When President Obama applauded community colleges as "the unsung heroes of America's education system," Prof. Eugenia Paulus could see his passion.


She was in the front row.

The North Hennepin Community College chemistry professor was the only representative from Minnesota of the 100 people who attended the first White House Summit on Community Colleges on Tuesday.

She was impressed by Obama's speech not because of the compliment but because it included specifics -- including abolishing tax cuts for the country's top earners in order to better fund two-year colleges.

"It was not lip service," she said. "I thought, 'Here's a president who is constantly thinking about ways to make this happen'."

Paulus is herself an expert, having won several national awards for her teaching. In smaller sessions after the speech, she offered as many ideas as she took in.

"We have to prepare students for a tomorrow that we cannot imagine," she said by phone Wednesday.

So curriculum must be dynamic. Professors must focus on skills, such as critical thinking, rather than facts. Faculty must be in constant contact with other educators, including those at four-year schools.

After Melinda Gates announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would give $35 million in competitive grants to improve completion rates, Paulus approached her:

"What do you mean by completion?"

Paulus explained: About 20 percent of North Hennepin's students enter with a four-year degree. "They're coming to re-learn, un-learn, re-train, change their profession," she said. "We can't get those students to graduate when all they need is four courses to get this job, earn that promotion or apply for a new program."

In all, talk about completion, competitiveness, transfer and more created "a very profitable discussion," Paulus said. "There was no fluff."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168