James Shemwell did what many Mississippi County residents did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He left his home in Blytheville to seek better opportunities.
After earning a two-year degree at what was then Mississippi County Community College, he went to Arkansas State University to earn a degree in business. He then earned a master’s degree in finance at Texas Tech University in 1987 and eventually moved to Corinth, Miss., where he was a vice president of a bank.
But, moved by a desire to return home, Shemwell returned to Blytheville in 1994 and began working at his old school, what is now Arkansas Northeastern College. In 2013, Shemwell, 56, was named the college president, creating a mantra that he has lived by and employed as the leader of the institution: You don’t have to leave Mississippi County to be successful.
“I didn’t want it to say on my tombstone that I made my [bank] stockholders rich,” Shemwell said. “I want it to say I made a difference.”
It was hard to make a difference in the area 30 years ago. Eaker Air Force Base, situated between Blytheville and Gosnell, closed in 1992 and more than 7,000 soldiers left the county. Another 9,000 people left in the ensuing 10 years as opportunities dried up.
Since then, though, several steel mills opened along the Mississippi River, creating new jobs. Recently, U.S. Steel Corp. announced it had chosen Osceola as the site for a new $3 billion steel mill that will create 900 new jobs.
Shemwell said he wanted to return to the area to help in 1994 when he left his job as the vice president of finance and the chief financial officer for SouthBank in Corinth, Miss.
“There was a larger hand at work than me when I came back,” Shemwell said. “This was a calling for me; a ministry.”
Two weeks after he returned to the county, his father passed away. Although impacted by the loss, Shemwell saw his return as a good sign as he helped his mother with the loss.
He started as the first director of training at ANC and the coordinator of the college’s Osceola Center. He became the dean for technical programs and training in 1999 and the vice president for finance in 2010 before being chosen president in 2013.
Since then, the school has received national recognition for its training of students to be ready for area jobs. Shemwell has helped create programs that custom-fit students with employers who need well-trained workers. About 2,000 are enrolled in the school.
“We have programs with maximum flexibility to serve [business] clients’ needs,” Shemwell said. “We created an engine at the college for economic development.”
The school’s main focus is training students in technical jobs, such as engineering and welding and in the health care profession. A student with an associate’s degree from ANC now earns an average salary of $57,000, compared to a $46,000 yearly salary for a student fresh out of the University of Arkansas with a bachelor’s degree, he said.
Shemwell has also focused on increasing minority students at ANC.
“We interview students and try to figure out how to bridge the minority gap,” he said.
The school provides transportation with its “opportunity bus” that travels to lower income neighborhoods in the county. Shemwell has also employed “success navigators” who help tailor programs based upon minority students’ interests and talents.
During his tenure as president, Shemwell has tripled the minority graduation rate.
The college also now uses Career Connect, a subsidized state employment program that pays an employee’s first month wages and a portion of their earnings for up to six month after. It’s an incentive for businesses to hire ANC students and to keep them in the area, Shemwell said.
“Good workers have a culture of self-determination,” he said. “The path for success is for the student to be in charge of his or her own life. Victimhood is the path to failure.”
The college’s health care program struggled when the pandemic hit the state two years ago. Students in the discipline worked as interns at hospitals and other medical facilities during their training, but the virus limited those opportunities. Shemwell reached out, though, and found spots in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi for them.
The college also held vaccination clinics at its Blytheville clinic, and students helped there.
Shemwell sees the college’s role as a way to break the catch-22 dilemma of trying to find a job. In the past, students couldn’t locate good employment without experience, but couldn’t get that needed experience because they couldn’t find decent work.
“We’re trying to help students without that work history and give them the skills to be successful,” he said.
When ANC President Robin Myers left to become the chancellor of ASU-Mountain Home in January 2013, the ANC Board of Trustees selected Shemwell as its president over five other candidates. It wasn’t a unanimous decision at first, said Clif Chitwood, a board member who served as its president in 2013.
Some were leery of hiring someone from the area – in direct opposition to what Shemwell was touting during his tenure there.
“We did a national search,” Chitwood, who remains a board member, said. “It was ingrained in some. There’s that old saying, ‘No man can be a prophet within 50 miles of his town.’ Some wanted someone from outside.”
Chitwood, who has known Shemwell for nearly 40 years, said he’s glad the board chose him to head ANC.
“He’s always had a strong emphasis on workforce training,” he said. “So many colleges promise, but they don’t know how to do it. James does.
“We will teach our students what they need to know. That’s important because they are hired for what they are supposed to know.”
Shemwell downplays his own role in the college’s success, saying his faculty and staff are what has made ANC work.
“My main role is the person who tells our story,” he said. “We have a tremendous faculty and staff dedicated to our mission.
During breaks at work, Shemwell likes to play golf. Because of a neck injury, he’s usually limited to playing nine holes at a time; he shoots an average score of 41 and holds a 10 handicap on the course.
He’s married to Bridget Shemwell, who is the dean of advisement and placement at the college. The couple has two sons.
Shemwell also likes yard work, but he considers himself a ‘Darwinian gardener.’ “The strongest [plants] survive,” he said.
He also reads. His favorite book is Surfing the Edge of Chaos, by Richard Pascale, a book about the parallels between business and nature.
“Dr. Shemwell is my go-to person to talk to about workforce development,” said Andrea Henderson, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Community Colleges. “His laser-like focus and talent on how to better serve businesses is of tremendous benefit to his community. He’s smart, innovative and articulate and a real asset to the community colleges in Arkansas.”
Shemwell is proud of Mississippi County’s will to survive after suffering several economic setbacks over the decades.
“We’re going to keep fighting,” he said. “We want to employ the idea of ‘work here, live here.’”
The idea turned out well for Shemwell.