June 23, 2020

The Century College Alumni Association Board of Directors is delighted to announce the 2020 Outstanding Alumni of the Year: Mayor Jo Emerson, ’92. The Outstanding Alumni Award honors a former student of Century College, Lakewood, 916 AVTI or Northeast Metro Technical College who exemplifies excellence in one or more of the following categories: leadership in school, leadership in the community, lifelong learning, noteworthy accomplishments, inspirational behavior/actions, and overcoming obstacles.

Nominated by Victoria Reinhardt, Century’s Outstanding Alumni of the Year in 2010, the Alumni Association was delighted to learn more about Mayor Emerson’s dedication to her family and community, leadership as Mayor of White Bear Lake, statewide recognition of her talents as President of the League of Minnesota Cities, service as president of the White Bear Lake Historical Society, as vice chairwoman of the White Bear Lake Planning Commission, and as president of Minnesota Mayor’s Association – among many, many other positions of service.

Mayor Emerson has forwarded many municipal environmental initiatives, particularly around water conservation, reducing the city’s environmental impact and most recently participating in the Climate-Smart Municipalities German Exchange Program, a program pairing award-winning climate-smart communities in Germany to speed progress toward a cleaner and more efficient energy footprint (White Bear Lake’s partner city is Lüdenscheid – learn more here).

Regarding her time at Century (then Lakewood Community College), Emerson described her experience as what we would call a returning adult learner. Like many current Century students, she didn’t get a college degree right after high school; instead she worked, got married, and had four children. After her marriage of 23 years ended, she got to thinking about what’s next. Luckily her employer at the time, First National Bank (now US Bank) in downtown White Bear Lake, presented her with the opportunity to take an introductory course for free, courtesy of an Alliss Foundation Grant for students who are returning adults, or have never been to college.

She was curious and looking for something just for her. She already had two kids in college and two approaching that milestone, so with empty nesting on the horizon she took advantage of the free course to see if she could do it.

Well, she completed that first course and enrolled in more – taking advantage of tuition reimbursement from her employer. As a resident of White Bear Lake, taking that first course at Century College made sense.

She recalls how the Century employees were so helpful in navigating her through the processes of getting started and helping her transfer her English credits from a previous stint in college.

She never felt odd being an older adult learner in her evening classes (she still worked full-time during the day) with both fellow students and employees being very welcoming.

About two years into her coursework she met her current husband, who was very supportive of her studies. Upon losing her job due to downsizing, he encouraged her to put off finding a new job so she could enroll full-time to finish her degree in one year - a luxury she took full advantage of.

Emerson remembers there being such great classes and interesting subjects – she took a law enforcement class, introduction to theater, and a humanities class, just to explore. But her love is history, and she remembers most fondly her classes with instructor Bud Nakasone.

It was a great experience, and though she chose not to go on to pursue a higher degree, she is satisfied with the Associate of Arts degree she earned because Century gave her what she needed, educationally and emotionally.

“I needed a victory, I needed to feel like I was worth something, and I got that here [Century],” she recalls. “It was something I was doing on my own. Century/Lakewood will always, in my heart, be very special because they nurtured me when I needed to be nurtured.”

Now as Mayor, she knows and appreciates that Century is very good about helping first generation students, students of color, and students for whom the idea of college is all new. “Century has been very forward-thinking about taking care of them, it’s very easy for them to drop out because they don’t have reinforcements at home,” she says.

She notes, “It [education] pays off in the long run, it’s important. The fact that we have this great institution in our city, where our students can start, get a two-year degree or certificate, or whatever they need, but they have the ability to stay home, save money, and go to school, and ultimately transfer on if they’re going for an advanced degree, I think that is so essential.”

Living in an army family, she spent much of her youth traveling all over, landing permanently in Minnesota in the 1960’s and moving to White Bear Lake in 1988. With her love of history, she was attracted to the old town - and it was a town, not just a suburb.

Emerson enjoys the rich history and traditions of White Bear Lake and takes pride in the diverse cultural and artistic additions that Century brings to the community. She says, “I think the other piece… all the wonderful plays, the art exhibits, the music… there are so many things happening on campus in the evenings; I don’t think most adults think about these opportunities, and I would love to see a way for more of my citizens to engage with the college, because I think it’s a benefit for both.”

The Mayor also enjoys the bragging rights that come with having Century in her city. For example: Century music instructor Dr. Shirley Mier’s classical composition about the history of White Bear Lake, Of Lakes and Legends, which the Mayor and her husband attended the premier of, at Century College. Emerson later shared a CD of this performance as one of the gifts given to the city of Lüdenscheid, the German counterpart in the Climate Smart Municipalities initiative that White Bear Lake is participating in. To think – a treasure like this, coming from Century and now being enjoyed across the Atlantic. “It [Century] is just such an asset to have here,” she says.

Under normal circumstances, Century College offers numerous opportunities for the public to engage in cultural, educational, and arts/entertainment events. Offerings at the time of this writing are limited due to Minnesota’s stay at home and social distancing recommendations, but we encourage you to bookmark a few links, including the College Calendar, Century’s Facebook, and Alumni Events to discover online events now, and to stay up to date when in-person events resume.