medical technician, and then a conversation with a flight nurse inspired him to become a registered nurse. He worked in a general surgery and burn unit until he earned a master’s degree and moved into leadership roles, serving as an interim operating room manager. After briefly working for the Saskatchewan provincial government in the Ministry of Health, a friend told him about an opportunity to teach nursing at his alma mater, Saskatchewan Polytechnic. “I really enjoyed the opportunity to teach new nurses and new people the skills that I’d learned,” he says. Ahlquist had found his calling in education. “It was my home,” he says. “I was like, I absolutely love this.”

After serving as a faculty member, Ahlquist advanced to administrative roles, working as a program head and then academic chair running the nursing and dental programs, among others. He decided to pursue his doctorate to gain more leadership skills. “I certainly didn’t think I’d be running a college when I dove into that, but here I am,” he says with a laugh. He was drawn to Bethel’s blend of practical skills and authentic leadership development, and he connected with leaders in the program.

“Eli is an incredibly gracious leader who prioritizes people. He has always demonstrated humility, graciousness, and high levels of interpersonal skills while in the program.”

— Erica Hering, an enrollment counselor and adjunct faculty member

After his injury, Ahlquist worried he wouldn’t be able to continue the Ed.D. program, but he recovered well and only missed the summer residency. With help from program leaders, he adjusted his schedule and even started coursework online while rehabbing in the hospital. “It was phenomenal, just the support,” he says. “The instructors were great, and everybody just went that extra bit for me. I really appreciated it.” Ahlquist enjoyed his Bethel experience and speaks highly of the lessons imparted by his professors. He describes the programs as all-encompassing, as it provided a broad range of skills on practical areas like budgeting, policy, curriculum development, and more. “It was a very thorough approach to education,” he recalls.

Program Director Jessica Daniels says the Ed.D. in Higher Education program strives to prepare students like Ahlquist to lead with curiosity and humility in a challenging higher education landscape. She commended Ahlquist for his blend of skills and strong leadership. “Eli has such content expertise and competence but is so incredibly gracious and conscientious. He cares deeply about students,” she says. Erica Hering, an enrollment counselor and adjunct faculty member, agreed. “Eli is an incredibly gracious leader who prioritizes people,” she says. “He has always demonstrated humility, graciousness, and high levels of interpersonal skills while in the program.”

In February, Ahlquist accepted the role of president and CEO of North West College. The school provides educational opportunities to residents in the North Battleford region. Ahlquist’s background in health care is beneficial, as the school is known for psychiatric nursing and practical nursing. And North Battleford is home to a large psychiatric care facility that serves the province. “We see ourselves as a bit of a health care hub for the region,” he says. North West College also offers a wide range of programs from business, early childhood education, and English as an additional language to trade programs like welding, electrical engineering, plumbing, construction, and more.

Moving forward, Ahlquist is striving to be adaptive to the region’s educational needs. “We’re quite lucky that we can be so responsive and nimble,” he says. “We adapt our programming quite quickly, so typically we partner with other institutions to be able to deliver programs that are necessary.” And there are big plans ahead. Ahlquist and his team are planning to build a new campus in North Battleford to expand the college’s capacity and offer simulation learning spaces for nursing and health care programs. “There are a lot of exciting things coming,” he says.

Eli Ahlquist GS’19

Eli Ahlquist GS’19

About 61% of North West’s students are Indigenous or First Nation, which reflects the region’s demographics. Ahlquist calls it an honor to serve such a diverse student body. North West College also recently became a Designated Learning Institution as part of an effort to be able to welcome and serve a larger body of international students. The school will soon welcome its first cohort of international students into the culinary and business programs. “This is about enhancing our community so we all benefit from a diverse student body and the opportunities that accompany it,” Ahlquist says. “I think it’s a really tremendous opportunity.”

As he leads North West College toward bold goals, Ahlquist continues to be drawn toward the type of leadership he experienced at Bethel, a style focused strongly on serving people, along with preparing people for impactful careers. As he gauges his success, Ahlquist and his team are striving to “count our success based on the student, not by other metrics.” While graduation rates and strong outcomes are key goals, Ahlquist is pursuing a holistic approach that supports students and provides them value, even if someone isn’t successful in their programming.

In his personal life, Ahlquist has recovered well from his injury, so he’s been able to return to his passion for playing sports like hockey and flag football. Ahlquist also welcomed a child right as he was starting at North West College, and is enjoying spending time with his family.

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